Young Artist, Old News

New York City — Greene Street, SoHo, 1997

She’s innocent, very pretty, eager to create and live life to the fullest. That’s good. Most of the time you come across these young artists and they are preoccupied with death, despair and being perceived as ‘quirky’ or ‘weird’. It’s a pleasure to talk to her because she’s utterly unconcerned with any of that. She’s full of life, full of confidence. You love the way her eyes light up when she talks about art. It’s enough to pull anybody in.

Marilyn is a painter, and quite a talented one. One of her paintings is in the exhibition, part abstract, part surrealist. You’re very taken with the painting. It stands out amongst the other good and not-so good works. You aren’t here for Marilyn but for Jerry, your photographer friend, who has four photos on exhibit, but when you see Marilyn’s work, it stops you in your tracks.

She walks over to you, asks what you think of her painting. You tell her you love it. You don’t have a chance to say anything else because she launches into a dialogue about her influences, who her favorite painters are, what she thinks of the contemporary art scene in New York. As she talks, she keeps pushing a strand of her dirty blonde hair behind her ear, locks her big green eyes on yours. She has a cup of white wine in her other hand, which she hardly drinks.

‘It’s tough,’ she says, ‘You got so many people who like to stand in your way. They try to discourage you, make you feel like your pursuits aren’t worth anything.’

‘That’s always been the problem,’ you say. ‘The pursuit alone isn’t admirable anymore. People want to see results. We live in a very ‘bottom line’ culture. Too many poeple think you’re not a ‘real artist’ unless you make a million dollars.’

‘I know,’ she says, ‘But I’m not even talking about that. I’m talking about those who expect you to kiss their ass; the ones who have put themselves into a position of power, as if they’re experts or something. You should have seen the group that juried this show. They’re just young artists like me. You’d think you were presenting your work to some famous artist or something. It’s discouraging. I’m glad they chose one of my works, don’t get me wrong. It’s just the whole process…’

‘It’s the same old story,’ you say, ‘but it’s the artists who allow this to happen. These people wouldn’t have any importance whatsoever if the artists didn’t keep seeking them out for their approval.’

‘I know what you mean,’ she says, ‘but you have to play the game. Unfortunately. You ever notice the ones who set themselves up as experts are usually the least talented?’

‘How old are you, Marilyn?’

‘Twenty-two.’

You smile. Here’s someone who will eventually succeed, you thought. She’s just one of a million trying to ‘make it’, all of them trying to funnel through the limited amount of doors open to them. Regardless, she does it anyway, without any regard to what people think or how far into the ‘in crowd’ she is, that is, whoever the ‘in crowd’ actually are. These people certainly aren’t it. They’re just another art group, one of thousands who are trying their best to get their work out there. Marilyn is a true artist because she does what she does simply because she loves it.

However you understand her frustration. It’s the same for any artist working in any medium. There’s too much self-importance going around, too many cliques, too many who think they’re King of the Hill. You look around the expansive gallery and know that virtually none of these artists are ever going to ‘make it’ in the sense most people define it. They’ve already ‘made it’ but sadly most of them don’t know it yet.

You put a hand to her shoulder and walk her across the room to the large window overlooking Greene Street. It’s a misty evening. Quiet. Most of the galleries in the area are disappearing, moving north to Chelsea. SoHo is slowly becoming a strip mall. You wonder how Marilyn would have faired had she been born in a different time, back when SoHo wasn’t the gentrified mess it is today.

You appreciate Marilyn. The conversation is an art in and of itself. You can’t seem to find anyone who can actually talk anymore. The art of conversation seems to have died a cruel death and many of the folks in the room see it only as a tool to advance their careers. They’ll say what they think you want to hear. They’ll nod along and agree with everything you say, find everything you say ‘interesting’ but they don’t really care. They only care if talking to you benefits them in some way.

‘I appreciate you taking an interest in my work,’ Marilyn says.

‘Do you have a card? I’d like to know when you’ll be exhibiting again.’

She digs a card out of her pocketbook, hands it to you. A different painting is on the front, her contact information on the back. No address. Just a cell phone number and an email address.

‘It was nice talking to you’, you tell her. ‘You’re the first person here who actually even bothered to.’

She smiles, walks away, rejoins the group she came with.

You look around the room again, sip your wine. There are too many people who have such aspirations. There are at least forty artists in the show. Downstairs, in another gallery, there’s probably thirty to forty more. Across the street even more and all over New York. How does one even get noticed? Whatever the case, you’re glad Marilyn is smart enough to see through the bullshit.

As you rejoin your friends and listen to what they’re talking about with the other artists, you realize there’s a hell of a lot of it.

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