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Letter to the Artist

Not long before his death in Paris in 1989, Samuel Beckett said to an interviewer, “I prefer to live in France during wartime than Ireland in peace.”  This, of course, might well be the case for his mentor, James Joyce, and could apply to the nature of any artist longing for the Promised Land.

It’s not that uncommon to assume that most artists have read Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man rather than Ulysses (because of its length and complexities).  In fact, for anyone who has experienced what Stephen Dedalus went through in his struggle with his family and the social surroundings that finally led him to leave Ireland, Ulysses is a continuation in real life experience for those who have already taken Portrait of the Artist to heart.  Similarly, I am sure that many of us are already familiar with Joyce’s own definition of “epiphanies”: the moment of heightened perception and intense joy in a human sense—not mystical or religious—which is often initiated by trivial incidents, and manifests the holiness of life itself.

Portrait of Baudelaire by Manet. Etching, 1865. Collection of Phong Bui.

There are several points I would like to make regarding the spiritual disposition of the contemporary artist.  First of all, the notion of artists as bohemians usually goes hand in hand with the invention of the avant-garde, which was a term famously employed by Saint-Simon in the third decade of the 19th century.  A century earlier, however, thinkers such as Voltaire and Diderot had already expressed their disdain for the previous establishment in both politics as well as in the arts.  They claimed, for example, that academics fostered only pedestrian talent rather than genius.  That kind of statement certainly did galvanize the strong opposition to government art authority in France, which eventually prompted a new direction for advanced art activities to take place almost entirely outside the orbit of officialdom.  Likewise, in England, it would be hard to imagine an artist like William Blake ever being a product of the Royal Academy.  His work had nothing to do with popular taste.  Even by today’s standards his work would only be esteemed by individuals with poetic minds, or those fond of things outside the common aesthetic.

Just as the “Avant-Garde” refers to radical or advanced activity in both the artistic and social realms, the term has always been linked to city life.  Courbet, for example, expressed his artistically and politically progressive ideas convincingly in his paintings, and despite the fact that he was rebel who ended up after the fall of the Commune as an exile in Switzerland, Courbet never isolated himself from his existing social situation; nor did he possess the inner conflicts characterizing his younger contemporaries like Baudelaire and Manet.

As the painter Franz Kline once said, “artists live where dogs die.”  Here I may as well begin with an emblematic figure like Baudelaire, a dandy, who, in extreme poverty, would still prefer the bohemian freedom of the Latin Quarter to the shelter and respectability of his own background.  As we know, Baudelaire was a city dweller and the city of Paris was the complex palette that colored his character and inspired his poetry.  One admires Baudelaire’s weighty contempt for bourgeois ethics and his impatience with mediocrity, which led him into serious conflict with himself as well as his family and friends.  How he fought against his weakness of the will, even when his health and vigor had failed him in the last years, is a process that all of us can sympathize and identify with.  What is of even more significance is that Baudelaire, perhaps more than anyone in his century, made the men and women aware of themselves as Moderns.  One recalls Baudelaire’s two great essays, “On the Heroism of Modern Life” and “The Painter of Modern Life,” both of which gave an impetus for the new direction that century of thought, from the new symbolism of Mallarmé and Valéry to the adventuresome rebellion leading from Rimbaud to Apollonaire and Surrealism.

I believe society can only substitute for small fragments of the human spirit and that other fragments can only be expressed through art.  This is why Baudelaire’s passionate belief in the purity of art appeals to us.

Artists find themselves returning to the integrity of art that transcends the concept of “art for art’s sake.”  They find the exceptional nature of the artist to reside in the nature of his or her work.  This characteristic distinguishes art from other professions.

At the turn of the 20th century in Paris, Montmartre and the Latin Quarter provided great rejuvenation of the arts.  Besides the obvious names, such as Picasso, Braque, and Juan Gris, I have always felt a strong affection for the other groups such as “Painters Under the Curse,” which specifically includes Modigliani, Soutine, Pascin, and Utrillo.  They were remarkable artists who lived in poverty and, at times, amidst frightful and physical hardships.  In its early demonstration the avant-garde spirit of the Paris School remained true to its community, loyal to itself and its time.  They were writers, painters, and musicians who came from diverse backgrounds and different ethnic groups.  They lived and worked together in an ideal atmosphere of perpetual explosion of artistic activity.  Their existence was entirely dedicated to their work.

I remember quite clearly when I first came to New York in 1985.  The minute that I set foot on the street I immediately felt an incredibly excruciating sense of freedom.  I was entirely at home, so much so that I had to rush out to the bookstore and buy Dore Ashton’s New York School and Serge Guilbaut’s How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art and read them in one sitting.  It was a way to justify my newest enthusiasm and sense of belonging.  New York in the ‘80s was the peak of the new art market based on an inflated economy.  Within a brief period in both the alternative and spontaneous art scene of the East Village and in the fashionable new artists’ lofts and polished SoHo galleries, the scale of cultural feeding became extremely disproportionate and overly frenzied.  One senses that it was the beginning of a new kind of manufactured art that related to glamour.  With some exceptions of terrific artists, such as Bruce Nauman, Josephs Beuys, Anselm Kiefer, Elizabeth Murray, Bill Jensen, and a few others, never before had there been so many artists in one place craving for attention, nor so many inflated claims of artistic achievement and so little humility.

