There is a factor affecting everything I have done in the past couple of years, which I didn't want to share with you until it was finished, and about the sharing of which I retain some doubts even now. But since the question of art is as much a moral question as anything else, I think it is best for me as an artist, and hopefully for you as an artist or art lover as well, if I say whatever I have to say with the largest amount of honesty I can muster.
I committed a crime. When I was very young, and very stupid, I got an independent subcontractor job, so I didn't file or pay taxes from 1997 through 2008. I used the money to shoot short films and draw and paint. A friend whom I see far too rarely, upon hearing of this, described me and my crime as "world's smartest man makes world's stupidest mistake."
The IRS, whose job it is to notice this sort of stunt, does eventually catch up with you, and if you've made them work at it, they are not very happy when they arrive. What I did, over the past couple of years, was pay eleven years of back taxes. People like me, and probably you, have a federal income tax bracket between 20% and 30%. I had fixed back tax payments to make, but an income reflective of the economy at large. Sometimes my bracket went up to 110%.
LIFE WITHOUT MONEY
On the 28th of every month, I had to make a payment. At first, I thought that I could add these payments to my ordinary schedule of expenses with relatively little disruption. Not so. Things began to fall away. Travel. Time off. Books. Plays with friends. Movies with friends. Coffee with friends. Friends. Frappucinos. Cigarettes. Food. It's very interesting what you find you can live without, when you have first committed to living without money.
As you can see from these pictures, eliminating cigarettes and about 1,500 calories a day from my schedule transformed my appearance. It could be argued that in the context of the economy of plenty, a vow of poverty will do wonders for your health.
It was not all fun and games, and I do not recommend it. I had to make 23 payments. The consequences of even a single failure were horrifying, so there could never be a failure. But when they went in the mail, most of my checks were not backed up by funds. I figured out that it took about a week for the IRS to deposit their check, and I usually needed that week. I was sending checks for thousands of dollars to the federal government while my bank account was empty.
On the 28th day of every month, the clock ticked down to zero, and reset. Getting to the payment was a different harrowing adventure each time. Over the course of each month, I could feel the spring winding tight; winding toward snapping. Losing 35 pounds wasn't only a matter of starving myself. It was also a matter of stress. The stress gouged slices out of me. It kept me awake at night in a wide-eyed sweat, panicking. At one point, sections of two adjacent molars splintered, as happens in those nightmares which are interpreted to be about aging. It was six weeks before I could afford to see a dentist. I spent the interval nervously working on the fresh gap with toothpicks and mouthwash; one does not want an infection in exposed dentin to travel down the throat, and lodge in the heart.
I felt, during this repayment period, that I gained some insight into the concept of blade running. Here's my idea of what it means. It means that the road is infinitesimally narrow, so you are in constant peril of falling off it, into the chasm on the left, or the chasm on the right. And yet the road is sharp, so you can never put your foot down or the road will cut you. Therefore you must run and never stop, touching the ground only briefly with each step, hoping to reach the end of the terrible course.
YES, I THOUGHT OF THAT
The design of this particular repayment program is very careful. It is calibrated to be appealing on paper, and to be slightly beyond your ability to pull off in reality. I think probably most people enrolled in this program fail, by design. Failure provides the government with more rewards than success. It triggers fines that dwarf the payment amount.
I also think most people enrolled in the program, at one point or another, entertain two thoughts:
1. robbing a bank
I thought of both of those. But not seriously. As regards the first temptation, robbing banks is wrong, and I'd probably be extraordinarily bad at it. Also, bank robbery should be accompanied by a certain joie de vivre, a devil-may-care rakishness. Robbing a bank to pay your taxes goes against the entire spirit of the thing.
As regards the second, circumstances can depress me, but I don't think I'm naturally depressive. The circumstances were bad, but they weren't lethally bad. Absent a native tendency toward lethal collapse, the idea made some analytic sense, but ultimately, it was absurd. If I ever do kill myself, I hope I'll have enough sense of style to do it because I deduced something horrifying about the universe.
One of the things people don't like about junkies is that they're out to turn everything into drugs. All the glittering, delicate, diverse structures that make a human life interesting, beautiful, and worthwhile - a junky melts them all down into a single fungible good, cash, to exchange for a single commodity, drugs. There is nothing that can make you feel shitty about your own life, and life in general, like the sight of a junky dissolving it all in acid.
Junkies are a special real-world case of the vampire. The vampire is an organism addicted to blood. That is, it is a mindless parasite which has to drink life. Whose life, the vampire doesn't care. Inside its owner, blood is a substrate supporting individuality. Outside its owner, it is as fungible as cash. A vampire steals the underpinning of what makes me me, and you you, and turns it into shit. It sees a human being in terms of so-and-so many grams of phosphorus, zinc, carbon, magnesium, and so on, and asks what their resale value is.
