This is an essay which I wrote for the local paper but never submitted, once I saw that it was too long. It doesn't pertain to contemplative art per se, but perhaps there will be some here who like it!
THE NEXT GREAT ARTIST
As an artist, I am sensitive to the fact that I live in a culture where art, particularly contemplative art, is simply not a very high priority for most people. In this way, it’s rather unlike professional sports. I was thinking about this when I was at at a Twins game on Monday, in the brand new stadium. Our boys were behind about 8 – 0 in the middle innings, so I was looking around at the sold out crowd and wondering what it would take to get that many people together to look at painting or sculpture. Well, that line of thought didn’t get me very far, so I reversed the hypothesis. I wondered what would happen if our culture suddenly lost interest in watching professional sports. What if we all just quit going to games and, in the words of Yogi Berra, “stayed away in droves?” It seems unlikely, but I tried to imagine people not even watching sports on TV. There would be no money to maintain the teams. The whole system would collapse. Athletes then, with no less talent than ever, would have to quit doing what they love and go get jobs. Just like artists.
I think it would be hard for most of them. Athletes are a lot like artists in that we all seem to be born to do what we do. Just like Joe Mauer, for instance, is a natural born baseball player, there are many artists who live and breathe art. It’s not just our passion, it’s who we are. And yet there is a great contrast between how most people seem to feel about professional sports as compared to art. If our culture found watching baseball as boring as it finds looking at art, Joe’s great skills would be just as irrelevant as those of a great artist, wouldn’t they? He would probably feel like many artists often feel, like a fish out of water. I don’t know Joe at all, but I’m guessing he would be at something of a loss.
I can’t see him giving up baseball though, so, like an artist, he might have to get creative about ways to make money doing what he loves to do. He might, for instance, find a way to interest people in some sort of street performance, swinging his bat and passing the hat. Not much money there, so maybe someone would organize a “baseball fair.” That would be where they close down a street for a weekend so people could come and watch Joe and others like him do their thing. Like at art fairs, there may be just enough people who appreciate the skills he exhibited to make it worth his while. Or maybe, like artists at art “crawls” he would be able to round up enough other athletes in one place to get a little larger crowd together. They might even be able to get a pick-up game going, so that their skills would add up to something a little more tangible than mere demonstrations of skill. Of course, speaking of tangibility, if these games were just like art crawls they would be free. People wouldn’t pay just to look. So the only way for the athlete to make money would be to sell something that people could take home with them. Like souvenirs. They could maybe buy baseballs in bulk, sign them, and resell them individually for a small profit. Of course their signatures wouldn’t be worth much, as there would be no stars without the game, so they might not sell.
And buying the baseballs would be only a small part of what Joe and his friends would need to invest to get anything going. They would have to buy all their equipment themselves, their uniforms, and rent the lot besides. And don’t forget, Joe’s got a “real” job now, flipping burgers or running tables. If his boss even lets him off for the evening, he’s going to be tired when he gets to the game. It’s a tough life, but what else is he going to do? It’s not as if he doesn’t have any other skills that he might be able to trade on, to make a little more money, but remember he’s a natural born athlete. He was made to swing that bat. He probably doesn’t have too much interest in other things. Maybe he likes football too, but that doesn’t pay any better than baseball in this strange culture, where spectator sports are now passé. If he doesn’t want to give up baseball, he’s going to have to give up ideas of having a family and living in the suburbs. He can’t have both. He’ll probably just have to rent a garret downtown, and get used to taking the bus to work, like all the other athletes.
Or maybe he’ll decide to go back to school. It’s a gamble, because it’s unlikely that he’ll have any better income when he graduates than he does now, and, along with his diploma in four years, he is going to be handed a very significant student loan bill. He might be a better athlete by then, but in this world where no one watches baseball, that hardly matters. There is little difference at this point between a good athlete and a bad one. Joe knows this, of course, but he figures that at least they still play baseball there. There’s a community of people there who love the game. That’s where all the coaches went when the system came apart. He considers that he might have a chance at a better job if he took business courses, but baseball is his only passion. It’s in his blood. He wants to study the history of baseball and learn all about Babe Ruth and the other stars of the past. He wants to learn about what made those athletes great. He thinks he might even improve his swing so he could star in the games between the students. There’s one almost every day! So, despite the cost, school is very attractive to him…
That’s as far as I got in my daydream... Coming back to the real world I saw that there were still a lot of people in their seats watching the Twins lose. We eventually lost 15 – 0, but I reflected that Joe’s job is still pretty safe. In fact he probably made enough money that evening to keep a small arts organization afloat for a year. I’m happy for Joe. He and the Twins are having a tough season, but they’re going to get through this downturn just fine. And the artists? We’ll make do too, somehow, as we always have. We’ll keep doing what we do, the best we know how.
But I am often asked why there are no more great artists these days, people like Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci. I answer that there is plenty talent around, but it’s not going to surface without a place to go. It takes a great culture to produce great art. You get what you pay for. Today in Minnesota, in a declining economy, we’re going to spend more time and money on our sports teams than on art. Lots more. The day that begins to equal out and we as a culture start to exhibit the same level of interest in painting and sculpture as we see in professional games, then, and only then, might we see the next Michelangelo.