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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Friday, October 05, 2007

money, fame, and their lack

Yesterday, busy with other aspects of my life, I did nothing toward The Mission, not even write a blog-post--not until the afternoon reading period, when I did press forward with The Cults of the Roman Empire. I didn't feel good about this; it truly felt like downtime.

I need to keep nibbling away at this project, and to do this daily in spite of other responsibilities and commitments. It's an old story for writers and other artists: how to survive while also attending to one's (often unremunerative) vocation. In this respect I've been luckier than most, but it's still a balancing act.

James Joyce, when he first ran away to the Continent with Nora Barnacle, taught languages at the Berlitz School and wrote in his free time. He was poor. Fyodor Dostoyevsky, another of my inspiring guides in literature, was tortured by money worries (at least partly exacerbated by gambling), and this no doubt contributed to his passion for writing Crime and Punishment, in which his poverty-stricken protagonist feverishly talks himself into killing for money.

An interesting alternative to this is when the artist enjoys financial success but critical opprobrium. I'm not thinking here of people like Mickey Spillane, who made no bones about the fact that he wrote first of all for money, and didn't have the least interest in what professional critics thought about his work. I'm thinking more of people like the painter Robert Bateman, who was featured in a brief news segment in the last couple of days. Although enjoying great popular success, and collected by people such as Prince Charles and Prince Philip, Bateman has been mainly ignored or denigrated by the academic art world. His meticulously crafted and arresting nature scenes leave them cold.

Unlike other realist painters launching their careers in the 1950s and 1960s, like Alex Colville and Ken Danby, when nonfigurative art was considered the only valid kind, Bateman has not been "rehabilitated". As I think about it, I suspect this is because his art is inaccessible unless you share something of his passion for nature, which most urban art critics and curators probably do not, beyond a certain obligatory lip-service. Most of us city dwellers have never seen a polar bear or a wolf in the wild, and never will. As subjects they are therefore as remote as figures of Greek mythology--more so, since the Greek gods had human form. His paintings of natural scenes are done with the same kind of painstaking reverence as the Buddhist thangkas painted in Tibet--sacred images to hang over shrines. The painting of them is itself a spiritual practice, the resulting picture being actually secondary. It wouldn't surprise me if Bateman's attitude were similar. The pictures say, "Look! Look!" And if we're not amazed and awed as he is, then we're not really looking yet. His meticulous and masterly technique is really only an attendant and servant of his subject, which you might as well call the goddess Gaia.

But Bateman has enjoyed great popular and commercial success--well earned, in my opinion.

So: it's tough to have it all. But what else is new?


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