In abstract terms, vampirism consists of two elements:
1. Subversion of the specific, high value of the form matter takes to the generic low value of the substance of the matter itself.
2. Parasitic addiction to some element in the low value substance.
In point of fact, if you don't have massive savings, there is no way to pay 110% of your income in taxes -- it can't be done. I took as much extra work as I could, really crappy extra work, and I couldn't bridge the gap. I hustled painting sales along as rapidly as possible. That didn't bridge the gap either. Life in the 110% tax bracket, with horrific penalties for failure to pay, will turn you, my friends, into a fucking vampire. There is absolutely nothing glamorous or romantic about what I've just been through. It made me a worse person.
How did I express this vampirism? I monetized my relationships with my family and friends.
Can friendship and love be monetized? That is, can friendship and love be converted into their cash equivalents? Yes they can. It's just something you shouldn't ever do, ever.
People who seriously could not afford it, stepped in to help me out with the incessant but irregular gaps in my ability to make payments. I seem to have emerged from this brutal period without having lost any of the people I love. But I abused their love for me. I found out what kind of pressure on me it would take for me to turn around and melt down their compassion for cash. Which is to say, I found my price.
People lent me money with unbelievable grace and generosity. I was humbled by the outpouring of care which enveloped me when I thought I had nowhere left to turn.
I'd like to tell you a little more about it, to make it clear how this worked. Let me allow two examples to stand for the whole. Many people helped; but these two did so in such a way as to make for good stories.
One friend of mine is what you and I would call a practicing Christian. I think she would say about herself that she is trying to become a Christian. I am Jewish, of course, but I know the Christian virtues when I see them.
This friend lent me money a few times. Each time, the number was a little strange; it was always $50 more than I had asked for. The first time it happened, I asked her about it. She said, "Don't worry about paying the $50 back. That's for sushi. Go get some sushi. You should enjoy life a little."
This act of hers reminded me of something. It was a while before I was able to put my finger on it, but I did, in the end. It is this statement, one of the most profound of mysteries:
And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloak also.
That's Matthew 5:40, the Sermon on the Mount, the verse right after the one about the other cheek.
Another friend participated in this astonishing virtue-fest by a means apart from money. He is my accountant. He wasn't my accountant when this began; he was simply a friend who was an accountant. He is a rollicking guy with a profane sense of humor. I thought of him as just another nice person that I knew. I happened, one time in 2008, to mention that the letters I was getting from the IRS had taken on a threatening tone.
He asked to take a look at my case, and once he did, he asked me to let him handle it. I said, "Well, how much will your services cost?" He said, "You're talking about thousands of dollars, but don't pay me. You're going to need all of your money for the government."
Not a month has gone by since 2008 that he hasn't worked on my case. He negotiated the terms of my repayment. He talked with the many IRS agents, well-disposed and otherwise, who handled my case. He walked me through the process. And he is still working on it.
He has gotten nothing out of this effort, absolutely nothing. And he has never acted pious about any of it; he has remained a rollicking, profane guy.
I have long believed that real virtue does not advertise itself, that it likely does not even recognize itself. It goes about doing good simply because it is good, and moves on without regret, without grievance, and without arrogance. My accountant has provided me with as profound an example of virtue as I have ever encountered. He spent years saving me, and continues to act as if he had not. You should all be so lucky as to have protectors like him when your hour comes.
That said, none of this should be taken to reflect any glory onto me. Just because I can recognize goodness does not make me good. Just because my crimes have inspired virtue all around me does not redeem me. There is a certain intellectual narrative, widespread and reaching as far up the literary food chain as, embarrassingly, Borges. In this narrative, Judas is the real hero of the Passion, because without Judas's betrayal, the story of Christ cannot reach its zenith. People constantly think up this narrative for themselves, and always think they are very clever for having thought of it. We all came up with it in my high school, because we were very clever too.
It is, however, incorrect. Simply because Christ had it in him to play that much of a good guy, doesn't mean that the villainy of the bad guy is any less villainous. It stays villainous.
I know that Judas remains the villain because I've inspired the shining virtue, and I'm still the villain of the story. I'm the one who slapped the right cheek, the one who sued for the coat, the one who compelled that a mile be walked.
What would have happened if Judas hadn't been around to betray Christ? The world would have been a less fucked-up place, that's what. I made people suffer.
