Monday, 25 October 2010


In 1923, C.B. Dodson of Richmond Virginia entered this painting in a competition for young illustrators:

Alas, he came in second and nobody ever heard of him again. Of course, nobody ever heard of the first place winner either:

C.B. and Florence took their places in that long, long line of anonymous artists who yearned for a whiff of artistic immortality.

It is easy to spot such artists. They're the ones who remain hunched over a drawing board or computer, continuing to work on a picture long after someone was willing to pay for it.

For some, this dedication paid off. Norman Rockwell traded away his personal life for his art, often working twelve hours a day, six days a week on his paintings. Near the end of his life he observed, "The story of my life is, really, the story of my pictures." Rockwell may not have spent much time playing with his kids or lingering in bed with his wife on cold New England mornings, but he could feel warmed by the knowledge that future generations would remember his name and respect his achievement.

Rockwell's fame and fortune are the exception, not the rule. Most artists end at a place where every brush stroke that once seemed so important is erased forever, and every inspired color choice is forgotten. As they arrive at that final destination, they understand that the extra hours they robbed from life to invest in their craft, hoping for some future return on their investment, is equity never to be repaid.

It's not like the gods hid the price of glory. Long ago, they made it clear to Achilles that if he wanted to be remembered, he would have to sacrifice his life.

From The Iliad by the Provensens

They explained that if he fought in the Trojan war, he would be killed but his name would live forever in glory. On the other hand, if he turned and sailed for home he could enjoy a long, happy life surfing internet porn and playing Wii in his bathrobe but no one would remember his name.

Now Achilles loved playing Wii just as much as you or I, so he raged against the unfairness of this choice. The pain in his famous soliloquy remains fresh today, thousands of years later:
The same honor waits for the coward and the brave. They both go down to Death, the fighter who shirks and the one who works to exhaustion.... Two fates bear me on to the day of my death. If I hold out here and I lay siege to Troy my journey back home is gone, but my glory never dies. If I voyage back to the home I love, my pride, my glory dies, true, but the life that's left me will be long....
When his hour of decision arrived, Achilles chose to sacrifice his life on the hardscrabble soil of Troy. (If he hadn't, we wouldn't still be talking about him now).

In some ways, Achilles got a better deal than poor C.B. Dodson. At least Achilles had a guarantee from the gods that his sacrifice would be repaid with eternal glory. Artists get no such guarantee. They have to gamble their lives away like a poker chip at the Casino d'Art. There are plenty of talented, hard working artists who die anonymous deaths, and plenty of untalented hacks who hit the jackpot and become legends. Who would play even a slot machine with such terrible odds?

Unlike the fortunate Achilles, our choice is beset by our human limitations. We are surrounded by our mortality on one side, which requires us to make haste with our commitments, and total uncertainty on the other side about whether those commitments and their accompanying sacrifices will have any meaning whatsoever. Compared to these crummy alternatives, Achilles' choice was a real bargain.

As a result, we are forced to work harder for our solace than Achilles did. The glory of our work is different from the glory earned by Achilles. Ours is sadder, more poignant and more fragile. But I am convinced it is no less glorious.

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