Last night, I watched a PBS documentary called Emile Norman: By His Own Design. Here’s a description of the documentary from the PBS website:
“Emile Norman: By His Own Design is a portrait of the self-taught California artist, Emile Norman, who worked with a passion for life, art, nature and freedom that inspired him through seven decades of a changing art scene and turbulent times for a gay man in America.
“The film tells the story of Norman’s independent spirit – how it developed from his early days on a walnut ranch in the San Gabriel Valley and brought him success in New York City in the 1940s and 1950s. This independent spirit later gave him the confidence to leave the New York art scene and find freedom in Big Sur, where he and Brooks Clement, his partner of 30 years, built a house and created a haven for a circle of friends that still grows today.”
Norman’s art is beautiful, but for me, not particularly ground-breaking. What interested me more was the life he and his partner built for themselves in Big Sur. In the mountains, above the sea, they built a house for themselves: an artist’s house, in which everything was carefully chosen and finely crafted. It’s a beautiful house, filled with art. Norman worked there until he died two years ago, at the age of 91. He and his partner lived through difficult times for gay men, and in Big Sur, they created a sort of alternative society, a place where they could live and create.
There are artists who fit perfectly into the societies they live in. Jeff Koons comes to mind, but you probably already know what I think of Koons and his mylar bunnies. Most artists end up having to create a space for themselves, as Norman did. To create their own societies, with alternative values.
What do I mean by alternative values?
We live in a society that values certain things: popularity, wealth, ease. That’s why we have Wal-Mart, fast-food restaurants, hybrid tea roses, The Da Vinci Code, and Las Vegas. It does not particularly value beauty, difficulty, or insight. The artists I like best value those things, and teach us to value those things.
For that reason, I do not like Jeff Koons:
And do I like Andy Goldsworthy:
So I guess the question is, how can I become more like the artists I admire? How can I live a life that honors those values: beauty, difficulty, insight? I suppose one way is by doing what Emile Norman did: creating my own space. I don’t have acres in Big Sur, of course. But in the life I live, even in a city like Boston, I can make choices that reflect those values. I can fill my life with beautiful things, and try to create beauty myself. I can choose what is difficult and challenging, rather than what is easy. I can go to the theater, or to see dance. I can spend time in art museums. (I can even try to understand what in the world anyone sees in Jeff Koons.) And I can, in my own art, try to do what challenges me, to embody my own insights and hope they allow others to see the world in new ways.
Although I live in the world, I don’t have to accept its values. I can choose my own. That was the lesson of the documentary, for me. It does make life more difficult, not to accept what everyone else accepts. (Because you know me, there I’ll be, standing in front of a bottle of shampoo, asking myself, does this embody my values?) But it also makes life more interesting. Instead of Wal-Mart, fast-food restaurants, hybrid tea roses, The Da Vinci Code, and Las Vegas, I choose old hardware stores, corner cafés, Virginia Woolf, and Paris. And someday I will have a garden filled with old roses, albas and gallicas and damasks, with the scents I love.
Perhaps some day, I’ll have the sort of space Norman had, with a house that is completely individual. Until then, I’ll continue to stand in front of the shampoo bottle, interrogating it. And reading Woolf.
(And, if we live our own lives according to alternative values, perhaps we can eventually change the values of the society we live in. If enough of us insist on equal rights regardless of sexual orientation, on the importance of environmental protection, of all the things we decide we stand for and live by, perhaps the world will begin to look different. That’s part of what we do as artists, isn’t it? Change the world?)