This morning on NPR, I was listening to a report about a museum in Oregon, which will receive a Van Gogh painting, "Ox-Cart," from a regional family. The painting is from Van Gogh's early career and unlike his most famous work is quite dark. The reporter went to a local coffee shop to gather some responses, and this comment stopped me in my tracks. When talking about Van Gogh's sunflowers and how those sunflowers have been branded on all manner of things from mugs to posters to bumper stickers, a woman named Sally Cleveland, who is an artist herself, said this:
"I would rather submit to obsurity than be a coffee mug."
I was taken aback...what? I love Van Gogh's sunflowers and whenever I see them they make me happy, whether they are on a mug or on the wall as a print of the original. Whenever I see a famous work on a magnet or a mug, I am happy to recall the original. I do not presume that the mug itself is trying to be "art," merely a representation, an artifice...but wait..isn't that the definition of the arts? Certainly I can see the intrinsic value in the original painting versus the "mock-u-painting" on the mug, but if it recalls to mind the original, isn't that worthy?
Of course, the real reason the comment brought me up short is because it touches on my medium as well...the written word...and my ego. It seems a brave comment to make for an artist. What is it that I aim to do with my work? I aim to publish as much as possible in the best venues possible. Does this make me vain? Would I "stoop" to having my poem on a mug? A niggling thought in the back of my mind suggests I might. Would I choose to "submit to obscurity"? No, while I know I'm probably never going to be on Oprah's bookclub list, I do hope to find some willing audience somewhere. And this recalls another letter from Emily Dickinson to T. W. Higginson. This one from 7 June 1862, when E.D. says this:
"I smile when you suggest that I delay 'to publish' -- that being foreign to my thought, as Firmament to Fin --
If fame belonged to me, I could not escape her -- if she did not, the longest day would pass me on the chase -- and the approbation of my Dog, would forsake me -- then -- My Barefoot Rank is better -- "
I have read and re-read this letter for years, struggling with my own emotions about publishing. Is the artist who works at the art without thinking of publishing ("barefoot") a purer artist? How much does audience play a role in the creative process? How much does the ego-boost of a publication help push my writing along? Would I continue to write, against all odds, if I received nothing but rejections? I doubt it. For whom do I write? For myself, of course, but I have always written in an effort to communicate, and that implies an audience.
Where is the line between the mass-market mug and Dickinson's "Barefoot Rank"?