In 1989, I was 13. In the second grade, we’d done drills in grammar school where we knelt against the wall of the school hallway with our heads between our knees because if an atom bomb fell then that was, apparently, the best position to be in (ha! as if) because the Russians were at war with the United States but it wasn’t an actual war it was a Cold War and that the threat of nuclear war loomed large in everyone’s minds.
Who was that man? I have read that he was a man merely on his way home with his groceries. The Chinese government claims that he went on quietly and anonymously with his life. Considering the China’s track record, I doubt that.
The Sunday Express, a British publication, reported that summer that his name was Wang Weilin, a 19-year-old student arrested for “political hooliganism.” Varying reports suggested the student was either imprisoned or executed.
Chinese officials have refused to confirm his name or whereabouts in response to numerous queries from Western journalists in the years since the incident. In fact, they claim they were unable to locate him.
A couple months ago, I was reading again about China. This time it was about their imprisonment, brainwashing, indoctrination, and reintegration of millions of Muslims in an area that the government would like to have greater control over. Millions of people. Disappearing. Gone. Husbands. Wives. Friends. Children.
It made my heart ache.
And so when we look at China, as a whole – not as the bulk of people who make it up who would likely be happy merely to walk home with their groceries and go about their lives just as that man was doing – we see a country that scrubs its history and uses its economic might to keep the rest of the world from protesting its treatment of its people.
From the ‘social credit system‘ to its treatment of Buddhism and specifically Tibet to its current treatment of Muslims to its treatment of artists or journalists there’s nothing good yet no one is going to stop them because of their economic clout.
So I was thinking about China. And I was thinking about this moment, years ago – 30 years ago to be exact – where there was a moment, a brief moment – where it seemed it all might change for the better.
It was a spark, a candle flame in the dark. But it was blown out. Squashed. And scrubbed from their history, lest it inspire others, in the future, to do the same – to speak out.
I kept seeing that one image in my head. ‘Tank Man’ as he became known in the media. I kept thinking about not just him and that line of tanks but the line of tanks as the extension of a vastly powerful entity.
In my head, he was always down there, a light in the darkness. A focal point in a dream of freedom up against a wave, a massive tidal wave of force bearing down on him. Yet, as I thought about that wave, I realized it needed a face, it needed a name.
I thought about those demons of Tibetan lore. Primarily, Mara came to mind. Mara, in Buddhism, is sort of an embodiment of desire and illusion. I could think then of nothing better. There is nothing so much as desire and illusion which drives the power hungry needs of humans.
And so, today, on the 30th anniversary of when one man, in 1989, stood down a line of tanks in the face of an oppressive and controlling government, I give you this painting.
It is an homage to Tiananmen Square on June 5, 1989 when one man stood before a line of tanks and the world wondered: was the government so hellbent on keeping its power that it would run him down?
Spoiler: the man lived but, yes. They were. They ran down hundreds if not thousands in the end. Reports vary.
I’m sorry it had to be like that.
I think about all those students and writers and artists and intellectuals: this is who made up that revolution. The thinkers and doers who could see a better world. They didn’t want ‘capitalism’ or ‘socialism’ or ‘communism’ – they wanted a world where they or their children could think and speak and worship freely without fear of reprisal from some force or another. That’s what freedom is. Obviously there’s limits to that: do those thoughts or acts impinge upon the freedoms of others? And so on… I mean, there’s always some asshat racist who thinks they should be able to vent whatever they want).
My art doesn’t take sides. It is about humans and human nature. It’s these sensations of being alive today, right now, in this set and setting. It’s about archetypes across cultures and religions and spiritualities and world views. It’s about communication.
Art expresses various aspects and facets of the world as whole. Some art might be there to say ‘the world is commodity’. That’s not for me.
My art is there to inspire. It is there to tell a story of a better world. My art calls out, sheds light on, and illuminates the darkness.
Wherever you may have gone, Tank Man, I send my blessings.
To the world, this vast spectrum of humanity, that finds itself at the whims of small cadres of individuals who call themselves governments and institutions and corporations… I am right there with you.
If you wanted to express this, but could not, I ask your permission.
If you wanted to express this, but could not, I send you my love.
May all beings experience freedom and the causes of freedom.
