Johns Hopkins Magazine -- November 1998
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Attention, the Universe
By Jeanne Schinto (MA '81)
Illustration by Kim Barnes

"I myself should always regret not being a doctor."
-Van Gogh, in a letter to his brother, Theo, 1889

I type "Matisse", and my spell check asks if I meant to say "madhouse." I try Pasteur, and it elicits an "OK." Apparently, my computer isn't enlightened, as I was, long ago, by Lionel Trilling's famous essay "Art and Neurosis," which convinced me that artists aren't crazier than anybody else; but I still believe their characters are often unfairly maligned.

When Matisse's paintings were derided at the New York Armory Show in 1913, he felt it necessary to write an open letter defending himself, not his work: "Tell the American people that I am a devoted husband and father, that I have three fine children, and a fine garden--like any man--that I am not a hoodlum." Janet Flanner, whose pen name was GenÉt, trying to make the same point, once described Matisse's studio as "tidy as a rich doctor's waiting room"--forgetting the saying, "One should never trust a rich doctor or a rich priest."

"Rich artist" is an oxymoron. The students in my high school writing class understand that; I know because, when I ask them to write their obituaries as they would like them to read in 60 or 70 years' time (my hope is to inspire them to think about their life goals), they often imagine themselves as dual careerists-- doctor/novelist is a popular choice, though none of them has read Walker Percy or even Ethan Canin. The medicine will pay their bills, while the art will nourish their souls is what they're thinking. Doctors whose waiting rooms are decorated with their own artworks--I've been treated by more than one--would probably voice something similar about everybody needing a creative outlet.

But what about those of us who have taken Ruskin's words to heart? To wit: "Art, properly so called, is no recreation; it cannot be learned at spare moments, nor pursued when we have nothing better to do. It is no handiwork for drawing-room tables; no relief of the ennui of boudoirs; it must be understood and undertaken seriously or not at all."

I think what prevents many people from making that kind of commitment isn't only fear of short funds. Fear of something else is a far stronger deterrent. As Roger Fry wrote in a letter to his father from Cambridge, in 1888, " fail in art is much more complete a failure and leaves one a more useless encumbrance on the world than to fail in almost anything else--e.g. to be a 4th rate doctor in the colonies."

Thomas Eakins, whose portraits did not flatter, and who experienced little success in his lifetime, would have strongly disagreed with the idea that even a bad doctor is worthy of more respect than a bad artist. "I presume my position in art is not second to your own in medicine," he wrote to Dr. J. N. Da Costa, who had asked the painter to alter his portrait because it had been adversely criticized by newspapers and friends, "and I can hardly imagine myself writing to you a letter like this: Dear Doctor, The concurrent testimony of the newspapers and of friends is that your treatment of my case has not been one of your successes. I therefore suggest that you treat me a while with Mrs. Brown's Metaphysical Discovery."

Fry, for his part, became neither artist nor doctor but art critic, thereby joining the ranks of a profession filled with what are called "failed artists."

"Failed" is a term that deserves scrutiny. My husband dropped out of pre-med, but that doesn't make him a "failed" doctor. In medicine, mistakes can be tragedies; and the reason we don't hear that a doctor is a "failed" one is because we leap right over that to calling him or her "disgraced"--possibly even "jailed." In art, failure can only occur when the artist has given up. They are "failed" only as parachutes are--because they fail to work at all.

Persevering, no matter how it's going, no matter how it's judged, is one thing; doing the same while your neighbor's house burns is quite another. (Never mind that you are equipped with neither hose nor ladder.) That is why, particularly in the opinion of our puritanical culture, "useless" can swiftly shade into "immoral." Samuel F. B. Morse painted his virtuosic Gallery of the Louvre, which includes replicas of 40 European masterworks in miniature, in the midst of a cholera epidemic. While Parisians were ministering to their sick and dying, shouldn't this crazy American have put down his paintbrush and helped them instead?

The question can only be answered by an anecdote, a fantasy that Auden once recounted, in which he found himself volunteering in a hospital, washing wounds. What do you think you're doing? a nurse asked angrily; why aren't you writing poetry? To which he replied: I will if I feel like it.

Which, of course, is both the key to art and the reason why we so often suspect its practitioners of being either indolent, if they can't work, or insensitive, if they can't stop.

Morse, familiar to more people as an inventor than as an artist, meant his painting to be a teaching tool, but when he brought it back home to the United States, it was not well-received. Bitter, he abandoned art for invention. The Morse code and the telegraph soon followed. Among the words he chose to transmit during trial testing were, reportedly, "Attention, the universe." Compare that to Emily Dickinson's "This is my letter to the World,/ That never wrote to Me"--she, who published few poems in her lifetime.

Van Gogh, as we all know, sold next to none of his works--he, who painted Portrait du Dr. Gachet but regretted not only not being a doctor but not being a preacher, too. That his doctor's portrait sold in May 1990 for $82.5 million--the largest sum ever paid for a painting--is beside the point.

Maybe if it were more difficult to declare oneself an artist, we all might get more respect. Medicine weeds out the amateurs far better than art does. Nobody does appendectomies for a hobby on weekends; or has an E.R. down in the basement. (At least I hope not.)

When I took up serious writing 20 years ago, nobody appointed me "artist." I appointed myself. All artists do, but for me there's no comfort in that knowledge. I often try to get around the unease by saying to myself and others, "Well, writing is what I've always done. Starting when I was a girl, I kept a diary, had pen pals. . . ." As if writing were an instinctual urge over which I've never had much control. But I haven't "always" tried to get my words published.

I've only gradually come to realize what an audacious act it is: to ask others to listen to me. Attention, the universe? How about, instead, another, more appropriate line from the Belle of Amherst: "I'm nobody! Who are you?"

It's hard to justify living the life of an artist, but self-doubt does decrease over time. Its diminishment doesn't have anything to do with success. Our society embraces its successful artists, but only briefly, and usually for the wrong reasons. It's no guide.

Where the conviction comes from is within. I can't be any more profound, nor any more specific. I'll leave it to scientists to give you hard facts, to save your labor, and to doctors to save your life. I can only interpret my life, my view of the world, and maybe inspire you to do the same with yours. And with luck, we'll both understand why it would be worthwhile for those doctors, if it ever came to that, to save our lives in the first place.

Jeanne Schinto (MA, The Writing Seminars, '81) is the author of three books, most recently, Huddle Fever: Living in the Immigrant City (Knopf, 1995). She lives in Andover, Massachusetts.