I used to have a fantasy. Perhaps you have had a similar one. In this fantasy, someday I would get locked up in solitary confinement with nothing but a pencil and paper. In this state of isolation, I fantasized, I would finally be able to spend some real time thinking, and get some real work done, good work.
I don't have this fantasy anymore, because I kind of lived it, and my suspicion about the effects of solitary was true. It was, however, the opposite of fun.
There is an art angle here. I believe in telling you the utter truth about me, because if I'm not training myself to use the truest truth I know as the clay of my work, then my work will never become so good as it might get. I have to be my own clay. But that alone is not enough to justify this post. If there were no art angle here, we would be solidly in the territory of rank exhibitionism.
So let me identify the paradox of the situation: these two years of hell made me a substantially worse person, less honorable, less charitable, meaner, shorter tempered. But they made me a much, much better artist.
We have talked before about the questionable relationship between being an asshole and being a good artist. We haven't talked very much about the equally questionable relationship between suffering a lot and being a good artist. I resist the idea that the one leads, simplistically, to the other. Surely many people have suffered terribly and remained shitty artists; and surely many others were terrific artists despite laying their heads down on a comfy pillow every night of their long and healthy lives.
I have suffered a lot, and been an asshole a lot, over the past couple of years. But I don't think that was what made me a better artist. Not only that, anyway. More on that in a bit. I think that mostly what made me a better artist was being deprived of everything but time.
Up until 2010, I had a procedure: have idea for figurative painting, hire model, paint painting. And I was making linear progress with this - my figure painting was getting better all the time.
When my income abruptly dropped to -$1000/month, my procedure collapsed. I could no longer hire four models a week, or three, or two, or, ultimately, one. My web of relationships in the model community began to sever. The models I was friends with are still friends - but we no longer have the camaraderie of active co-workers. I went from the community of work to solitary labor.
I had to turn my eye to new things. I had to find things that were not based on live modeling, but which I believed in. What I had done with my taste in art by other people, I had to do with my own work: I had to find a way to breach the borders.
So what did I do? I cast my mind back over existing resources -- interests, visual references, whatever was handy. It was as if a dam broke. First, I got around to a cityscape I'd been meaning to paint for ages, based on a photograph taken by my friend Jade Olson:
Then, I applied my lifelong fascination with heavy industrial parts to painting:
I painted two of those.
Then I started a series of hand paintings, using a reference picture of a model, a marvelous dancer named Manou whom I could only paint from shoots we did when she visited New York - she had moved to Berlin.
This painting was selected by the staff of Charles Saatchi to be hung at the restaurant of his art gallery in London, a space they call Gallery Mess and use for showing off favorite works from their anyone-can-post art website. I meant to do more of the hands paintings, and still do, but my rate of ideas was starting to spiral out of control.
Next I resurrected an odd project I had given up on some years before. What happened was, I was interested in depicting the most intense human situations. The first ones that came to mind were sex and warfare. It's fairly easier and safer to get access to the sex part. I hooked up with a pair of models who were dating at the time and had been looking for an artist to draw or paint them having sex. We did a few sessions which, much to my surprise, were a little traumatic for me (not their fault at all). I did some drawings -- fairly badly, because I had not yet learned to loosen up my technique for fluid situations - and I shot a whole assload of photographs for later use.
Now, I returned to those photographs, and applied a brewing interest I had in thicker paint application:
I painted four of those.
Then I turned my thinking quite seriously to the photographs of pond microbes my friend Erika Johnson was shooting with her home-modified webcam. I got her permission to start painting from her work, and I started my Microbiota series:
I will have a longer account of that project for you soon. A salient point to raise about it here is that I was repetitively listening to Muse's song "Uprising." I had heard a snippet of it in the trailer for the fairly thoroughly forgotten Tom Cruise/Cameron Diaz thriller Knight and Day, and eventually got around to listening to the whole thing.
This song has the level of anger and insight of a 16-year-old boy:
They will not control us
We will be victorious.
From what I understand, the group appeals mostly to 14-year-old girls. And me. Whatever. I liked the song a lot, and I listened to it a lot. I was doing good work, but I was in a foul mood and I was feeling very persecuted and sorry for myself. I was the collapsar.
We have now covered January through July of 2011. My back tax payments started in September of 2010. It took a couple months for the pain to hit home. Another couple months for me to adjust my method. And then the torrent.
I painted seven microbe paintings and had my first-ever two-person show in October of 2011, in Pittsburgh. I nearly bounced the check I used to pay for the postcards. And the car rental.
Amid the wreckage, I could just about squeeze in semi-regular work with one model. One. That was it. So whatever I was doing with that model, it had to fucking count. The price was too high for it not to.
