Igor now hangs in my bedroom, but for many years he hung in my parents’ bedroom along with four other watercolors. Igor and those pieces were painted by my grandfather, Max Bachofen. Igor is unusual because my grandfather mainly painted landscapes. Far as I know, Igor’s one of only two portraits my grandfather ever painted.
In recent years, Papa Max’s artwork has become somewhat collectable. His paintings have shown up at auction and he’s even hung in the Cleveland Museum of Art. (Though that piece is an oil and I think his best work was done in watercolor.)
I never knew Papa Max. I think I met him once when he was very old and my uncle had tracked him down. He abandoned my mother’s family when she was a child. He was part of the WPA program which allowed him to travel around painting during the Depression. He married again and had another family. My mother and her siblings were plenty surprised when they found out about this other family.
I bring this up because as I was reading a bio of Papa Max, I realized that the destruction that he had wrought in his family wasn’t there in that short description of his life. And it got me to thinking about how we tend to imbue artists/writers/musicians with special qualities based on their work. If we like the work, we think we’ll like the person.
And as writers/musicians/artists we tend to think we’re changing the world in some deep and meaningful way through our work, when the best we can expect to do is change ourselves through our work. Yes, there are the rare artists who have really changed the world – but they’re the exceptions, not the rule. Most of us muddle along hoping that we’ll touch someone with our work – and, occasionally, we do.
But the reality is that we aren’t our work. No matter how fantastic we are at our craft, that isn’t who we are. It’s what we do. There’s a real danger in confusing the two. And there’s also a danger for the recipients of the work to think that they have an intimacy with the artist (using this generically here) because of their exposure to the work. From people who think they “know” what you’re “really” writing about, to stalkers who won’t leave you alone, the power of art to affect another person is unpredictable.
And I think the Internet has compounded this problem. The false intimacy of blogging makes people think they’re closer than they actually are.
At a party a couple of years ago, an acquaintance of mine asked me how he could have a “deeply intimate connection” to another person. I told him he needed to stop blogging about what was happening in his personal life. My opinion was that sharing the intimate details of your life where anyone can read them is not going to lead to real intimacy.
He did find a lovely girl. He blogged something personal about her once. She told him if he ever did that again, they were through. He’s stopped blogging, realizing that intimacy isn’t a spectator sport.
As writers, we tend to cannibalize some of our life for our craft anyway. But that work isn’t our life. It’s a cunningly crafted version of our life. And acquaintances and friends may think they know which bits are real and which bits are made up, but they don’t because that’s something only the writer knows for certain.
Brad Denton and I have chatted about this phenomenon before. Brad thinks that the only real truth is in fiction. He thinks that the impulse to hide ourselves and present a particular face to the world makes works of autobiography an exercise in deceit. The minute we start to tell “the truth” about ourselves, we begin to lie. No one wants to reveal those deeply embarrassing or shameful things we’ve all done. We are all inclined when talking about ourselves to dissemble just a little, enough that we don’t appear in a bad light.
I think Brad’s on to something in the notion that fiction is the only way to tell the truth. But the thing with fiction is that the only person who knows what’s true about the author in the work is the author. Everyone else is going to project their own truth onto the work. It’s unavoidable.
So, when you read this, don’t think you know me. This is just a sliver of who I am. And the next time you read a book, love a painting, sing along to a song, don’t think you know those people either. You like their work, but you don’t know them.
P.S. Many thanks to Brad for photographing Igor.