I knew a very fine classical guitar player once – not well – who told me he was quitting because he’d learned that he’d never be the world’s best guitarist. So sad, I thought. What about the music? What about his sheer love for the music?
There are many people who do art, then quit — and for a wide variety of reasons. I always favor the odd stories, like the one about my friend, Joan (who reads this blog by the way, so I hope I don’t misstate any of the specifics.) She was a child prodigy on the violin with a mother who, seeing a bright future for both of them, pushed hard. But at the age of seven, Joan fell in love with a much older, rather famous violinist and decided that she would one day marry him. She labored hard, at her mother’s behest and to further her own dream, and at a still tender age became a student at Julliard and a student of — well, you know who. She married the man, quit playing the violin, and had four children with him before he died at the age of 79.
Joan still loves music and both her later husbands were musicians. But she’d achieved her goal and her own fiddling was no longer relevant. I guess.
Then there’s June, who was one of the people discovered by Don Sunseri and GRACE. I talked about GRACE in two of my earliest posts (February 24 and 25 of this year). Don’s program encouraged people to do art in nursing homes, schools and community centers. He provided the tools and a lot of support and attention to people with no formal training but with vision. Their work was always unique, always intriguing.
June had never committed marker or brush to paper before, but in short order turned out a dozen-plus paintings, all of them interesting and some of them quite impressive. Just last night I remembered what June said when someone asked her how she knew when a painting was finished. Her heart, she said, beat faster. Or at least that’s how I remember what she said. Anyway, June painted and then she quit. That was what she wanted to do, that and apparently no more. She is now 90 years old and in the hospital with one thing and another and your prayers, if you’re a prayer, would be most welcome.
One of the most famous quitters in history was Arthur Rimbaud, the French poet, who, in his late teens, wrote poetry that profoundly influenced the world of literature. Victor Hugo called him “an infant Shakespeare.” He stopped writing poetry at the age of 20. As far as I know, he made no memorable pronouncements about it. Given that his work was accompanied by a feverish life full of drugs and passionate sex, his surrender to a more ordered life may also have meant the end of his writing.
More commonly, artists stop working because they grow weary of trying to make a career happen. They may decide they’re not good enough, which isn’t always true. Frequently, they don’t have the stomach for the marketing of their gifts. I first met Rhea when she was a student at the Manhattan School of Music. She was charming, very attractive, and sang beautifully. For years after, she continued to study and to sing at every opportunity. She worked at one job and another (rehabilitating pipe organs in Boston!), married twice, and had nearly finished raising two children before she decided to give up her ambitions for a singing career. She could sing continually, she could get better and better, but she couldn’t sell herself, and that was almost as important.
I’ve quit doing art too, and not always for the most comprehensible reasons. I never quit writing although I often didn’t get around to it. Another problem altogether, I think. But I did stop doing photography. I returned to an earlier state where I’d been utterly unable to take a decent picture.
For a number of years, I actually took quite good photographs. I also started reading about photography and marveling at what its invention had meant to humanity, and admiring work by some of its best practitioners. And then I stopped, not the reading but the act of photographing. Something about turning people and places that were lively and exciting into still-lifes. Something about the distance the camera created between me and my subject. Maybe one or both of those. I don’t really know. Suddenly, I was lousy at it all over again.
Creativity is a complicated business. Writers who decide to be literary agents. Composers who grow old and weary. Poets who run out of words. Painters who make the statement they want to make, and quit. Dancers who can no longer dance.
As well as the many, many people who just keep doing art because it’s what they need to do.