I accompanied my daughter on a field trip yesterday to the Art Gallery of Ontario. Withstanding the general mayhem of a traveling troupe of third graders, it was a lovely day. I might have wished, though that, our guide were a better storyteller because it’s the brooding and beautiful stories behind the pictures that always capture me.
When our guide took us into the 19th century European salon, she sat our group down in front of a crowded wall of realist paintings. Artists of that era, she explained, vied for the center position on the gallery wall. If you didn’t make the center of the gallery, you hoped your painting would be hung lower, but you were the worst off if your painting was hung either at “sky level” or at the outer edges of the gallery wall.
She described some of the realist paintings and their subjects (telling, I might add, the most underwhelming version of Lady of Shalott), and then led our group to the opposing wall of the salon, where the works of Impressionists like Monet and Sisley were placidly hung a meter apart ¾ in stark contrast to the artistic elbowing right behind us.
“They were called lunatics,” she whispered, emphasizing how the Impressionists broke all the artistic rules of their day and were scandalized by the artistic establishment. They painted in nature, rather than in the studio. They emphasized landscape, rather than portraiture and mythological/religious themes. Rather than aspiring to the ideal of the smooth canvas, their canvases were textured with thick and irregular brushstrokes.
The Impressionists weren’t vying for center position on a crowded wall of artistic predictabilities: they were re-imagining the wall and determined to break free from the harness of convention.
As our guide described the iconoclastic fever of the Impressionists, I had this moment – this ever-brief moment of bravado – that I should be like them. Because what makes art and literature great except for that determined courage to break all the rules?
And in case you didn’t know, there are a host of rules that writers must follow should they ever hope to write, publish, and sell books.
According to the rules, I’m supposed to tweet ten times a day, garner thousands of Twitter and Facebook followers, run a spectacular blog, publish compelling articles – not to mention actually write the fabulous book that will put me on the publishing map. And oh yeah, I can’t forget to solicit speaking engagements so that I can do more talking about me and the book.
Personally, I can’t imagine I’m all that fascinating.
Moreover, what I know will make me a better writer is disciplined writing and reading, which aren’t always the activities I’m supposed to immediately prioritize in the buzzing landscape of social media.
In my reverie today at the Art Gallery of Ontario, I felt, in one short breath, the rebellion of Monet. I summoned his courage, decided against having to abide by these publishing conventions of the 21st century.
Then the guide reminded us that the Impressionist painters all died penniless.
I decided I was back to rule-following:
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