If no one ever died, Vincent van Gogh would be one-hundred sixty-five years-old today. That I just wrote about him yesterday is purely coincidental. I wasn’t aware it was his birthday eve. The fact is he looms large, year-round. His name arises nearly as frequently as Picasso’s. One thing I mentioned in my post yesterday is the obscurity van Gogh suffered–a strange reality given his enduring post-mortem fame and adulation. Will there be an opposite phenomenon in-place for certain artists who are famous in life right now, like Yayoi Kusama or Damien Hirst, where their names are lost at death while people we’ve never heard of make it into the Art History books? If I live to be a hundred-and-sixty-five, I guess I’ll know.
The art gods are fickle, conferring success on some and denying it to others, sometimes regardless of merit, and then often reversing those fates when artists die. It would seem cruel, if it weren’t that there was no one to blame. Those so-called art gods are really only projections of public taste, which is guided by markets and art criticism, among other factors. The whole business is quite subjective, i.e., subject to human whim, which can be negligent.
All of this makes for a slightly uninteresting blog post–kind of an “everybody knows this” type situation. But today being Vincent van Gogh’s birthday got me thinking about the unpredictability of fortune, how she shines on a few and ignores the vast millions. When I moved to Nashville in 2001, of course I knew that people came here with big dreams about the music business (I was one of them), but I was naive as to the extent of it. It wasn’t long, though, before I realized the city positively crawls with deserving musicians, and by deserving, I don’t simply mean there are lots of talented people here. What I mean is they’ve committed their lives to the pursuit of music–to the dream of making “it”–to the degree they deny themselves, sometimes their whole lives, the traditional avenues to fulfillment, like marriage or career or education or parenting. Their work ethics are unmatched, endlessly perfecting their craft, working crappy jobs in order to survive, developing every detail of performance and persona, for hours and hours, which soon become days, months, and years. Throw a rock into any joint in Nashville, and you’ll hit ten people who could feasibly pull off a full-time, professional music gig. Yes, they’re that densely concentrated here. But you’ll never know their names.
A long commute can be nice. What I consider long is thirty minutes or more, which is what I graduated to when we moved from the urbs to the burbs. My morning drive morphed from three miles into twenty-seven. Indeed, when it was only three miles, I’m not sure I even qualified as a commuter. Doesn’t the term imply a lengthy drive? Anywho, what a drab topic, right? What can happen in that thirty-to-forty-five-minute haul is the real meat of this blog post.
Within that climate-controlled space, my tires a coarse whisper on the pavement, more music at my fingertips than was ever possible at any point in the history of the world, and the solitude inherent in traveling solo—within that space, I’ve written poems; I’ve witnessed the condensation of a bison’s breath on a frosty morning; I’ve seen cascades of ice clinging to walls of limestone, and sky so wide that eighty miles-per-hour felt more like flying than driving. Significant passages of my Masters thesis were hashed out on Interstate-65. All that time alone with my thoughts was bound to produce something.
However, there’s a different side to the commuter life: I’ve also seen a windshield covered in blood; a woman sobbing so hysterically I wondered how she could drive; and wide swaths of rolling pastureland cleared of trees and leveled for the construction of office buildings, whose utilitarian aesthetic insults the natural beauty it replaces. The other night, I was jarred by the sight of a fully-lit construction site, not far from where I drive past the two bison every day. What an incongruity in a place that otherwise would be supporting cattle. Now they’re abusing the night sky, too, I thought.
Yet I know accidents happen, and hearts get broken. I know we need office buildings. I know that, as a family who moved south of town a few years ago, we’re partially responsible for the progress that is disrupting the landscape. All one can really hope for then, at the end of the commute, is that transcendence outweighs dullness, and that beauty reinvents herself, after she’s taken a hit. For mortality is always on the road with us, and sometimes he rides our bumper.
Are you ever confounded by the passage of time? Not the simple passing of hours that segments each day, but significant time. Like when you look out over the ocean and remember that those waves have been meeting the shore for untold millennia; or when you find a tombstone from the 1800s; or when you hear a favorite song and realize it’s already twenty-five years old. In those moments, a type of soul-inertia can set in, a simultaneous smallness and weightlessness of spirit. And sometimes, if we’re not careful, a feeling of insignificance slips in.
My quest for solitude—a scant commodity, given that we have three kids (which I’d never, ever, ever give up for any reason), and I have a full-time job (which I can’t give up, at the moment)—often leads me downtown, to Nashville’s Frist Center for the Visual Arts. It was there, very recently, that I was confounded by time. The current big-ticket exhibit, Rome: City and Empire, is filled with dozens of art objects from antiquity, and wandering among 2,500-year-old marble sculptures can definitely cause that soul-inertia to rise.
But unlike standing beside the ocean, no feelings of insignificance beset me. And I think it’s almost entirely because of the portrait bust pictured above. I wasn’t diligent to record its title or provenance—a rare lack of meticulousness on my part—yet I remember its impact. Note the scar on his cheek. And the deformity of his ear. He is imperfect, and also there is something common about him (though I know only the wealthy could afford the extravagance of a marble likeness). He’s flawed in ways that the nearby bust of Octavian is not. I remember reading that the portrait above was produced at a time when realistic representation was the standard, whereas the sculptor of Octavian would’ve been more interested in rendering the emperor godlike. It’s understandable that a dutiful sculptor should render an emperor godlike. After all, Romans believed their sovereigns divine. However, it’s the flawed old man with a gashed cheek and a crinkled ear that resonates as human. It is he who helps ward off feelings of insignificance in the face of unfathomable time.