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Success, the Arts, and Honey Kassoy

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Honey Kassoy turns 94 this week. She's the most successful artist I know.

Not everybody's heard of Honey, or of her late husband, Bernie. Like many truly excellent artists -- she's most importantly a sculptor, he was a painter -- the marketplace largely passed them by and never gave either of them the recognition their work deserved.

A crime? If anything, that snub by the Soho mob was probably the best thing that could have happened to either Honey or Bernie, because it freed them to bring their visions to the world without compromise. And that, my friends, is true success in art.

People bamboozled by market success in our celebrity-soaked world may imagine otherwise, of course. To them, success in the arts is all about money, sparkling parties in sparkling lofts, and glowing reviews in the New Yorker.

As any real artist, critic, or collector will tell you, though, that means nothing. In fact it's the opposite of artistic success, because the market forces every human to meet its demands, or else. That compels artists to produce what sells -- this week.

I'm not saying there's anything wrong with making money by making art. If anything, that's a great success all by itself. And we all deserve to be paid for our work. But life is short and art is long, and if creating art is about immortality, then artists who produce only for the market are selling their birthright for a mess of pottage.

In the early 19th Century, for instance, Jacques-Louis David made a fortune celebrating the French Revolution and Napoleon. But who is David today compared with J.M.W. Turner? David set the tone for a century's worth of French painters, sure; but it's not much of a stretch to argue that Turner was art's passageway from the Renaissance to Modernism. Yet in their day, David was the superstar.

I'm not arguing that Honey is Turner. If nothing else, that's history's call. But Honey, respected by her peers but given a pass by the galleries, spent her life creating art according to her own lights. Shakespeare put it best: Her eyes "...glance from heaven to earth/ from earth to heaven/ and, as imagination bodies forth the forms of things unknown, / give to airy nothing a local habitation and a name." And the same goes for Bernie.

The result is art that can hold its own against any work I know. Look, for instance, at this sculpture by Honey called "The Women",

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and this untitled oil stick drawing by Bernie.

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Do you see anything here that's unequal to what you'd see at the Metropolitan? I don't think so.

If we're on Earth for anything, it's to perfect our selves and to give shape to what's in us. Certainly, that's the entire idea for artists. Honey and Bernie, freed from the distortions of the marketplace, gave birth to an entire body of work pure as they could make it, and a life built on creating it. It's up to the art world to recognize that, or not. But their work is there for anybody to see, and no one -- and nothing -- can take that away from them.

Happy birthday, Honey.

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