Skateboarding, comedy, and painting

Demetri Martin, comedian and painter


A while back, maybe a couple years ago, Roberta Smith, of the New York Times, observed that visual art is becoming–or has long been–an intellectual ghetto, of sorts, comparable in its reach to the tiny span of influence enjoyed by contemporary poets and their readers.  It doesn’t seem that way because so many past artists remain recognizable household names–and their work is still summoned onto the walls of major museums in blockbuster retrospectives. The recent MoMA show, Matisse: Radical Invention, was challenging and illuminating, and offered new insights into how Matisse and Picasso kept a wary, respectful eye on one another, learning, reacting, developing their work in a spirit of competitive homage. It brought to mind how The Beatles and Beach Boys played a bit of one-upmanship when they were recording. Yet a big show like this one also operates on a meta-level, reassuring painters like me that art remains something vital to large numbers of people–with a roster of big names any educated individual will recognize. There’s an illusion built into this subliminal message. The reality is that most great work being done now is completed in obscurity, with little opportunity of reaching large numbers of people, or even any people outside the small community of souls who pay serious attention to visual art. Who do we have now for Big Names? Jeff Koons? Damien Hirst? John Currin? These figures live in a bubble of luxury familiar only to elite CEOs and media celebrities, and yet what percentage of the population would be able to tell you anything about their work, or even recognize their names? Go down a few levels to the little-known people who are doing powerful, beautiful, compelling work, work of genuine quality and value, and you’ll get blank stares from the man or woman on the street–and you’ll find artists who make precious little through the sale of their work. For a painter, the sad reality is that the rewards are entirely inherent in mastering the work itself–and in the hope that, by doing so, you’ll be able to create something that helps someone else connect with what matters in his or her life.

I listen to podcasts while I paint. A lot of them. Marc Maron, Sound Opinions, Radiolab. On a recent Sound of Young America, Jesse Thorn interviewed the cerebral comedian, Demetri Martin. The conversation made some interesting connections between skateboarding and comedy, and then moved on to the subject of visual art–since Martin is a painter. The two of them nailed the subject of how solitary and obsessive painting becomes–and how much the perfection of one’s craft sometimes becomes the work’s only motivation and reward. This is a hard truth to accept and many of us work in a state of denial, ever hopeful that a couple influential critics or buyers might notice what we do and celebrate it, and thus make it possible to actually paint for a living. Dream on. Thorn and Martin were talking about how hard someone must work to get the smallest thing just right, but they were also making clear that genuine artistry is something granted only to those who are willing to live and die without worldly success or recognition. If you’re a painter, and you’re making progress–no, let’s up the ante here, let’s say you even feel you’re doing genuine, authentic work at a level of mastery–it’s easy to forget that it may mean nothing to the rest of the world. You forget that Van Gogh sold only one painting during the ten years he was a painter.

Here’s a condensation of one part of the interview:

Jesse: When I think back to the skateboarders I knew, it was a culture built around being slightly dropped out, it’s like the classic slacker culture, second only to weed culture, but inter-related. When I think back about people I knew who were into skateboarding, what they did with their time was practice over and over, work so hard and fail so much to learn to do something that, at the end of it, outside the culture of skateboarding, wasn’t even that cool looking.

Demetri: Yeah, for me that’s a big similarity to stand-up. There’s a diligence to it. All these comedians from the outside might seem like slackers or guys who are barnacles on the real world of work but when you’re in there, you see people who are working really hard at their craft, at what they do. It could be fart jokes, personal stories, one-liners, kind of absurd, but by and large you see people like skaters. This guy trying again and again to land that trick, practicing for two weeks. It’s weird, it could be some random bit about dogs, oh there he goes, he’s doing it again, and either you get it or you don’t. I liked drawing (in high school). Nobody cared. I’m from the Jersey shore. This is not a hotbed of art. If you got an A in art that actually hurt your GPA. You got penalized for taking the class. We didn’t have books in my house. Creativity was not something that was isolated and identified and valued. It was more like, oh you got this test score, good, you’re on the right track. What’s your major? Oh. No business? Turns out, I like drawing, playing guitar, telling jokes. With drawing, I stopped. It just went away. Years later in law school I started painting. Now, with what I do, I feel alive and challenged in a good way. I feel the sense of progress. I don’t really mind sucking at something as long as I’m getting a little better at it along the way.

The phrase that says it all here is “either you get it or you don’t.” That unknown comedian working weeks on a single bit, one minor joke, getting it just right, and maybe nobody in the audience gets it, nobody laughs, even though he got it right, on his own terms. Being an artist is a lonely, long-distance run, torch in hand, and yet, more often than not, previous few recognize the light of this flame you work so hard to keep alive.






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