Over this past weekend I stumbled onto a PBS program, featuring a story about one of my favorite artists, Mark Rothko (1903-1970).The highlight of the segment was the fact that one of Rothko’s paintings recently sold for over 24 million US dollars. According to the spokesperson for the prestigious auction house that made the sale, such mind-boggling sums are less about the pleasure derived from the piece of art, and more about the investment with guaranteed re-sale potential. Would Rothko have cared about this? I’d like to think so.
Like many artists, his drawings started at an early age. Rothko’s parents indulged his “doodles”, but insisted that he go to college to study engineering. Which he dutifully did — until he didn’t. Rothko left university without a degree, spending his last dollars on a train ticket from his uncle’s home in Oregon (his family had emigrated from Europe) to New York City. He joined an artists’ community in the 1920’s. Rothko later wrote that he’d spent years living without enough food, warm clothing or shelter, but he felt driven to paint. More than this, he was driven to find his own style and method of painting which, at first, was unimpressive to New York society.
The Rothko story isn’t unique. Some of us may know, or have heard of, writers, painters, sculptors — as well as other creative-types — who were challenged by the process of living their most cherished dreams. If artists were the only ones suffering from such existential angst, we might think of it as an eccentricity. But a 2018 Quora article presented research showing that a large percentage of recent college graduates had pursued and received degrees in fields that actually held no interest for them. As one professor interviewed said, “How many of us would spend thousands of dollars on a product we knew nothing about, and cared even less about?”
Life regularly presents us with choices and options. We use our brains to analyze the facts and take action of some kind. We’re taught, in Western culture, to listen to our ‘heads’, as opposed to following our ‘hearts’. As adults, we like to believe that our choices are borne our of our own free will. But pressure comes from all directions, urging us, warning us, to tune-out our creative urges, tamp down our dreams, and lower our expectations about what our lives can be like. Recently I caught myself doing just that, as I was day-dreaming a new venture that felt exciting, but out of my Comfort Zone.
Then Mark Rothko’s story came to my rescue. What if this artist hadn’t risked life and limb, and even his own sanity, to create the the strangely-moving paintings that bubbled up from somewhere deep inside him? I can’t imagine a world without Rothko’s art; in the same way that I can’t imagine not being able to read poetry from women (like Sexton & Plath) for whom writing was as arduous as giving birth, and as terrifying as peering into the darkest of nights, in pain and in lonliness. I repeat my current mantra, once again: This courage; this is bravery. “This is Life…the very life of Life” (Deepak Chopra).