“The Creation of Adam,” c. 1508-1512, Michelangelo
The other day I read a translation of Romans 12:3 that cracked me up: “Don’t cherish exaggerated ideas of yourself or your importance, but try to have a sane estimate of your capabilities by the light of the faith that God has given to you all.”
I think of myself as a person who can do anything, and I pretty much have done. However, a ‘sane estimate’ of my capabilities probably ought not continue to include stripping wallpaper. My back is in open rebellion this morning.
My self-worth doesn’t lie in the things I make with my hands, but my work is how I spend my days. Would I continue to paint if I were confined to a wheelchair and could no longer scramble around rocks while doing so? I don’t know. Would I continue to create if I were blind? I don’t know.
“The Ancient of Days in Europe a Prophecy,” copy D, 1794, William Blake
Would I be less valuable without a strong back or good eyes? No. Would I be happy? Since I’m thrown if the toothpaste is in the wrong drawer, the answer is a decided no.
When I was 40 years old, I ran. I was fit enough to still wear a two-piece bathing suit. That year I had cancer that resulted in a colostomy. Not only was my appliance ugly, uncomfortable and expensive to maintain, but it leaked. There’s nothing like bowel spillage down your shirt to undermine any sense that you’re beautiful or desirable.
Eventually, they were able to reverse my ostomy, but in the time I had it, it changed something in my self-concept. I was no longer powerful and sexy; I was a cancer survivor. I’ve written about shedding that latter self-identity, but I’m afraid these self-images might be like the layers of an onion.
Detail from “The Creation of Adam”
I was at a class this week where groups were asked to make posters. I flipped open my phone to Blake’s The Ancient of Days, which, I thought, made the visual point better than anything I might draw. Another person grabbed a marker and translated Blake’s idea to poster form. A third translated it to words. Even though I wasn’t drawing, I was still operating within ‘a sane estimate’ of my abilities.
The Ancient of Days was not intended by Blake to be a portrait of God. He is Urizen, a demiurge. That, in gnostic systems, is an artisan who makes and maintains our physical universe. In our popular imagination, Urizen has come to represent the creative face of God. (Blake was a true seer, subject to visions from the age of four, but he was also a Christian.)
Note the hand holding the compass in The Ancient of Days. It is taut, energetic, and in absolute control.
Detail from “The Creation of Adam”
Compare that hand to the hand of God in Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam in the Sistine Chapel. Again, God’s hand is taut and active. Adam’s is limp. God is surrounded by the unborn, in a great carapace that resembles a human uterus. Chief among these is Eve. Still in the womb, wrapped in God’s embrace, she looks more lifelike than her future mate. Michelangelo is making a point here: our life force comes from God.
Like life itself, the gifts we have are transitory. Once given, they can be lost again in an instant. They don’t totally define us, but they are a part of who we are.
It’s a sad fact that in the United States one can defame the reputation of a dead person with impunity and his or her loved ones and heirs can do nothing to stop it. Such is the case with Deborah Solomon’s American Mirror: the Life and Art of Norman Rockwell, which characterizes Rockwell as a complex, depressed, repressed gay man whose repression led to pedophiliac urges expressed in his paintings.
A Scout is Helpful, 1941, Norman Rockwell
A nice person—one not looking for duplicity everywhere—would agree with Rockwell’s granddaughter’s assessment: “My grandfather was a charming, kind, generous man; his models, without exception, say that posing for him was one of the highlights of their lives. He had a marvelous sense of humor, was a remarkable observer of people and human behavior…”
Rockwell was a fantastically successful illustrator because his ear was perfectly tuned to the 20th century zeitgeist, which celebrated work, home, family and children. Of course, Deborah Solomon is in perfect tune with the zeitgeist of our times, which holds that there is nothing good in this world. Nor is there any privacy, apparently.
The Babysitter, 1927, Norman Rockwell
Abigail Rockwell has done an excellent job of debunking Solomon’s sources, but she gets little traction in modern media, because she—unfortunately—is working at cross-purposes to our modern world. We like knowing that others are ‘no better than they should be.’
Rosie the Riveter, 1943, by Norman Rockwell. Of this iconic painting, Solomon said, “You know who else is masturbating? Rosie the Riveter. Women to him [Rockwell] were sexual demons. Over here, the riveting-gun penis on her lap, and in the background these pulsating red waves. Even though she’s a worker she’s not working, she’s just eating and satisfying her desires.”
