An Essay: Nero’s Violin

By Judson Vereen at Poetic Outlaws: It was sometime in the evening and I was downstairs in the basement with my father. He was polishing wood. I was painting. I was sixteen. He was fifty-something. I had been painting only a year at that time and it was all I could seem to do. School was a formality—I never took it seriously. Making art took a hold of me.

I had converted part of the large basement to a studio where I could work at night. Paintings would stack up by the dozens. My father, without looking up, said “who do you think you’re going to make all this art for, anyways?” It is not that my father did not understand or value art in a meaningful way—it is that he understood too well the lack of demand for it.

Nevertheless, I had no real answer for him. Couldn’t say much as to who it was for. That was twenty-three years ago, and I still don’t have an answer. But as each day passes, my answer can only go one of two ways; it was either strictly for myself, or the whole of humanity. There is no in between, there is no third choice.

When I decided to quit my private school education early (I had no place among the upper echelons of high society), to drop out of high school and move to New York, I was reborn. In Brooklyn, I painted late into the night, as always, and never sold one painting in my time in New York. I tried like a dog, but it never happened. Didn’t matter. So far, so good. No one understood what I was after, not really, not even myself. I haven’t made a decipherable decision since. To onlookers, my life appears to have little rhythm to it—to have no connection to those things which ground a man, or the things that are supposed to.

However, I see my life as not at all chaotic. I have grown accustomed to it. Everything makes sense to me. So far, so good.

This is nothing new, of course, with artists and creative types throughout history. My family once thought I was psychotic or insane, friends have certainly abandoned me, or kept me at arm’s length. Some people think I will stand up on a table, crash the room, or such. I have been a madman before, but I am also old fashioned, further perplexing my peers.

These days, I think little on New York, but I have an affection for that place deep down inside me. It was the place I had invented myself—that I began to understand the perplexing rhythms of my very own life—or, to say the least, that my life did have rhythm. That booms and busts would come, things would fall apart, tragedy would ensue, the world could be cold or it could be warm. I say invented myself because this was a choice, to leave what was comfortable behind. To leave Georgia and my home. I was sick of the net, I would say.

At the age of sixteen, things are given to you. I wanted, in some desperate way, to be uncomfortable, to know for sure that it was me that I could count on, it was me who I had to believe in, it was me who I made my art for. Also, I needed to see for myself what the bottom of the barrel looked like. I knew that college or an art institute would be certain death for my take on things-academia has ruined the artist and writer in many ways since—but this was more of an instinct, perhaps more of a premonition than it was anything I could robustly articulate at the time. Instead, I looked at paintings, poems, songs, architecture, isolation, strangers in the street, the gutters-you see what I mean.

That was my real education.

Those nights in that cold loft, and strolls down Bedford Avenue and Halsey in the Bedford-Stuy with little money, few friends, still basically a child, were the foundation of my spirit-there was no winning or losing come to think of it. Everything was in its place in the universe. If there was chaos and loss, so be it. I would become a man of my own invention. It was my life, always would be. There was no chance that I was wrong about this. I knew it in my bones. So far, so good.

And so what if people look at you a little cock-eyed, with a head tilt and a question mark forever stamped on their frontal cortex? The artist must find, or invent, that inner resolve against people pleasing.

Art: Judson Vereen, a multidisciplinary artist and author born in 1986 in Atlanta, Georgia. Additionally, he is the author of two books of poetry, Like a Bird Knows To Sing, 62 Poems from Judson Vereen, and American Pleasure.

My encounters with critics are minimal, yet explosive. They will rip everything apart if they can. Right off the bat, they want what they want, and if they don’t get it, then it is you that has failed. Yes, one must rally against this. Must exercise and train that life-rhythm that obeys no communal sense of time, space, or even logic. This may be what we call insanity, but it is also the stuff of the dreamers. And that is what I mean about academia, critics, the overly philosophical—why I rally so hard against it. It’s the one thing I have—no real training. No diploma. No degree. If a man goes to business school, we then call him a business man. To law school, then a lawyer.

