On a trip to Venice, Italy, I visited the Palazzo Ducale, the Renaissance-era Venetian palace of…Ducale, I guess. It was definitely impressive, in fact it captured my mind (and about 1 GB on my camera’s memory card) days before I visited the actual structure. Once inside the palace, I was struck dumb by all of the ornate woodwork, gold leaf trim on everything, and depictions of Jesus paneling the ceiling. Lots of pictures of Jesus. Lots and lots of pictures of Jesus. Jesus up on the cross, Jesus down from the cross. Jesus doling out bread and fishes, Jesus standing gloriously outside of a cave. There were some images of the Virgin Mary and assorted cherubs, but–Jesus Christ!–there were mostly paintings of Jesus Christ. I thought about the guys who painted this stuff, it was probably their lives’ work to decorate the ceiling of the Palazzo Ducale. And here I am, about half an eon into their future, snickering at all the naked boobs.
I figure the people who painted all of these Jesuses on the ceiling probably got really good at painting Jesus after a while. I remember seeing a documentary on Charles Schulz in the 1980s: a camera filmed his weathered hand as he drew perfect depictions of Snoopy, Charlie Brown, and Lucy Van Pelt in ink without any pencil guides. I was pretty impressed at first, then my dad pointed out that I might have seen the ten-thousandth time he’d drawn these particular characters. Years later, while ruining page after page of my looseleaf notebook trying to come up with new graffiti styles, I noticed that I developed a different relationship, a sort of understanding with the letters I’d chosen to compose my tag. These phenomenons are what happen through regular practice, through routine. Any action performed over and over, day and and day out will become rote after a time. When you first learned to walk, you had to concentrate on keeping in one direction without falling down. Now you walk and fall down without even thinking of it.
It seems like art in the Western world, specifically beginning in the second half of the twentieth century, is about self expression: we only paint Jesus when we want to. My friend Justin points out that it’s an outgrowth of the American Dream, that you can be whatever you want to be and live freely to throw paint buckets at a canvas. There’s certainly something to that, it appears as if many people get into art because they believe it to be contrary to the shackled, work-a-day world of regular pay and health benefits. There’s also the possibility that you roll the dice on Life As an Artist and come up with a financial boon. But is this something worth gambling over? You can make the most trite, banal song and license it to a commercial for lots of money. You can scribble a few lines on a page and upload it to the internet to be viewed by millions of people. Will someone stand before your work and regard it in five hundred years? What intrinsic value has been created outside of the temporal context of its creation? If financial gain is the objective, then I tell you that you’re better off at that work-a-day job collecting a paycheck.
My impression is that, based on some of the modern art I’ve consumed, that a lot of people need to go back and paint some more Jesuses. So much output in the digital age is derivative, belying their creators’ lack of acumen. Paint your Jesus, write your essays, work on your robot conqueror every single day. You will get better at whatever you pursue, and you’ll understand new things about your craft as it continues to be exercised. Don’t talk about it, be about it. And once you’ve put in your time, paid some dues, then you know that when you paint boobs, you’re doing it as an artistic choice and not for some churlish idiot to snicker at.