On a recent trip to New York, my husband and I visited the Morgan Library. The library’s permanent collection includes pages from a Mozart symphony dated 1782, a Rubens’ drawing circa 1613, and a Gutenberg bible dated 1454. As we and many other visitors wandered through J. P. Morgan’s study and library it occurred to me once again that art, in all its forms, is the one thing we as humans work really hard to preserve, protect, and value across thousands of years.
There is no current piece of technology that will last one thousand years, at least not in working order. Yet I’d be willing to bet the sketch some engineer drew on a cocktail napkin that led to its invention is guarded somewhere safe. There is no political party or system of government that will last unchanged for one thousand years, but the writings of its founders might. Over the past several millenniums, wars have redrawn borders, diseases have wiped out populations, colonizers have suppressed cultures, even some religions have come and gone. And yet much of the art remains. It is prized by creators and conquerors alike.
We build secret climate-controlled warehouses to protect it, we display it in museums and galleries and charge a fee to see it, we pass it down through generations of our families. Every holiday season, we sing carols based on tunes written centuries ago. Four hundred years after they were written, we still produce Shakespeare’s plays. We plan our vacations to include visits to architectural sites adorned in art.
And every time I have this thought, the irony hits me. The human race values art above almost everything else, yet it does not support artists. Many of the great artists, writers, and composers of the past millennium died penniless. Many more produced work that did not speak to them in order to feed their families. Countless others toiled away in jobs that left them so worn out they produced only a fraction of the art they might have made. So many artists never received even the recognition they deserved until long after they were dead.
I think this paradox will haunt me until I die. After more than thirty years of thinking about this conundrum, I feel no closer to the answer than I ever was.
There are days when I feel enraged by the injustice of it all, and days I laugh it off. There are days I remind myself money isn’t everything, and days I beg the universe to send even a small check my way. There are days I make art simply because I love to, and days I want to quit while I’m ahead. There are days I shake my fist at the gods and demand they stop playing favorites, and days I send up prayers of thanksgiving for all the blessings that allow me to produce my art.
On this day, I’ve decided that living the question is more satisfying than trying to solve it. Because in the past few thousand years only one truth has remained clear; art and artists matter.
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