Rothko, ‘Nothing to Lose and a Vision to Gain’

A man once said, “You must constantly fight against the illusion that you have something to lose” or something very similar. I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately. And I’ve been wondering if that man didn’t lift or modify that quote from an earlier artist (who also was speaking at a commencement ceremony).

What am I talking about? Last month, I was down in Texas. Houston to be exact. We decided to hit the Museum of Fine Arts Houston (a museum not to be missed, if you’re in the area). They had an retrospective on Mark Rothko. I have to say I have a very hard time appreciating modern art. And the more abstract it is, the harder time I have hooking into it. Rothko’s stuff is abstract in the extreme: There are no figures and few shapes. It’s just a few rough lines and color. But there was something about these works. And it came down to a tag on one of the paintings that explained his work and opened it up for me. The tag said that painting should be not about a representation of a scene or a person. It should be an experience. An experience in and of itself. And that was it. I understood. Instead of judging it by the standards of pictorial representation I could judge the bare image on the wall by its immediate presence, by what it made me feel and think in all immediacy without a critical mind weighing it and ruining it.

Untitled 1951 Rothko, National Gallery of Art 

This is interesting because it’s not unlike the concept of “pure experience” in Buddhism and other Eastern religions. I’m sure Rothko must have been aware of this connection. It seems too close for him to have overlooked. But I’m not sure.

But I digress. The thing that really struck me was a second placard at the exhibition. It had a quote from a speech Rothko gave a year before he died at Yale’s commencement ceremony. As an older, successful artist he looked back on his career.

“When I was a younger man, art was a lonely thing; no galleries, no collectors, no critics, no money. Yet it was a golden time, for then we had nothing to lose and a vision to gain. Today it is not quite the same. It is a time of tons of verbiage, activity, and consumption. Which condition is better for the world at large I will not venture to discuss. But I do know that many who are driven to this life are desperately searching for those pockets of silence where they can root and grow. We must all hope that they find them.”

And I thought: that first stage is fiction writing today, a “lonely thing” where—except for a few Rockstars of fiction—there are “no galleries, no collectors…no money.” Only the galleries are shuttered bookstores, the collectors are missing patrons, “no money” is a constant worry. 

But for all that—and there is a lot on that side—might there be an upside? Might it even be a “golden time”? I hear some of you laughing already. Fair enough. First, I’m all for writers being compensated fairly, excessively even. And I am concerned when I read headlines about writers making wages well below the poverty level ($8,000, come on!). But there’s an upside to having nothing to lose. It can give a you a chance to start over, to find your own vision free from the constraints and demands of commercialization, self-importance and inflated ego.  

That Rothko quote also got me thinking about myself. Wasn’t I in the same position as the younger Rothko? What did I have to lose? What if I just kept going like I have been for the last few years: Going to my 9-to-5 job, clocking in, clocking out. Writing stories on the weekend at the café, one of those “pockets of silence” where I can “root and grow.” What if I just write and write and write and never sell another one of those stories ever again? So what? No really, so what? I still have my 9-to-5 job. I still pay the rent, feed and clothe myself. What difference does it make? How would I be different from any other working stiff? But if I succeed, even modestly, mind you, what then? If I sell a few stories, maybe a novel someday, or a play? Even if they go nowhere—haven’t I gained something? A vision and more? The satisfaction that I did it, that I stayed the course? And didn’t fold? To me that has more worth than a thousand publishing contracts, a huge marketing budget and a bus for a book tour?

All times, golden or otherwise, are what you make of them. What will you make of yours?

Until next time,

Darius


That Rothko retrospective in Houston ends Jan. 24. So, you’ll have to hurry up if you want to catch it.

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