Yesterday, I took my band of thieves to the park to curl the winter grass between bare toes and chase the hours over the hump of a crowing hill, the high spot of late sunlight where the boat tailed grackles set a twanging, static-calling watch for the first glimmering star. They point their beaks up like antennae tuned in to the sky, as though they could be an alien race under our noses, waiting for their mothership. To the dismay of many neighbors, nightly they sit there and build, noise on noise in scraping cacophonic layers until, at some indiscernible signal, they ascend the two pine trees on either side of the hill in one breathtaking cry of flight.
The first birds were dotting their roost while my daughter was gamely striking up friendships with children, toddlers, grandparents, and groundskeepers. Most of my attention was spent sussing up whoever the little bee was buzzing around at any given moment, but I chatted off and on with other parents. The grownup conversation fiddled and flowed, when in the middle of an idly begun chat about nothing much, I suddenly winced to alertness at a chuckled question about my child that reached out and pushed me:
“Well, you say she’s artsy, are you guys trying to steer her towards the sciences?”
Accurately, literally, what I had said to this grass patch friend was that my little girl loves art, both looking at it and making it. The comment seemed in keeping with the playground chat, mostly constituted of halfheartedly mulmed thoughts on the various school break pursuits of little girls. Within that pink sweatered and soccer ball dotted context, I had remarked that my child loves art.
Defensive maternal posturing aside, this question is a box of ugly treasure, for it forces contemplation of the balance between aesthetic purity and objective pragmatism.
Clarice Lispector, the great Brazilin writer who gleefully drew the aesthetic event horizon as a trans-dimensional gangplank, prompted one of her most mysterious narrators to explain the scale and scope of his own creative impulse: “Made of porous material, I shall one day assume the form of a molecule with its potential explosions of atoms.” (1)
Truly, the most volatile art tears its way free of the most precise focal point. If I could strip away the other consciousnesses and exercises of this life and become Lispector’s molecule, I might not be able to resist the force of my own holler. I believe that might be transcendence.
Back in my own reality, there are objective truths that, though I can conceive of them as illusory, must still be managed on this plane—and I grant that science is better than art on a purely pragmatic plane where creativity equals eccentricity, and eccentricity is tolerated as comic relief. There are worldly limits to what is manageable.
But the dichotomy is driven to confrontation from both sides. My sister’s old boyfriend, a professor of Romantic Literature, liked to say that if you intend to make money from your art, you should not call yourself an artist, but rather an artisan, the distinction acting as indictment. In the shadow of that veil, the incidental dismissal of the creative life is made with the finest intent—to protect both the temple of art and the belly of the creative child.
By the lime green grassy light of a waning afternoon at the park, I get reflexively angry when my girl’s love of art, music, and language is meted with pity for me. There is an assumption at work that I have seen before—that I have much shepherding and steering and outright pushing ahead of me to keep her from doing the wrong thing—whatever that is—as if in some way, just the tendency to think abstractly is enough to lead her to capitalist ruin. Judging by my own experiences, maybe that’s true enough.
Always, I have been diluted in spirit by the tug on the one side to be the art and on the other to pay the rent, but I have no hard feelings either way. I think the point that might have eluded the practical park mother, my sister’s boyfriend, the teachers, the counselors, the bosses, my mother, is that there is no relief in de-emphasis. Recalibrating an artist as artsy does not cleanse the soul of unpredictability and impractical desire any more than turning a painting into a vow to purity pays for supper. The barrier of exclusivity between the two worlds only serves to disenfranchise. Eventually, creation finds the artist, the atom excites, even if you are hiding in a classroom or a cubicle. Though sometimes nothing is created except loss.
For now, I am trying to find a more concrete answer for my child, because I think that would be a nice present to give her one day—here, sweetheart, this is what you should do and I’m sure I’m right. But at that yesterday moment, all I could do was frown a smile at this woman and follow my chasing child up the crow hill, where we stood with the birds, looking up at the gloam, listening for the signal.
(1) Lispector, Clarice. The Hour of the Star. Trans. Giovanni Pontiero. New York, NY: New Directions Books, 1992. P. 13. Print.