In Defense of Artists

Smart people always thrill me, I cherish deeply the endless conversation. Endless conversations start when you aren't trying to start one, and they continue past any reasonable stopping point. I began one with Arnold Kemp a few years ago. I met Arnold when he was eating lunch in the middle of a gallery where his show was being installed, he is a very big deal. He had curated my collaborator Heather May Redetzke and I into a show. He was the type of pro who can make you feel a little anxious about your work just by asking what kind of art you make. As if the answer will wilt like a flower in the bright light of his observation. I think he was eating Chinese take out. Three years later he was standing next to my brother talking during my home town 4th of July parade. This juxtaposition of the artist Arnold Kemp is not unusual once you know him, this is exactly the kind of method he applies to other people's madness. Large gaps rest between each segment of our conversation, sometimes lasting a couple hours sometimes lasting a month. The other day I was driving through Berkley California, not a place either of us frequent, and I texted Arnold with a question, and moments later he was yelling at the open window of my rental car. You can rarely predict these moments, like waves rolling into the shore, you can just paddle into them and hope to stretch the ride as long as possible until the next set. This of course is the standard form of friendship, everyone has friends who exist like this, people you don't have to spend time getting caught up with, you just pick up where you left off. I have dozens of friends I haven't seen in years who I still assume are just stewing over the last question I asked them. Patrick Maxwell is one. He will show back up sometime soon and we will pick up on that conversation we were having about the future and handmade wooden boats.

Dick Hebdige sat on the other side of a table next to the biggest ocean on the planet and casually tossed an intellectual ax through my carefully stacked woodpile of logic. Dick is a professor at UCSB and a writer of the first order, and he really knows how to dance. What Dick said (and I am sure he will deny it later) was that "Art is not a part of culture, art does not have a purpose or a function, it does not serve, art is... art!" He learned to speak in Britain so he says it with a much better panache' than I can write it, but this broke me because I have spent years developing my reasons for art. I have always felt the need to refine and hone my vocabulary around why art is important. I provide clear and concise evaluations of the meaningfulness and need for art in our contemporary society. I challenge the myths of the broke bohemian artist living in a flop house cutting off lobes. I break down the obvious and silly evidence which exists in plain site. I describe how everything man-made, everything built, started as an imagination, as an abstract idea, a thought no more real than a cat's name. How if not for the artist, surely, culture would consist of gray everything and bland gravy for each meal. I proffered that the artist is the sole keeper of the best parts of life, and if the world restricts or bars the artist or the art, then society will cease and we may as well all start calling ourselves by numbers.

It hadn't occurred to me that art needs me as a defender about as much as a tree needs a beaver. I was just defining the undefinable, trying to put up a fence around a cloud. I thought I was being clever when I could bridge the gap and explain art to someone, anyone. I was really only explaining it to myself and trying to justify my choices.

The curse of growing up in a small town means rarely fitting in and often strays into awkward kid territory. I used to like to roll down the hill behind my house, cross the highway and run head long through tunnels in the blackberry bushes down the old gravel trail into the woods and off the embankment into that swimming hole at the elbow of Gee Creek at the east end of Abrams Park. Then I would follow it all the way back up. Walking, wading and plunging through the mud and clay I slogged a path against the flow of water. In winter it was deep, in the spring it was a bright run-off of cold and crisp and ball shrinking chill. Gee creek is a little river that I felt I could master, it pales compared to the Columbia that it eventually meets up with out near the Ridgefield Wildlife Refuge. I spent endless days dragging up and down that creek, pretending, imagining, growing and dreaming. I never had to explain to anyone why I liked playing in that creek. I find myself bored by the idea of trying to convince people about anything, I talk all day everyday, to classes of students, I talk to everyone, non-stop. Hours and hours of convincing, hours of transmitting my opinions, my expertise, my thoughts. I like listening but it always causes me to think of more to say. I promise I am practicing listening. But in all that time, it occurs to me that my convincing is wasted. You shouldn't have to convince people to go play in a creek, that's just common sense. If you have a creek that is. It is even more assinign to convince someone that I make art for a reason. I don't. I've never had a reason and that may be scary to some, but so are creeks.

If you would like to have a conversation about this or any topic on this blog please set up an appointment for a conversation with Patrick Melroy at the UPPUR BUNK


  1. Did I know all of that about your past? Exquisite. Thank you for writing.


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