But why is it being gay is so frequently the ‘secret sin’ of which artists are accused? (For a start, see Caravaggio, Michelangelo, and Leonardo Da Vinci; never mind that their culture cannot be transcribed literally into our culture.) And why did a publisher like Farrar, Straus and Giroux publish an outrageous, unsubstantiated claim of a putative link between homosexuality and pedophilia? If that had come from the Right, the howling would have been deafening.
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Pietà, (1498-99) Michelangelo. There’s been speculation that Michelangelo was somewhere on the autism spectrum. His hygiene was abysmal, he didn’t like talking to others, and he was monomaniacally focused on his work. And yet he exerted an unparalleled influence on western thinking, as a sculptor, painter, architect, poet, and engineer.
I meet myself in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders with tiresome regularity. The creative personality (and I’m no exception) is frequently impulsive, non-conformist, and motivated by what less-enlightened minds might call fantasy.
In the past, people actually understood that as a thinking pattern. Today, we define impulsivity and fantastical thinking as personality disorders. No child with this personality type will be allowed through school without being subjected to a program of therapy and drugs to ‘normalize’ him or her.
The Yellow Christ, 1889, Paul Gauguin. Despite his success, Gauguin was certainly crazy by our standards, suffering from depression and alcoholism until he abandoned civilization for Tahiti, where he spent the last few years of his life painting in peace.
An exasperated educator once told my husband and me that they needed to prepare our kids for the “real world.” What does an educator know about reality? He works in a highly-regimented environment whose goals are not the goals of the larger world.
At the time, my husband was telecommuting with a Boston software start-up; I paint full time. Our “normal” wasn’t even in most people’s viewfinder. We didn’t have a typical life, but we certainly had a self-sufficient, productive and respectable one.
St. Catherine of Alexandria, 1595-1596, Caravaggio. Psychoanalyzing Caravaggio is a popular activity now, but there’s no doubt that even his contemporaries found him unsettling. The model for this painting was Fillide Melandroni, who posed for several works by Caravaggio. He tried to castrate her pimp, Tomassoni, and struck his femoral artery instead, killing him. Among the bully boys of 16th century Rome, if a man insulted another man’s woman, the penalty was castration. It was an age of brawling, and any attempt to interpret it by our social code is bound to fail.
Our schools can’t cope with the creative kid who doesn’t fit into any mold. In the past, that child might have gone on to be a Bill Gates, Rachael Ray, or Ingvar Kamprad (founder of IKEA), but in the modern world, most avenues are closed to people without education.
Then there’s the question of what happens when something goes wrong. As a society, we have a knack for pathologizing absolutely normal human responses.
I have the personality of a terrier. I bite first and ask questions later; however, as with my dog, my instincts are usually spot-on. Like a watchdog, when things go wrong, I stay awake. Both times I have been sick, my first response was insomnia. That is commonly treated with antidepressants. I fell for that the first time, with awful results. This time, I’m recognizing my insomnia for what it is—a normal psychological reaction—and just enduring it.
Our ancestors used to formally identify the emotionally-bruised and set them apart so they didn’t have to experience the full thrust of human interaction. Nobody expected you to behave normally when you were traumatized, which in part obviated the need for antidepressants. Today we don’t even wear black to funerals; to wear it for a year after a loss is unthinkable. Yet, when one in ten Americans are taking antidepressants, one might conclude that unrecognized and unprocessed grief comes back to bite us.
Cats by Louis Wain. He spent time in an asylum, but his artistic skills never diminished. That indicates that whatever was going on, he wasn’t schizophrenic. Today he wouldn’t be considered mentally ill; he would be a star on social media, with its outsized interest in cats.
Similarly, there is a lot to make us anxious in the modern world. Every adolescent I’ve ever known has in some degree suffered from an anxiety disorder, because the natural state of the adolescent is anxiety. Much of this is emotional noise and just needs to be waited out. It’s helpful to point that out to a kid; it’s not as helpful to tell him that he’s fundamentally flawed and can only function with drugs.
More seriously, post-traumatic stress disorder is what happens when a healthy human mind is traumatized. How, then, is it an illness? Is it not in fact a normal response to an intolerable situation? If so, does it not make sense that the human mind also has an answer to it in its own depths? How useful is it to tell its sufferers that they’re somehow irretrievably broken, especially since there’s no good comprehensive treatment for PTSD?
In the past—ironically enough—the deeply traumatized individual might have been guided to write or paint or otherwise express his or her fears through creative expression. Too bad that we now want to just wipe that out with drugs.
Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in Maine in 2014 or Rochester at any time. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops!