One of my classmates in high school heard me whistling and told me I had an amazing musical ear. I don’t know what a musical ear is, but, because she played multiple instruments and sang in the choir, maybe her praise meant something. I’m not sure.
Whistlers don’t qualify as musicians. These days, I whistle when I seek help or offer help identifying a song or when I straighten up the house while everyone else is away. Sometimes I just find myself whistling. Whatever music I’m carrying steps out of my brain and into light. Unconscious, unsought, and unschooled, my whistling is not deliberate, not—to me—gifted, and not accomplished.
This week, with my son’s help, I hung my art show at the school where I teach. As you might expect, seeing my paintings and drawings on gallery walls was thrilling. It gave my work new dimension. There was so much of it and so much that marked it as created by one mind. Many of the paintings were new to everyone outside my family and—out of the darkness of the portfolio where the paintings usually reside—they almost seemed to glow.
My colleagues have been very nice, complimenting me on how colorful, meticulous, and prolific my work is. They ask me how much planning goes into the pictures, how much time I spend on each, and what artists I emulate or admire. They ask me if I ever sell my work.
Answering these questions is fun, but I’ve never known how to handle praise. I answer as factually as I can. I say “thank you” and little more. I secretly wonder if their compliments are real or simply polite. I wonder if, being my colleagues, they’re indulging the fantasy I’m an artist. After all, most of my co-workers pass through the gallery two or three times a day and say nothing. I’m too sensitive, but their collective silence seems a more conspicuous comment.
My art is abstract and automatic in the surreal sense, meaning that I drift in the currents of whatever I’m working on. Each action suggests the next and opens the possibility of following or violating rules I’ve just created. For some years now, I’ve been doodling in meetings, creating crazy full-page drawings of nothing in particular. In my show, doodles plaster a tiny wall of the gallery, and a receipt tape of doodles divides the sections of the other walls—about 75 feet of doodles in all. I’d hoped to raise doodling to the level of Art, but I can’t help wondering if I’m really just whistling. What if the silence I hear means, “No big deal”?
What does it mean to take credit for art anyway?
An artist himself, my son would say I’m stupid to doubt, even stupider to talk about it. He’d say, “You just make this stuff. You get pleasure from it, and whether other people like it is up to them. You can’t force them… and, if they do like it, you ought to be grateful.” I haven’t heard him say so because I’ve been withholding the opportunity. He’d be right. And I am grateful.
On a more philosophical level, however, I wonder how much belongs to me and how much belongs to inclination, good fortune, and happy accident. Some artists seem ready to own their achievement, but how much can you own and how much has nature or God or circumstance simply lent you?
Yet, even if you believe yourself an instrument, you can’t help wanting people to react, wanting them to admire, wanting to believe they take you as seriously as you take yourself. I may be accused of fishing for compliments here, and I suppose that’s true, but affirmation is intoxicating. And maybe vital… I marvel at artists who persist without it.
I’m grateful for the compliments I’ve received. I’d like to feel proud but feel oddly removed instead. The first few moments of looking at the gallery hit me dramatically, but then the images quickly faded as if, liberated at last, they floated away like disembodied whistling, author-less and strange.