Pop Culture
Aug 24, 2010, 06:35AM

The Tortured Artist

Or, "Shut the hell up already, rich boy."

I’m never sure who to be more envious of: those people whose life is a directionless, wonderful adventure of discovery, or those who have found their calling and can wholeheartedly, assuredly dedicate themselves towards a singular end. The alternatives to these polar opposites are either aimless stagnation, or becoming one of those hideous people who smarmily calls themselves a “Renaissance Man." It’s okay for other people to call you a Renaissance Man, or to say that you’re “up and coming," but the moment either of these phrases is preceded by the words “I am," you’ve just entered Douche Country: population one.

If I’m allowed to get a little autobiographical here, I’m torn between countless little dreams of making a life as something exciting and rewarding. Among these dreams: professional writer, professional artist, champion archer, pinball machine repairman, musician, centaur, rocket man, renegade gardener and 1800s seamstress. While these passions run deep and distracting, I’d happily embrace a life of wandering and a distinct lack of responsibility, but my inability to stop pursuing these tiny dreams is pervasive and unsettling, just like car payments and ex-girlfriends.

When Willard Wigan (whom I’ve mentioned before), begins to lament his sad, difficult, millionaire existence on TV, my own idealistic visions regarding the joy of giving in to a “calling” are broken apart.

Here, Wigan is portrayed as a man who hates his craft. He describes the process of carving his microscopic artworks as physically painful and exhausting to the point of delirium. While he admits to a certain kind of meditative state, it’s far from blissful. He stresses out about every heartbeat that pulses through his hands as he embraces it. Wigan doesn’t do this with a self-deprecating smile or a wink, but with a weepy story about how he carves tiny artworks because he was “made to feel small by his teachers” due to a learning disability that he cannot seem to overcome, even as an adult—a combination of severe dyslexia and other mysterious mental issues which make him a perfect poster child for Outsider Art. His hand wringing and self-pity are ether pathetically genuine or a meticulously constructed, marketable character akin to the likes of Lady Gaga.

Wigan earns around $80,000 per artwork, all of which are miraculously tiny and carved by hand, and use descriptors usually reserved for storybook fairies, like “painting with a hair plucked from the back of a fly” or having things “balanced on the tip of an eyelash." It’s undeniable that his motor skills are profoundly keen and that what he does presses firmly against the barriers of human capabilities, but it’s very difficult to pity a man who has chosen this line of work, and subsequently earns many multiples of what I earn in a year in the period of a few weeks. A man who is handed a master’s degree for simply being awesome really doesn’t deserve a whole lot of sympathy. No matter who you are, there’s a physical and emotional toll that comes along with the work that you do, usually commensurate with the amount of cash you earn at said job. If that amount is hovering in the multi-millions, don’t go on TV and cry about it. Money isn’t happiness, but you make conscious choices about where it comes from. Can you divorce yourself from a calling?

The wealthy purchase Wigan’s art for two reasons: because it’s a feat of human ability, and because his story is one that is delicately crafted to evoke the sympathy of the audience. The painter who has only one foot left to paint with is infinitely more marketable than the guy who has the use of both of his hands.

I don’t buy into the whole “artist as tortured soul” bit in general. While Van Gogh, Kahlo and Pollock are some documented examples of troubled creators, most of it is a fictional construct propagated by art historians and critics which artists then try to wedge themselves into in order to appear more genuine. I doubt that Wigan is a bad guy. His bashfulness seems genuine—but tone it down with the affected “misunderstood artist” schtick. It’s a complete and utter cliché, and it’s giving us all a bad name.


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