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Artists Anonymous

Updated: Feb 20, 2022

A friend recently told me of a ninety-three year old woman she met at an art show in Denver. The woman has painted her entire life and never had an exhibition. She is happy with what she has made and doesn’t care that she hasn’t had a show.

My wife and I recently watched Jem Cohen’s Museum Hours, a quiet film about the relationship of art to life. Set mostly in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, the movie gazes at and muses on paintings from the European masters. The musings are voice-over narration from a security guard at the museum named Johann—at one point, he stands off to the side while a guide lectures guests at length on Bruegel. Later, as we pan across paintings on the wall, he tells us that many of the paintings are the work of artists who went unrecognized and unrewarded while alive, while others were celebrated.

Of the anonymous works and their famous counterparts, he says, “They hang here side by side." He then asks if we can tell the difference between them. I couldn't.

These artists who remained anonymous and yet labored on in obscurity fascinate me. I think of Joseph Grand, the hapless writer in Camus’The Plague. Grand works hard every day at combatting the disease, but when he goes home in the evening he works on his novel—actually, he obsessively rewrites the first sentence of his novel, trying to perfect it before he moves on to the next.

He tells the protagonist Dr. Rieux that he dreams of a day when editors will read his perfect sentence, stand up shaking their heads in appreciation and say, “hats off, gentlemen.” Yet, knowing how unlikely this is, he labors on in obscurity trying to write the perfect sentence. Rieux calls him the story’s true hero because he has a little goodness and an ideal. His ideal is simply that the work itself is important and worth doing well whether or not anyone ever stands in admiration.

Many of my friends are writers, and artists, and musicians—often all three—but I have friends who do various other kinds of creative work. One friend designs and sews funky children’s clothes. Many teacher friends are constantly seeking creative ways to reach their students. A couple of chef friends are also constantly creating, recreating, and adjusting recipes. Everyone longs to be recognized for what they do well; recognition alone can't be their primary motivation though, else they would have quit long ago. They labor on at their creative work for the sheer joy of a thing done well.

If you knew you would never receive recognition for your creative work, would you still do it?

(Drawing by M. C. Escher)

post originally published in Relief Journal

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