Simultaneously, beginning in the ‘80s the real estate industry began to deprive young artists of studio space in Manhattan.  This is an old story of New York life, however.  It’s only a perpetual cycle in that any process of gentrification is inevitable.  It is difficult to imagine that Abstract Expressionists like DeKooning, Kline, and some of their contemporaries were once called “Bowery Bums,” and before that “Village Bohemians,” but at least they did make several attempts to bind together a community.  It began with the WPA during the Great Depression, which brought many artists together, producing radical artists’ magazines such as Art Front; and it resulted in the Eighth Street Club, which was an informal forum that established visual artists as members of the intelligentsia.  Many poets, writers, and composers were regulars who took part in the club’s weekly talks and lectures.

I must confess that it’s not at all my intention to write this letter to promote Brooklyn as an artist’s new Left Bank.  Many of my artist friends and I do fear that the restaurants, the cafés, and the shops on Bedford Avenue are stages that turn life into spectacle.  And the more such development continues, the more unbearable it will become.  However, until then we have to face and anticipate the consequences of the next phase, art has to feed on art.  It’s just like Baudelaire’s beloved Paris—keep in mind I’m speaking by analogy.  It was under the authority of Napoleon III and Baron Haussmann that the city of Paris was completely rebuilt.  Just as they kept radical workers from erecting barricades, the grand boulevards created new social, economic, and aesthetic situations for bringing people together.  Haussmann’s sidewalks were ideal for afternoon and weekend promenades.  On the street, there were successions of sidewalk cafés and small shops of all kinds, and every walk in the city did indeed lead to a dramatic climax (as one often finds in impressionist painting).  These were characteristics that made Paris an enticing spectacle.

The question now, in relatively small terms, is: will our neighborhood ever become as insufferable as the East Village and the Lower East Side, even with the distance of the East River?  The truth of the matter is that none of us could really repel this rapid growth.  In fact, though many who come here do so just to live in the fashionable new quarter of Brooklyn, there are many that come here to be artists.  Regardless of the precision and detail of the descriptions of Dublin’s actual topography in Ulysses, it is almost inconceivable to think that Joyce could have written Ulysses in Ireland, or that Mondrian’s famous Broadway Boogie-Woogie was a product of his previous residence in neither Paris nor Amsterdam.  In other words, relocation is a vital part of the artistic process.

At any rate, looking back, we can compare the overcrowded art scene of the ‘80s and ‘90s in relation to the ‘50s and ‘60s, when there were fewer artists, collectors, and museums.  The present days of 2000 in Brooklyn’s new art environment are hardly comparable to any of Manhattan’s past.  Having a Sunday brunch at Vera Cruz or Broadway Diner and walking down Bedford Avenue is more like village life than “city dwelling.” In Brooklyn, besides Williamsburg and Greenpoint, DUMBO, Bushwick, and Flatbush among others are still regarded as alternative communities—places created by such an individual sense of freedom that one would like to call it artistic self-emancipation.  Here there are exceptional musicians, artists, and writers who are trying to create a critical climate.  Older and younger artists are beginning to exchange their ideas.  The openings of new galleries such as Roebling Hall, Sideshow, Bellwether, Four and 1/2 Project, and several others, provide opportunities for artists to show their work and collaborate for future projects.  I believe that the new art avant-garde is in the making.  Even if many of us might not feel so self-conscious in working towards and identifiable kind of art or any curious style that brings the brief favor of novelty, many of us do accept the uncertainty of our aim as artists.  It is a permanent mystery of nature.  Furthermore, great art is never isolated as a product.  The concept is of an ideological community—a collective movement, based on a certain larger and governing intellectual premise.  An individual can be an innovator, but there is no such thing as an avant-garde individual.  The flowering of an art movement is always the result of a group of artists—men and women whose lives are devoted to the vocation of art.  The achievement of great art by the more accomplished artists only stimulates and furthers the commitment of those who are young and undisciplined.

Ultimately, the more people there are who wish to be artists the better it is for the livelihood of art.  Surely there is no guarantee that a new identity will be found by simply shifting locations.  Yet artists are a group of individuals who have already accepted the uncertainty of their creative nature.  Hence, the social ambiguity is not a fearful factor to them.  It is why we still believe in art for art’s sake and why we know that art’s pertinence does in fact touch people who do not even care about art at all.


Phong Bui


The Brooklyn Rail

OCT-NOV 2000

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