What’s an artist to do?

There’s no ‘there’ there to rebel against anymore.

Winter Lambing, 48X36, available, Carol L. Douglas

My goddaughter Sandy is the child of immigrants. Her family escaped China at the conclusion of the Civil War, when it was clear the communists had won. They went to Vietnam, which has an active community of Chinese emigres. After the fall of Saigon in 1975, they became Vietnamese boat people, ultimately ending up in the US. (For many reasons, let us hope that this time their refuge is secure.)

“Americans are in a constant state of rebellion against their parents,” Sandy observed as we did our daily constitutional up Beech Hill yesterday. “Why is that?” For Asians, filial piety is a virtue.

Wreck of the S.S. Ethie, 24X18, Carol L. Douglas

I’m familiar with some of the roots of that rebellion, being a product of the Swinging Sixties myself.  But it goes farther back, to the Roaring Twenties. Both the 1920s and the 1960s are thought by historians to be periods of nihilism in response to the cataclysm of world war, but that’s an incomplete explanation. The American Civil War was the greatest cataclysm in American history, and no such period followed it. The closest we came was the anarcho-communism of the turn of the century.

In art, we’ve been at this business of rebellion ever since the Impressionists showed in the first Salon des Refusésin 1863. We’re now in a position where vast sums of money are exchanged for intangible art. If there’s anything left to rebel against, I can’t see it.

Deadwood, 48X36, Carol L. Douglas

“Where is art going?” is a question every thinking artist should constantly ask himself. For our predecessors there were clear trends (although I’m sure they are clearer in retrospect). The past filled the galleries, and the bright young things were all in the coffee house complaining about it.

It’s harder for today’s young artist. The most obvious means to success is to make a spectacle of oneself, but that’s a different artform altogether. There are digital art and electronic installations, but for a painter, it’s difficult to see a direction in the current maelstrom. When plein air shows happily embrace abstraction and great galleries laud incompetence, there’s nothing left to push against.

All flesh is as grass, 36X48, Carol L. Douglas

One answer is to become more international in our viewpoint, to import other cultures’ attitudes about art. After all, we live in a global world. That’s a mixed bag, of course. Asian artists honor technique, but their governments don’t necessarily honor intellectual property rights.

I see certain trends in my little niche of landscape painting. As the digital world shapes our seeing, chroma (intensity) in painting increases. Detail decreases. But these are merely stylistic flutters. We’ve seen them come and go before. They’re meaningless in the bigger scheme of things.

Of course, I don’t have an answer to this question, or I’d already be doing it.

The happy pursuit of leisure

Out here in the hinterlands, we haven’t forgotten how to waste time productively.

Running, by Carol L. Douglas
I enjoyed reading Tim Wu’s reflections on why Americans don’t have hobbies, except that I don’t believe a word of it. I agree with him that leisure is the basis of culture. But I see no sign of its demise.
I teach a lot of people who are dedicated hobbyists. They pursue excellence in painting because they love to paint, and they get satisfaction from constantly improving their skills. That’s the very definition of ‘amateur,’ which derives from Latin amatus, the past participle of amare: ‘to love’.
Many of them paint as well as some professionals. The difference is that they aren’t pursuing sales. That keeps the joy in painting. Being a professional artist is as entrepreneurial as it is creative, and that is a lot like what they left behind at the office.
Hiking boots, by Carol L. Douglas.
Yes, I have hobbies separate from my work. In fact, I got thinking about Wu’s essay when I ordered a new pair of ice skates. (They are my first brand-new pair ever.) I have a canoe, snowshoes, hiking boots, three sewing machines, and a woodshop, and I use them all.
Is the problem young people, so sunk into their screen time? I don’t see it. Two of my daughters are passionate cooks, a hobby that seems to have exploded in popularity in recent years. The third has a 4X4 and miles of trails. My son is recording an album of music over his winter break. One of my favorite young people is passionately interested in aerial gymnastics. No, she’s not training for the circus; she just likes it.
Butter, by Carol L. Douglas
Many Americans pursue hobbies that were toil a generation ago. For example, my friend Toby has an inexplicable love of canning. She’s got all the best equipment and skills to make a 19th century housewife proud. It’s fun because, in our 21st century world, it’s separated from drudgery.
The same is true of small-scale animal husbandry. The backyard chicken trend has been increasing in popularity for the past decade.
Spring, by Carol L. Douglas
One of my kids loves posting photos to Instagram. She’s not trying to be a social-media sensation; she just likes to share her weird world with others. A generation ago, she might have invested in a darkroom and SLR camera. Worse, she might have invited you over and pulled out her carousel projector and 200 hundred slides of her most recent trip.
Then she would have been called an “amateur photographer.” It’s still the same thing today, even when it’s done on a cell phone. Hobbies have morphed, not disappeared.
Professor Wu’s essay falls in the category of “the sky is falling” opinion piece at which the New York Times excels. But, fear not, good sir! Out here in the hinterlands, we haven’t forgotten how to waste time.

Enough is enough

Dinghy, 6X8, oil on canvasboard, Carol L. Douglas.
A man was fishing in a small boat, not particularly doing much of anything, when one of those bumptious, officious ‘self-made man’ types wandered over to give him some advice. 
“Yanno, if you put a little effort into it, you might catch something. Get yourself a sonar fish finder and an engine for that boat, and you might actually find some fish.”
“Why would I want to do that?” asked the fisherman.
“Well, this here’s great fishing country. I bet you could set up shop as a guide, take people fishing, maybe get a fleet of boats, take lots of people fishing.”
“Why would I want to do that?” asked the fisherman.
“To make money!” yelled the exasperated man.
“And why would I want to do that?” asked the fisherman.
“So you can retire and have time to fish!”
M. is a returning student for my Sea & Sky workshop, so of course I have a vested interest in her being rested, healthy and happy by August. Sunday, she reported: “I sold one of the looms (to finish paying off the winter fuel bill for one of the apartments) and put a second coat of primer on the dormer windows on the back side of our house while my husband mowed yards. How many years till I can retire?”
Getting out of a similar grind has been my goal for several years. I find my acquisitiveness waning. I noticed it while house-hunting in Maine, when I was content to look at properties and say, “That would make a great project… for someone else.”
Sign of the times.
If you’ve never visited a Whole Foods Market, they’re a temple to pampered dissatisfaction. I’m hardly the only person to notice this; there’s an internet meme, “Overheard in Whole Foods/Waitrose.” In a way, these stores are our culture’s temple. They sell necessities totally divorced from need.  Their customers may be the punchline to a joke, but they’re really just an extreme example of a malaise we’re all prone to.
Yesterday a friend asked me how I was coping with packing. My first reaction was an old campfire song:  “I’ve got that joy, joy, joy, joy, down in my heart…” And then I actually apologized for being happy. It runs against the grain in our society to admit that things are pretty good. We caution against tempting fate.
The Harbormaster’s Dinghy, 6X8, oil on canvasboard, Carol L. Douglas.
Yes we all suffer, and I don’t mean to make light of that. But the things from which we suffer—illness, death, uncertainty—are eternal verities, and even they have been pushed back by science.
If I suggest to people that they count their blessings, they usually start and end with their loved ones.  For some reason, our material blessings—our nice houses, cars, and bank accounts—aren’t generally included. But we are rich beyond most people’s wildest imaginings. We have more than any other people in the history of the world, and still we’re unhappy.
I admire beautiful things as much as the next person; I just no longer covet them.
Like many bad behaviors, this is both sinful and self-destructive. It’s sinful because it denies God the proper credit for our blessings. It’s self-destructive because it robs us of joy.
We really could spend less time building and more time enjoying what we’ve already built.

Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me on the Schoodic Peninsula in beautiful Acadia National Park in August 2015. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops! Download a brochure here.