Sunday, 2 January 2011

WEALTH FOR THE NEW YEAR

[Blogger reports that today is my 300th post. I never expected to take this blog past 50, but what started as a fun way to highlight some under-appreciated artists, tell a few truths in support of those who already know them, and share some good stories became an unexpected source of stimulating dialogues and rewarding acquaintances. Many thanks to all who have participated, and happy new year to all!]

Ralph Waldo Emerson just couldn't get over how cool a library is:
Consider what you have in the smallest chosen library. A company of the wisest and wittiest men that could be picked out of all civil countries in a thousand years have set in best order the results of their learning and wisdom. The men themselves were hid and inaccessible, solitary and impatient of interruption, fenced by etiquette; but the thought which they did not uncover to their bosom friend is here written out in transparent words for us.
Today it's even better. We not only access the "wisest and wittiest men," but women as well, and from "uncivil" countries. We don't even need to go to a library: we can access these riches from our computer.

In a year of recession and high unemployment, with economic wealth increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few at the top, I am heartened by the artists who recognize alternative kinds of wealth freely available from libraries and museums.

When the great draftsman Noel Sickles was asked where he learned to draw, he responded, "In a library." Sickles had no formal art education but was able to teach himself from images he found in the public library in Chillicothe, Ohio:
I studied not only American cartooning, but all over the world: European, particularly. I became acquainted with all of the various types of cartooning. I went back and studied Simplicissimus and Jugend [magazines] and so on, and that got me more and more into becoming aware of illustration. And I then did the same thing there. I went through, well, the entire background, as much as I could find.
Building from these examples, Sickles develop formidable artistic powers:



Imagine what he could have done if he'd had the resources of the internet.

As an impoverished child, Albert Dorne couldn't afford food, let alone art classes. At age 10, he began cutting school 3 or 4 days a week to sneak off to the Metropolitan Museum of Art where he taught himself to draw by copying the pictures. The determined little boy soon became well known to and admired by the museum staff.



After he became a famous illustrator, Dorne did everything he could to make sure that resources would be available for later generations of children.

Libraries are not relics of the past. One of today's best illustrators, Phil Hale, said:
I grew up in a town with a terrific traditional library, and a great collection of art books including many Illustrators annuals.... But also books about Brandywine and other early twentieth-century movements... The library was hugely important to me.
There's nothing dated about Hale's sensational work:



Arthur Koestler was convinced that the right book will find us in time to fulfill our destiny. He recounted how, as a depressed and impoverished failure in Paris in the 1930s, he decided to commit suicide. He turned on the gas in his apartment and lay down on his bug stained mattress. "But as I was settling down on it, a book crashed on my head from the wobbly shelf. It nearly broke my nose, so I got up [and] turned off the gas." The book turned out to be about the Nazis coming to power in Germany. Said Koestler, "a more drastic pointer to the despicableness of my antics could hardly be imagined." He regrouped and went on to became a world famous author with a huge impact on the international politics of his day.

We can't always count on the proper book landing on our nose. We need the vision to recognize value in its potential form, and the initiative to transform it into kinetic form. Those traits are not among the advantages provided by wealth and privilege. Libraries are the great equalizer.