Here’s the recently completed poster I made for Conscious Alliance. It’ll be available at Red Rocks Amphitheater in Colorado for a show with Papadosio, The Polish Ambassador, Random Rab, and more. The poster will be 24″ x 18″ and printed as a 5 color silk screen with metallic inks. It’s going to look awesome. :)
Conscious Alliance is a non-profit based in Boulder, Colorado that raises money for donations to food banks. They team up with artists like myself to create commemorative posters that they make available at the events they commemorate.
I’ve been making posters for them since 2006 when I first made one for a show at the Fillmore in Denver, CO. Now, 13 years later, this is my eleventh poster and 3rd silkscreen image.
Often, when asked what advice I might give to you, I say something like, “Practice!” Or, “Do it every day!” Or some such thing. Everyone says it and it’s true. But the deeper truth is – all of that is meaningless if not for one thing. There is only one real insight I can offer you:
YOU HAVE TO LOVE IT.
You have to love what you do. Above all else, no matter how much you practice, how much time you give it, how much money you make (or, more likely, don’t make) if you don’t love it, it won’t matter.
I don’t mean some romantic notion of namby-pamby frilly love. It’s not this never ending effervescent fuzzy feeling in your chest or your gut that when you make your art you swoon like a smitten lover.
No, it’s that deep and abiding thing that moves beyond personal joy. It’s a partnership. A marriage. An agreement. It is the joy of existing in the world with another. It’s play and it’s work. It’s being there with it, through thick and through thin. It’s commitment.
Art is a long-tail game. And I mean really long. You’ll likely be doing it until you die and even then, at best, there will only be a modicum of any apparent outward success – especially if you compare it to the endless string of inanities that bring people financial wealth.
You see, there are so many ups and downs on this road. You’ll need to learn to thrive in the famines between the feasts. Loving what you do will help.
People will forget about you. They’ll walk right by and ignore all your hard earned moments of grandeur, your subtle understandings, the fine moments you labored over while your eyes or your feet gave out.
Some will try to rob you or cheat you. Frankly, around practically every corner and at every age, there’s a con artist who doesn’t bring any value into the world looking to take advantage of a real creator like you. But for every one of them, there’s a hundred – a thousand – ten thousand – true fans who will appreciate you and be truly inspired by you and you will illuminate their world.
Still others will critique you and dispose of you. Been there. Done that. Stamp a label on it. Next. An off-hand comment by one useless critic might stick with your sensitive soul for years. You have to learn to both slough it off and (and this is important) learn from it. Listen to the critics but don’t bow to them. Never bow to them. When you have been cowed by the cutting blade of some useless critic’s word play, your art will suffer, I guarantee it.
You don’t want that which you love to suffer.
People will find reasons to be dissatisfied with your work. Mostly because people are just dissatisfied in general. Paint something like you’ve already painted because you want to explore an idea? You’re repeating yourself. Want to head off in a new direction? The new work isn’t as good as the old. Spend 6 months in focused work on a piece? They will forget about you.
Business will be hard. No one expects you to love the business of it. It’s tiring. It’s wearying. Not just the day to day work of it but wearying for the soul that seeks only expression. Your creative momentum will frequently flag against the grinding slog of the self-propelled ship that is the SS Entrepreneurial Spirit of the Artist. To be fair, you might, at times, enjoy the business part – and I truly hope that you do because, as with everything else, it is a game and we are making it up as we go along. For all that it is – the business side of art – it has its place and is an art in-and-of itself. Developing that craft will help you create the space for your creative spirit. But it’s ok if you don’t LOVE the business. Few do.
It’s the Art – YOUR ART – that you have to love.
You’re going to have to give stuff up. Your friends might live paycheck to paycheck. If you decide to try to make a living at it, you’ll live piece to piece, or gig to gig, or piece to gig to piece, or gig to piece to… There’s little rhyme or reason to an elusive pattern of sales. It’s feast or famine with a long, slow, barely thirst-quenching trickle in between. You’ll have to decide what you want to bet on in that patternless pattern – what you want to gamble on your own talents and imagination. You’ll win some bets, and lose some.
And when there’s no money coming in, don’t blame the art. Don’t break up with it just because it isn’t paying you what you know it’s worth. Would you leave your partner simply if money were tight? Money isn’t love. You leave a partner if there’s no love. If it’s just money, you find another way to make ends meet together. If you love the art, your craft in the world, then you stick with it, for richer or for poorer.
There may, at times, be long droughts between one success and another – droughts that could last years. In those times there will, finally and when all else fails, only be you to depend on.
