Subcontinental Divide - 2019


Art: Wake Up to a Nightmare or Wallow in Dreams

By Ahsen Jillani

Once I fancied myself an “Artiste." Way back in the middle years of high school, I had a guitar and would strum romantic tunes from the likes of Black Sabbath and Deep Purple, my long wavy hair covering my face like a mop with a lit cigarette stuck in it. Then I got into songwriting mainly to impress the ladies, but primarily because I realized that I couldn't play the guitar. Past graduate school, my musical career long buried by the need to eat occasionally, I found an old beret hat, which then launched my painting disaster, er, I mean, career.

Those were younger days, when you can survive on smiles and coffee, and of course, the oxygen that is Art. I moved into a crime-infested slum in the historic district of Richmond, VA, and worked by day, and painted by night. It really was charming, unless you were living the charm, in which case, it was totally miserable.

The drug dealers, the prostitutes, the pimps, and the occasional student looked up at my window and saw me painting broad strokes on everything but canvas—because I couldn't afford canvas. I ran the gamut: abstract, cubist, impressionist, expressionist, realist, and many other –ists. And hey, the neighbors, in their wisdom, and maybe inebriation, seemed to like the stuff and cut through abstract like cheese through butter.

One lady who, ahem, worked by night, had been watching what I had been painting for several days on a used shower curtain pinned to the wall, and met me at the steps to the apartment. “You drew me," she said smiling, flashing two missing teeth and one gold tooth. “I knows you been drawing me." I smiled back. “Well, it's abstract, so I don't know what I really paint." She was proud to receive the shower curtain with bright smudges and lines as a gift, as did many strange folks who saw themselves in what I drew on box lids, old t-shirts and even empty beer cans. But yeah, I was just thinking….

Twirl, Twerk, Sing Like a Duck Being Choked

I was thinking, through years of singing, guitars, drums, songwriting, sculpture, painting, and poetry, that, well, I really wasn't very good at anything and the existential crisis was already nipping at my ears, and whispering more questions than answers. Yes, you can twirl, twerk, sing like a duck being choked, not hit a single note with a guitar, and write “Roses are red, I love you" all day long and somebody will love it. Your mother, of course, will tell you it's brilliant. And some relatives and friends will smile and say beautiful things like, “Never give up," and even, “You took Celine Dion and put your own twist to it. Just wonderful." No kidding, aunt Ruby.

But although erratically, my artistic heart was yet beating; and I still had this fully-charged defibrillator of high-voltage idealism that I dragged behind me into the dawn of the 1990s. Heck, if I'm not good, it doesn't matter; brilliant talent is buried under every stone in this graveyard of the working dead. I was going to go searching for the purity that was art, the uncut diamond dust, the undiscovered Hemingways and undishevelled Van Goghs.

A Crisis of Success

My foray into starting a poetry magazine in 1991 did not seem suicidal in the moment. The magazine mysteriously exploded into a regional force like a spark on a bubbling sewer drain lid. As we expanded into a full blown publishing company, putting out, of all things, a free monthly poetry magazine financed by advertising, and publishing 10-15 books/year, I continued to scratch my head about what was causing this crisis of success.

Then I met the “artists." As I worked 12-hour shifts on my day job and was going thousands in debt monthly putting out a free magazine claiming organic grocers, coffee houses, art galleries, and pubs would finally step up and support the arts, the artists, well, they could not cut me a break. We were having readings and events; we packed coffee shops, parking lots and even large breweries with poetry, music, clowns, marching bands, putt putt poetry golf, and who knows what else. But the artists, they wanted more.

In the end, it wasn't just me. Five long years out, broke and exhausted, reading a nasty note from another unknown poet demanding to know why I had rejected his poem, I noticed this strange orb rotating in the darkness not far from my face. It looked and smelled like an onion. “Who are you?" I asked. “Never mind that, buddy; why is my book publication two months behind schedule?" it responded. Soon, I shut it all down. I then just worked, and a quarter century has passed and I still wonder what I really feel about art.

Glass Ceiling of Local Mediocrity

Once a year maybe, I go to a coffee shop poetry reading, or some gallery opening kind of event, and I stare at the artists and the crowd and wonder if I should even bother peeling that onion. Over decades I have wondered if art is solitary, even when you build the pyramids or sing in a choir. I have wondered if a prerequisite for art is a serious personality disorder. I have wondered if only cruel narcissists and egotists have the gumption to penetrate the glass ceiling of local mediocrity. I have wondered if I really need to smile and clap and be a politically correct mother to every artist who is destined to be great only in their own imagination.

I try not to be cynical and morbid and negative, and a thousand layers of the “art onion" yet remain to be peeled to reveal, well, pretty much nothing in the center. I turned away from art by looking in the mirror and realizing that outside of personal enrichment, some mental yoga, some cerebral puzzle solving, I really don't need to be torturing the rest of humanity with my imaginary talents. But, then, should we all stop dancing because we will never be Broadway stars?

Sometimes, you just have to put the peeled onion in a jar - and add vinegar.

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Ahsen Jillani a former editor and publisher, is originally from Islamabad, Pakistan, and now lives in Mint Hill. He owns Must Media, a PR company focusing on both political and corporate clients.