I painted a painting I called Blue Leah, inspired by something Patricia Watwood painted, as detailed here.
I was already sensitized to thinking in series -- I wanted the ideas I was working on to be rich enough to support more than one painting. When I was done with that painting, I thought that there was still room in this idiom for something more. I decided to paint a second Blue Leah:
And then I recognized that this was it -- that if I was focusing on one thing, it was the heightened, isolated, necessary Form. I was learning about this Form from the industrial paintings, the hand paintings, the sex paintings, and the microbe paintings. Now it was looping right back around to my nearly-abandoned figurative work. Here I was finally painting the special case of the Form I had always wanted to reach: the fundamental Figure, mighty, irresistible, inevitable. So I painted ten of them. Here's the most recent - I finished it a few weeks ago:
I have one more to go, and then they're all going in my first Manhattan solo show, at Dacia Gallery on October 18th. (Come on by if you get a chance.)
This is what time and deprivation of resources gave me. They turned me from a talented guy making paintings into an artist.
NO COMPRESSION WITHOUT CONTRITION
I told you we'd get back to the suffering part though, and here we are. The phrase "no compression without contrition" appeared in a dream I had one time -- it does not literally mean what it means. It means that no progress (compression) is possible without discipline and suffering (contrition). Words play strange roles in dreams.
The concept of hunger has been important to me for a long time. I struggled to verbalize it, until a friend of mine happened to tell me about a little movie from 1976, called Stay Hungry.
In this movie, a very young and very bulky Arnold Schwarzenegger, trying to inspire the best in another character, tells him to, you know, stay hungry. Or something like that. I don't know. I never watched the movie, although I found Schwarzenegger's comment very inspiring and clarifying, to the extent that I knew what it was, which was no great extent.
I live in terror of ceasing to be hungry. It turns out that being literally hungry -- actually, if slowly, starving to death -- is a very legitimate and effective form of being hungry. This hunger, and my endless and highly inventive moral self-condemnation, and my witnessing of the pain I have caused all around me, are sufferings. Other artists have suffered more than I have, but these sufferings are mine.
I have always had a will to be great. My personal, particular sufferings have tempered it. I am like somebody on the run, ten paces ahead of the executioner. And at the same time, I am disgusted with myself.
One time recently, I was describing to my friend Mike, a guy whose friendship has helped to define my life, the strange lucidity and will involved in intense deprivation and self-disgust. This reminded Mike of something Ernest Hemingway had to say, in an essay entitled, appropriately enough, "Hunger Was Good Discipline":
You got very hungry when you did not eat enough in Paris because all the bakery shops had such good things in the windows and people ate outside at tables on the sidewalk so that you saw and smelled the food.
...you could always go into the Luxembourg museum and all the paintings were heightened and clearer and more beautiful if you were belly-empty, hollow-hungry. I learned to understand Cezanne much better and to see truly how he made landscapes when I was hungry. I used to wonder if he were hungry too when he painted; but I thought it was possibly only that he had forgotten to eat. [NOTE: if you are painting, you can forget that you are hungry all day long]
...Outside on the rue de l'Odeon I was disgusted with myself for having complained about things. I was doing what I did of my own free will and I was doing it stupidly. I should have bought a large piece of bread and eaten it instead of skipping a meal. I could taste the brown lovely crust. But it is dry in your mouth without something to drink. You God damn complainer. You dirty phony saint and martyr, I said to myself. You quit journalism of your own accord. You have credit and Sylvia would have loaned you money. She has plenty of times. Sure. And then the next thing you would be compromising on something else. Hunger is healthy and the pictures do look better when you are hungry.
Hemingway's convulsion of self-disgust, entangled with his heightened awareness, is the very truth. I have, lately, frequently had enough money for canvas, or food, but not both. I chose canvas. The canvas means something, when you have to pay something hard to pay, to get it; and that compels you not to waste it on something trivial.
Can suffering make you a better artist? Absolutely, if you had being better in you to begin with.
Can being an asshole make you a better artist? Regrettably, this too is possible. Assholism is a symptom, not a cause. The cause is casting off received wisdom and untested assumptions. To cast them off, if you've got your own inspiration to replace them with, allows you to innovate in your art. But if you go ahead and live without them, you can easily become a bruisingly awful person to be around. We have all got to stop forgiving ourselves for so many things.
I have committed all of the doubtful acts I am describing here. Intense guilt, loathing, fury, deprivation, loss, and hunger made me a worse human being. They also made me a healthier organism and a better artist.
This was one, highly successful, method. I am going to work on a different method now. I am not done growing yet.
There has got to be a better way.
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