And if those droughts are creative – if you flit from one idea to another, not quite sure where to settle – this too is part of the dance. No one expects you to knock it out of the park time after time after time, even if, really, they sort of do. Just be patient with yourself and your process and be diligent in your tasks. Get to know your craft. Learn from it. Understand it. Grow with it. Respond to it the way you would a dance partner, a friend, a spouse.
Trust it. Surrender to it. Follow where it leads but always be ready to nudge it in a new direction.
This is, after all, your love.
In the end, in the long dark nights of your soul, when you turn to your work and it is only you and your creative expression, you have to find, again and again, that place of loving it: the love of your craft, of your work, of your art.
Some moments it will be easy. As easy as a breath or a heartbeat. It is effortless. You’re mining jewels from the depths of your imagination and sometimes you hit a vein, a motherlode. You will discover a real gem in the depths of all those hours and weeks and years of toiling away at the walls of your cave.
O artist, given to you is the whole of the world. The whole of the world works and strives and lives and dies with nary a moment to breathe. Perhaps, for but one moment, you can be that one soul who has that one breath that is breathed, not for labor, nor the moment of respite that comes after, but merely for the expression of what it is to be human.
You get to look out and tell us: what does it look like from there?
So, if you decide to make a life of this – if you give your all and everything over to it, knowing the hardships that will come to you, the ups and downs, the ins and outs, the glorious moments of seeing the all and everything and all the moments in between… If this gift is given unto you and you decide to make a life with it, then but one thing is asked of you – no, is implored of you:
That you love it.
– An Artist
First, I will say what this post is not. This is not about what gives art value. I’ve written other pieces about that and probably will again. Nor is this about, say, why a David Hockney painting sold for $90.3 million. That question there isn’t ‘why is art expensive’ but ‘why is it SO expensive’ and that question has also been answered elsewhere.
Instead, we’re simply going to talk about the cost of a work of art as an equation of what goes into it, what one (in this case, the artist) should reasonably expect to get out of it, and how that creates the space for further explorations.
Read the rest of this entry »
“I painted picture upon picture in keeping with the impression made on my eye in a moment of heightened emotion – painted the lines and colours that remained fastened to my inner eye… By painting the colours and lines and shapes I had seen in an emotional state – I wished to recapture the quivering quality of the emotional atmosphere like a phonograph.”
– Edvard Munch
This. A painting I make is based upon an impression made upon me by the experience of an emotional state. It is to be seen as if listening to a song.
I wonder if anyone at an art show in 1900 said “O, look, ANOTHER painting of a woman at a bar.” There’s SO many paintings of a woman at a bar. Woman drinking at a bar. Woman sitting at a table near a bar. Then, sometime in 1945, Max Ernst comes along and says, “Hold my absinthe” and he paints ‘The Cocktail Drinker.”
The reason I mention this is you might look out on the artistic landscape and say: o another profile of a face, another soup of abstraction, another… and so on. But these paintings become the visual language of our current times. Out of those, arise a few particularly noteworthy pieces and we use those in the future to guide our understandings of ourselves.
In the case of ‘another painting of a woman at the bar’ we have Manet’s “A Bar at the Folies-Bergère”:
Renoir’s “Moulin de la Gallete”:
Gauguin’s “Night Café at Arles”:
Don’t forget Van Gogh’s “Agostina Segatori Sitting in the Café du Tambourin”:
And so on. You get the point. It’s a motif of the time. What is the time we live in today? What do we try to understand through our art, our repetitions, our motifs and visual languages? This is what gets asked fifty, a hundred years down the road. This is the ever evolving story of art.
“Yesterday I resumed work. It’s the best way to avoid thinking of these sad times. All the same, I feel ashamed to think about my little researches into form and colour while so many people are suffering and dying…”
– Claude Monet. 1914. While working on his water lilies paintings during World War I.
I feel like this sometimes. There’s so much going on. There’s this endless stream of chaos beating down my door. Who am I to turn my back on this issue or that issue and “resume my little researches into form and colour” while so much pain and suffering exists. Maybe it’s the fact that joy CAN exist side by side with the pain.
WWI raged on outside his door with troops marching to the trenches and cannons and explosions in the distance. He turned back to these canvases, toiling away on what must have alternately seemed like a retreat, an excuse, a guilty pleasure, a creative drive.
