Art Beyond Commissions: Exploring the Deeper Purpose and Meaning of Creativity

Newberry, Castoff, 1983, graphite, 30×24″

A teenage acquaintance wanted to catch up with me after decades. He lived in a Beverly Hills mansion with his family and was attended to by a tutor, nanny, manager, assistant, and trainer. In the driveway were five black SUVs, and in the kitchen area were seven security monitors with live footage of the premises. I don’t know the intricacies of the financial world, but what I understood was that he was in charge of billions.

Over lunch in a local bistro, he told me that he was very impressed by my art and wanted to commission me to paint his entire family. Undoubtedly, the commission would modestly set me up for life and introduce me to other super-wealthy patrons. I believe he thought he was offering me a great opportunity and lifting me out of a scruffy artist’s lifestyle. The dynamic would enable me to be a kind of confidant, an extraordinary high-end friend welcomed to dinner parties and other events of the rich and famous.

I was flattered and somewhat disappointed. This friend was offering me “magnificent robes of honor” like the Caliph offers his subordinates in One Thousand and One Nights. It also reminded me of Michelangelo’s 1525 AD retort to Pope Clement VII (a.k.a. Giulio de’ Medici) via their go-between, Giovan Francesco Fattucci. Clement had requested that Michelangelo make a huge sculpture that would serve as political propaganda and this was M’s response:

“About the colossus… it seems to me that it would not do in that corner, for it would take up too much of the roadway; but in the other corner, where the barber’s shop is… as they would not allow the shop to be removed, for love of the income from it, I have been thinking that the said figure might be in a sitting position, and the seat high, the said work to be hollow within, as is right when working in pieces, so that the barber’s shop would come underneath, and the rent would not be lost. And again, so that the said shop may have wherewithal to dispose of its smoke as it has now, it occurred to me to give the said statue a horn of plenty in its hand, hollow within, which would serve for the chimney. Then having the head of the said figure empty… my friend, who tells me in secret that it would make a very fine dovecote. Another fancy strikes me that would be much better, but we should have to make the figure ever so much larger. And it might be done, for a tower is built up of pieces; and that is, that the head should serve as campanile for San Lorenzo, which needs one badly. And the bells hanging within, the sound clanging from the mouth, it would seem that the said colossus were howling for mercy, and especially on feast days, when they ring oftenest and with the largest bells.”

Holroyd, Charles. “Michael Angelo Buonarroti.” The Project Gutenberg EBook, 2006, page 192. London, Duckworth and Company; New York, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1903.

Michelangelo’s sarcasm was understandable, as he was in the middle of a power dynamic of being commanded to create the most expensive and stupendous projects. He and da Vinci were adept at creating what they wanted to create while having to navigate the world’s most powerful and wealthy people. The heroism of the above quote is an example of the problems of establishing the artist as a creator rather than as a craftsman.

It is also understandable that artists from bygone eras may not have known much about the science of self-esteem, psychology, the innate leadership role of artists, that art was at the forefront of human evolution, or that it preceded any written forms of philosophy or religion by 30,000 years. They may have also been naive about the nature of human predators who saw control of artists as an important power play.

It is surprising that today, traditional artists and conservative art commentators uphold artistic self-immobilization by promoting commissions as a high point and proof of the artist’s value. Ironically, it is children, cavemen, and hobbyists, who possess the artistic integrity to make anything they want.

Back at the bistro, as my acquaintance spoke, all of these thoughts rushed through my mind, and I could only imagine the incredulity, disgust, and frustration on my face. How could I quickly convey the sublime feeling of making art from my soul, its value, the independent artist’s role in human evolution, and the moral lessons I’ve learned from art history?

The lesson for artists to live an extraordinarily fulfilling life is simple: don’t get trapped, be it in a certain lifestyle, pursuit of fame, or institutional recognition. Instead, artists should treat their soul as a temple of their uniqueness and seek out other wonderfully untrapped people one person at a time.

Michael Newberry, Idyllwild, February 24, 2023

5 Replies to “Art Beyond Commissions: Exploring the Deeper Purpose and Meaning of Creativity”

  1. These [break-way] individuals seem to have been born with a spiritual immune system that, sooner or later, reject the illusory worldview grafted upon them from birth through social conditioning.

    As front-runners, they are the new Tom Sawyers’ of human consciousness.

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