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Artists are Like Horses

Essay by Frederic Taubes

Near the close of 1509, at the time when he was painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, the wonder that all civilized humankind has cherished for four and a half centuries, Michelangelo, then already a famous man, wrote to his father: “I am very unhappy, not in good health and greatly overworked.”

And on another occasion: “I am suffering hardship greater than any man endured, ill and with overwhelming labor. Still I have patience in order to reach the desired end.”
The Grey Mare, 1962, ink, 10 x 15 in.

And later on: “I am practically barefoot and naked. I cannot collect money until the work is finished. I am suffering the greatest discomforts and irritations.”

Was Michelangelo an old grouch? Not more than you and perhaps less than I. And why do I quote him from his letters? Simply because these excerpts afford us a good insight into the mood of artistic creativity. His is but an illustrious example of the general rule: All creative endeavor starts and ends up in pain and mortification. The alleged exuberance of the creative spirit is just a flicker in a vast sea of distress.

The true artist’s fate is endless labor, strife and sacrifice, and for all his toil in an ideal cause he remains practically without compensation. Now in Michelangelo we have a man whose worldly rewards were bountiful. He was one of the few who were venerated and immortalized during their lifetimes. But, outside the golden age of painting, regardless of how great their merit may have been, the artists’ remunerations have hardly ever equaled those of a plumber’s assistant. Remember, whereas most of the greatest painters nowadays cannot live off the fruits of their labors, the plumbers of all degrees and kinds- by comparison- reap rich rewards.

Of course you might say, how important is art to us, and is it more necessary for our comfort than, say, plumbing? What is art altogether? It is just a mode of spiritual life, and it would seem that most people think it less important by far than plumbing.

But others disagree. I, for one, know that I have amassed incalculable indebtedness to the man who wrote the Quintet in C Major, and who himself, incidentally, never heard it performed (I am speaking of Franz Schubert), and to the composer of the Brandenburg Concerti, and the Rasoumovsky Quartets, and to the creators of Primavera, and the Night Watch and countless other masterpieces.

I, for one, am under heavy obligation, for never, never, shall I be able to repay my debts to these men who have given so much to all of us of yesterday and today and forever after- as a gift. I feel a heavy burden of indebtedness, for without this mode of spiritual life, life itself would be immeasurably impoverished.

On the practical side, no one will deny that merely by the possession of works of art the prestige and cultural standing of an entire nation is enhanced, and with the prestige, quite often, its prosperity. Anyone who today visits Toledo in Spain knows that El Greco still rules the town- three and a half centuries after his death. And on what circumstances does the glory of all Italy rest? It is not the princes and the armies and the victories that bring honor to a nation: it is its artists. Artists, the most precious commodity in any society of men and the least expensive to maintain, are the last to be appreciated.

Whereas the ordinary citizenry require a vast and costly legalistic and militaristic apparatus to keep them in line, no artist has ever committed a crime- other than on canvas (or a gesso panel, as the case may be). Artists, the most desirable members of any community, are like horses: Even in the luckiest conditions, even if they make the race, all they get for their efforts is a bucket of oats.

— Reprinted from New Essays on Art, 1955, Watson-Guptill


Artists are
Like  Horses
Essay by
Frederic Taubes

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