Map of the Mojave Rain Forest
11″x14″ acrylic on canvas
I was working away at the easel a week ago when I took a break and ran across an art news story that not only gave me pause, but stopped me dead in my pitiful tracks.
It was the announcement that the Metropolitan Museum of Art has just made 375,000 art images available and free for the public. You can do whatever you want with these images. That’s a lot of art. But the story went on to note that the National Gallery in Washington, DC also has about 45,000 such images available, the New York Public Library has made 180,000 images available, the British Library has over 1,000,000 images (count those zeros) and the Rijksmuseum has 150,000 images.
Now, even if some of the public images are duplicates from one museum or library to another, the numbers are still (as he who shall go nameless might say) – “Huge!”
So I stopped and asked myself what I was doing with that canvas and those paints. It’s somewhat akin to the feeling a writer has when she walks into a library or a bookstore with all those books on the shelves.
We need some perspective. First of all, a lot of those images are of art created a long, long time ago. And given samples I checked out, some of them were probably donated by family members of would-be small-time artists and hardly qualify for the Louvre. Others, of course, are good, even great depending on the artist in which case we’re back to the question: What am I doing with that canvas and those paints?
Well, I’m certainly not trying to compete with a couple of million works of art (questionable or great). So am I trying to compete with all the living artists in America today? Ha. All the living artists in California? Again, ha. All the living artists in my neighborhood…hmmm. Like Jack Benny, “I’m thinking. I’m thinking.”
A little healthy competition can be a good thing. Runners and other athletes know it. You win or you lose. The stats are there for all the world to see and nobody likes a sore loser. For creative people, the “stats” are subjective and healthy competition can slide into jealousy or discouragement/depression.
If it’s jealousy, we can end up as nuts as Salieri when Mozart outdid him. (If you need a refresher on this watch Amadeus again.) If it’s discouragement/depression, we can hit blocks that cause us to walk out of the studio, shut the door and never look back.
I don’t know about you, but for me it’s not going to be either of these. We have a third option and that option is to value the art we do without interference from any critics or juries or even the public. Selling the art is a different subject, so let’s not get confused here.
Most of us know we’re not Michelangelo or Rothko or O’Keeffe. But we also know enough to see when we’re working well and when we’re not. We continue to learn and congratulate ourselves on pieces we know are pretty darned good and to find lessons in the ones that go south on us and even make us shake our heads with a “What was I thinking?” laugh.
In their wonderful book Art & Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking, David Bayles & Ted Orland include this little dialogue:
“Q: Will anyone ever match the genius of Mozart?
Thank you–now can we get on with our work?”
Let us be grateful that all those art images are now available, but let us not be jealous or intimidated by what’s gone before. We don’t have time. We have work to do.