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After the MFA

Originally published ArtWeek, September 1, 1989

(original draft June 29, 1989)

You may have read three months ago in this space a piece of mine titled “MFA Class of 1989” (Artweek June 17, 1989). I know some people read it, because one of them remarked only the other day about how pleased she was to read a recognition in print of the work of herself and all the other MFA’s of 1989. But then she inquired, “What, though, do I do now? Keep on making things, I guess, huh? What should I do next with my life?” Although I am as uncertain as she as to what she or I should do with our lives, I replied, “You want to know what to do? Watch my column!”

We had met outside a cafe we both frequented. I went in wondering what, indeed, I would write in my next column. The only customer in the cafe was a man wearing dark glasses and a rosary. He came up to me and said, “I was one of your students. Do you remember me? What’s your name?” I told him my name and that I never can recognize anyone who is wearing dark glasses. He took off the glasses and said, “I’m manic depressive, like Vincent Van Gogh. I take lithium. No one can be a great artist unless he’s manic depressive.” I said “Oh,” and decided to have my morning coffee somewhere else.

I guess, then, that after the MFA there’s manic depression with lithium and the tradition of greatness, or there’s Thoreau’s “most men live lives of quiet desperation,” or there’s ...? I don’t know if Vincent Van Gogh was manic depressive or not. But I do know he said, “Nature speaks, and theory is not useless, because what one feels by instinct or intuition becomes certain and clear if one is guided by some really practical words.”

And it’s exactly that kind of practical advice which I think the person whom I met outside the cafe wanted, not the refuge in mysticism and sentimentality which I took in my ArtWeek column three months ago. From the cosmic point of view, mysticism may be the only answer and sentimentality the only way to get it; but for artists living in the world, I think it’s time to get practical about the artist’s life after the excuse for it that was being a student is gone.


The artist’s career was clear in the European Middle Ages. After the guild’s certification of your mastery, you were admitted to a membership strictly limited for each town by the town’s own guild; you set up a shop, got a spouse and children to help run it, got customers and an apprentice or two, and then you went on down the years sitting on the doorstep in the evening and talking to the neighbors, fat and smiling all the way perchance to grandparenthood but certainly to an anonymous death. Not even a name on the chapel floor. You knew your place: you were born in it, lived in it and died there as your parents had done before you and your children would do after...nameless links in a chain of flesh from ashes to ashes and dust to dust.

And if this were ancient Egypt, classical Greece, 12th Century India, 16th Century Iran, or I expect) Teotihuacan in the 7th Century, your artist’s life would have been the same. It was sometime in the late 1400’s that some Italian artisans demanded freedom from the guild, demanded for themselves, in effect, the freedom of gentlemen, and got it. Leonardo would be not a craftsman but a sage; Titian would be not a dauber in likenesses but a prince of painters; Raphael would be not mortal but divine; and Michelangelo would be superhuman with all of the terribilita of our artists’ race.

Were they manic depressive? Did they take lithium? Could they remember anybody’s name? Is it because of them that we have a tradition of the artist’s existence as insecure, depressive and melancholy at the edge of the unknown? And why is the artist-victim mode of depression, alienation, guilt and melancholy the standard of behavior expected of us who know that we have the wonder and privilege of creating a life like none ever known before? Why don’t people expect glory for us, expect adventure, joy and homesteaders making new lives, new farms, building peaceable kingdoms in the wilderness?


Melancholy is rage turned inward, silently, paralyzingly against oneself because the original object of that rage, the outer world in which one sought a place, has rejected, denied, ignored one until at last there is no other recourse but to hate oneself for ever having wished to be accepted. Vasari does not record the melancholy of Leonardo, Titian, Raphael or Michelangelo. (Maybe they took lithium, and, anyway, real men don’t cry.) Vasari does not tell of melancholy because he was writing the story of artistic grandeur in order to lift artists out of the constraint of the craft guilds into the liberated world of Gentlemen.

Besides learning from Vasari about the lives of great artists, I learned from an astrologer, Dane Rudhyar[1], about the three phases of human life itself. Rudhyar called the first phase the “body of the race,” and said that it is the fulfillment of the image of our human race by means of a physical body whose sexuality creates a family. He called the second phase the “body of work,” and said that it is the creation of a place in the world for our family and ourselves to live, a place called the body of work because it is the work of scientific research, of artistic creation, of legislation or the affairs of war, peace and the state. He called the third phase the “spiritual body” a time in which we expand beyond creation in the world to creation in the spirit and, more and more distant from the physical body of the first stage and the world building of the second, we etherialize away at last into the empyrean—the Titian of his shimmering self portrait at 90, the late, laughing Rembrandt with his hand on a death’s head, the deaf Beethoven writing his last quartets, the blind Monet with paintings as big as his whole world’s blur.

In any case, food on the table (a job), sex (physical and emotional intimacy in fact or in imagination) and security (a studio, a house, a place to be and work) are what the young artist (and everyone else) needs to build the body of the race. The young artist needs these particularly in order to live to build the body of work (which most people don’t build nor do they need to), the body of work beyond which the third, the spiritual body, might begin.

Today we are offered images of the first body that make it look like only permanent adolescence. We are offered images of the second body that are visions of politics and corruption, and images of the third body that are only adolescence tricked out to look like “golden years” with a Caribbean cruise. For me, none of these images is valid either for human existence or the artist’s particular variant within it. Human life has more than Scope mouthwash and procreating without getting babies; it has more than the hit TV series of the season, and it has more than being an old fool buying a new red truck. And the artist’s life has more than mania and melancholy. What it has, and human life has also, is muddling through with care, with conscience and with hope.

[1] Dane Rudhyar: The Astrology of Personality.