We must hold the artist to a higher standard, if “life” is to be their domain. Life begins where the classroom ends—unless one takes the classroom everywhere they go—too much school, it poisons the mind. And so goes the fate of the artists today—to forever be an art student. To make art as if it were a job; to put on exhibitions as if they were homework. God, it bores me to tears. It bores everyone to tears.

The art schools put the art out front, like a factory does its product, like a canned good. But the artist must know it is not about what one creates, but how one lives. The greatest production of the artist is their own life—to make no compromises, to make no concessions, to take no gruff, to refuse to be bullied into or out of this or that way of life. No work of art can compare to the courage of a far-flung artist, travelling through the void, making sparks of life here and there, setting fire to this or that, and ultimately, just being. Being without fear. Without reservation.

Yes, the artist has been corrupted-the artist is playing catch up in a game they need not play—just being, is the way. If one does not know what to do, then do nothing, I say. I love to work in a fury, but I also like doing nothing. I am never busy. I am always willing to walk away from my work for a stroll, a chat with a friend, a drink or two ‘til late.

In this way, one can eradicate the need for hope, prayer, faith, preparedness—all things that lead to the future are doomed. The fate of the artist is also doomed, but better that they know it and just get on with living.

The artist has only one minute at a time, each minute could be explosive, but at the very least, those moments are the artist’s and the artist’s alone. Such is true for all mankind—which is why the classroom is unnecessary, and nobody is prevented from being an artist, except those who think it’s their job. Sounds like a sick joke, but it is true. I know how I sound, but I mean it. Art is not a serious thing. There is nothing that should be done more seriously than being silly as much as possible.

In San Francisco, I was living like an addict. I ate up everything-I don’t need to ask where those years went. In my last year, I stopped paying rent, waited for the ax to fall, was evicted from my apartment and could finally breathe again. Not too far thereafter, I was living in Los Angeles in my car. Night after night, for months, it was Echo Park lakeside, strumming my guitar, sipping from a bottle of wine, singing songs, watching the fountain burst up into the sky and back down again.

I was happiest then. I had little money, but nothing to buy, nowhere to be. So far so good. I never bought into the idea that I was living in my car. It was not that I deserved it, or had asked for it, or could not have gone somewhere else, it’s that my current state-it just was. And so, to be content within this detour came naturally.

Every day, every evening was an adventure. I wrote poetry by streetlamp; in the morning I drank coffee in the cafés like everyone else. Nothing mattered, nothing gave way-I finally got out of the car and into a huge loft studio where I began to paint again. Los Angeles—if America is not careful, it will all end up looking like LA. I tried to find a place for my work, but the whole town is littered with art students and activists.

I lived and painted in that studio for six years—never had a show, never a compliment on my work. But what’s the difference? So far, so good. I should have stayed in the car in Los Angeles, or promptly left everything after living in my car was pre-scripted. I worked like a dog, caught up in the games and races fit for vermin. When I left, I left quietly.

There is often a funny debate, a curious phenomenon on how to describe man or the fate of all men- are we a doomed tribe? I say tribe, because we are infinitesimally puny-or are we comedians, able to laugh out loud at our own demise? Surely, there will be a demise, whether it is on this planet, or another one. I can’t help but picture all the wonderful paintings, the odd structures, the Parthenon, Big Ben, the Mona Lisa, the Golden Gate Bridge, all going up in some catastrophic roar, which will truly be silent by any measure—that’s it!

All of humanity, up in smoke!

All the great paintings, gone in a celestial, spiritual poof! And my art, too. And I have painted some good paintings. Painted lots of bad ones, too, but everybody has done that. And what my paintings look like are not at all important. What is important, truly, are only the moments when they are being painted. They exist only as a tomb, a crepuscule for a time passed; they exist only as evidence of their own creation.

Nothing more, nothing less.

More here.