I feel this way sometimes: these lines, curves, visions, ideas… They speak to and of the current times. They are informed by it and offer inspiration. Art is a vital part of our human experience and that creative drive of expression is inherent in our existence. It’s found in every culture, every tradition: the desire to make beautiful, to make special, to create some mirror of ourselves in the world around us. Yet, while the wars, the protests, the heart ache rages on, our little studies, our tidy pictures, can seem frivolous.
There is no end to the ugly, though. If we don’t create the beautiful, then what are we left with? So I keep at it. And, if you are a creator, I urge you to keep at it too.
Read more about Monet here: Wartime water lilies: how Monet created his garden at Giverny
To own an original painting is to have the original playing – the live perfect performance – of a song. I’ve met many a musician who has, in a painting I’ve made, seen a visual representation of a song, much as I’ve heard many a song and, in that song, heard an auditory journey of a particular image.
Imagine if you could own Jimi Hendrix’s “Axis”. Or Beethoven’s 5th. Or Miles Davis’ “Agartha”. And so on. Each canvas print of a painting is like the perfect and pristine vinyl recording. The paper prints and posters are good quality CDs and, finally, you have your variable-kbps mp3s floating around on the web.
So just imagine: each guitar lick and hi-hat and cymbal crash, each thrum of bass or plunk of a piano by a human hand is each of those brushstrokes.
A great painting is like a symphony. There’s entire cavalcades of sound – entire violin sections roaring across the yellow sky over a horizon of great bassoon and oboes resounding through the purples. A penny whistle sparkles across the crystalline golden whites and, for a moment, that lead violin is the sinewy line drawing it all together. And the artist crafts each of those violins. Each oboe and oboe player. Each note has to be played in a final perfect harmony.
This is why original art – that final finished piece – that one and perfect singular canvas – ends up with so much value. Like the recorded song, we can replay it a thousand or million times through countless means of recreation but there’s only one original moment where careful little nuances were breathed into each brushstroke to make the painting.
People say ‘why get the painting when the print is so much cheaper.’ This is a true fact. Just as the mp3 version is much cheaper than having the band play at your house where you can experience the raw entirety of the sensation of that SONG, so is the painting. So is the painting. If you decide to take part in that relationship, consider this: you’re helping to bring these songs, these performances of art, into the world. By supporting the arts you are enriching the cultural experiences of others as well as yourself.
This immediacy and connection to the moment is what gives art – and especially great art – its value. It is the intangible NOWNESS of it. The greatest art echoes our human archetypal experiences and mixes them with the constant exploration of our perception of the experience coupled with all the set and setting of the moment – the politics and world views and financial considerations and environmental conditions and so on. It’s all wrapped into that vision. And out of it… out if it arises “what it looks like.” Or feels like or sounds like in that now.
It is my task to offer you, as least from my own perspective, what it looks like. This is why, to me, an artist is really just a scribe. I’m here to take notes. To be open. To be a channel. To see what comes through me. It’s terrifying and tragic. It’s blissfully beautiful. It’s heart breaking and mystifying. It’s mystically enthralling. And, like the musician, I have to choose a note, a color, a line. I do my best to find the right note, the perfect color, that precise line, and that feeling. The feeling and the reason and the intention and the moment that I, Michael Divine, want to sign my name to.
So the past couple of weeks at our little Divine Comedy have been challenging. We moved north of Napa back in December and, after the wettest winter on record, we had the hottest summer on record which led to the worst fires, you guessed it, on record.
Our air was thick with smoke and we woke every morning examining the current fire maps. We were rather surrounded – to the north, south, and west at times less than ten miles from the brunt of them. When everything is like a tinderbox and winds may shift at any moment, that ten miles doesn’t seem so far. Some friends transported all of our artwork to Oakland for safekeeping – ‘just in case’ – and our bags were packed the whole time.
Thankfully just in case didn’t come to pass for us. Many others though lost homes, businesses, and even lives. I’m sure you’ve seen the pictures – of Santa Rosa, Napa, etc. It’s heart breaking the swath of destruction left by the fire. These extremes are the tangible examples of what climate change looks like and the reality we live in. We’re incredibly grateful that our gardens, home, and lives are still intact.
In the coming month I’ll have some new works to share with you and will also be doing some fundraising for those who lost everything these past few weeks.
The painting above (and the detail below) were made while our air was thick and the light was this weird golden rose color from the smoke filtered sunlight. It was hard to relax into the general painting flow so I worked on some free-flowing pieces, painting over canvases that remained at home.
Here’s to the rain of the coming autumn :)
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