Substack Library


The Artist’s Life and the Money Life

Last week I shared my interview with American sculptor Pete Beeman. You can hear the full conversation here.

A few things struck me. First, how courageous it is to set out on the path Pete walked down, combining engineering and artistic vision to make massive sculptures. As he said, if one aims at being a doctor or a lawyer, it is hard work but there is also a very clear path. For an artist, that’s not true. Second, serendipity plays a critical role in creativity. Pete described the process around constructing Jelly, which you can see here. The sculpture moves (look at the videos), which Pete says he only discovered by accident at the end. It was at this point that the sculpture “worked.” I don’t recall who said art is 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration, but Pete’s story seems to bear that out. Finally, there is the issue of money. Pete makes large public commissions and wonders, decades down his path, if there would be a private market for his work. Even amid the higher risk path of being an artist, there are higher and lower risk paths and every artist is forced to think about such things.

Since leaving the money world, I’ve spent a chunk of every day reading what I had overlooked before. One of the first books I read was Absalom, Absalom, by Faulkner. On the back page the author offered a piece of advice. “Read, read, read. Read everything-trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it.” Following that dictum has led me to Don Quixote, Moby Dick, Master and Margarita, Soul Mountain (Gao Xingjian), No County for Old Men, American Pastoral, The Trial and the detective/crime writers Le Carre, Patterson, Lehane, Pelacanos (better known for creating The Wire), Winslow, Connelly as well as a pile of non-fiction books. I also bought a subscription ($50!) to the Paris Review which has interviews with leading authors going back decades. Conversations with writers from Gabriel Garcia Marquez to the poet Miloscz read as if they were interviewed this weekend.

A few observations about these readings that relate to my conversation with Pete. Creativity surges from some very basic source inside humanity. We are all creative, in different ways. How to source, channel and compensate this force will remain always uncertain. We both need to create and often feel the thrill when we connect with the creation of another. I found myself laughing out loud to Cervantes…written in 1605! Yet, Cervantes, credited with perhaps creating the best novel of all time, did not support himself as an author in his lifetime, instead working at jobs ranging from soldier to tax collector. Moby Dick, now well enough known that references to the tale featured in Super Bowl ads, was only recognized decades after Melville’s death. Master and Margarita, written under constant threat of being shot by Stalin, came out after Bulgakov died in 1940. The same with Kafka. The detective writers I cited have had an easier go of it and while Marquez’s first books barely sold, One Hundred Years of Solitude turned him into a global icon.

In investing (the subject of my next post) establishing the “value” of an asset is never easy. There are reference points such as a price to earnings ratios or the real interest rate but not certainty or reliability. Value applied to art seems to be a magnitude harder but no less essential. Art is something that we both consume and produce and discerning the logic to either requires patience, a tolerance of ambiguity and a willingness to suspend any immediate connection between perspiration and lucre, even while recognizing how essential the practice is to civilization itself.