Last week, I attended a fine art show featuring a curated group of talented Black artists. One of the event’s speakers, Kevin John Goff, was the nephew of famed actress Hattie McDaniel, the first Black American to win an Oscar for her role as Mammy in Gone with the Wind. As a long-time student of Classic Hollywood, I knew this was a talk I did not want to miss.
Kevin told Hattie’s story, some of which I knew, much of which I did not. Hattie was the daughter of formerly enslaved parents, her mother was a gospel singer, her father fought in the Civil War, her brother, Sam, and her sister, Etta, also worked as actors. When Gone with the Wind premiered in Atlanta in 1939, Hattie could not attend due to Georgia’s segregation laws. Kevin is working on a documentary about the life of this multi-talented performer.
As we sat in a room surrounded by gorgeous works of art, Kevin reminded us when we pay for art, especially high-priced items, we’re not just paying for the materials and time that go into the production of that art, we’re paying for the experiences of the artist.
In other words, not just anyone could create that particular work of art, only that particular artist could. He said we should not just take into consideration the artist’s learning, skills, and talent, but also their lived experiences, their family heritage, even the traumas that pass from generation to generation.
I would argue to also take into consideration their passions and interests inside and outside of their art forms. Their sense of humor, the fears that drive them, their level of sensitivity, their spiritual leanings, etc.
I started thinking about the artists I know and the ones I admire. We’ve arrived in the places we are because of everything that makes us unique. When they told us in Sunday school there is no one else on earth the same as you, I believed it. How could it not be true?
And it’s also true that what draws us to the art we purchase and love is as much about our lived, learned, and inherited experiences as it is about the art itself (unless we’re making the purchase for other motives, say, to impress).
This is what makes real art –and more specifically artists –special. What we produce, whether it’s a painting, a book, a song, or a performance, is nothing that can be replicated on an assembly line or by a computer. It’s history, genetics, circumstance, passion, skill, discernment, obsession, spirit, sensitivity, knowledge, and so much more. It’s the things for which we’ve received praise and the injustices we’ve endured, it’s the values we hold dear and the beliefs we’ve let go. It’s the artist in me responding to the artist in you. That’s the gift of art, and that’s what you’re paying for, not a product, but our unique and our shared human experiences.
And if you can’t afford to pay what the artist is asking, or you stumble across a free concert in the park, can you take a moment to appreciate all that went into that piece of art, and everything your uniqueness brings to your communion with it and, just for a moment, put that gratitude out into the world? I believe every artist and every art lover will feel it.
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