A hummingbird once flew directly into my cat’s mouth. One second, she was staring wistfully—drooling even—at the site of the back-and-forth flit of the bird at the feeder, and the next, it was lodged halfway down her throat. My cat approached the group of us who had been vaguely watching her antics, many of us who had yet to notice the colorful tail feathers protruding from under her nose, with a look on her face that was similar to the one you would wear had you, too, a beak stretching down your esophagus: what now? My mom was the only witness with her wits about her to dislodge the poor creature and—I would like to say bury it—but toss it up the hillside. We all faked enthusiasm by thanking the cat for dinner, and though she tries, she has caught nothing but one lizard since; she doesn’t even eat spiders when I ask her to do so. Surely, had she the memory to categorize her days, that fateful event of accidentally catching a hummingbird in mid-flight would be remembered as the most glorious and confusing day of her life, but she has most likely forgotten all about it.
This cat anecdote comes to mind because I recently had something similar happen to me. I applied to a writers workshop in the south of France that I assumed was not in the business of accepting young nothings such as myself, and then a few weeks later the beak thing happened: I was accepted. It was in that wonderful, culminating moment of being granted the opportunity to do something I had always dreamed of doing that I realized I could not afford it. Yes, the retreat’s website has prices listed all over it, including bartering prices, but because I did not expect to be allowed inside the walls of the center, I never seriously worried about actually funding my visit. My cat, in all her dreaming of catching one of those fast-moving, tiny creatures, clearly had never asked herself what she would do when its three-inch beak was stuck in her throat. You know what they say about pet owners being similar to their pets…
Despite my disappointment, I’ve been granted the opportunity to reflect upon the brilliance that led me to apply to a writers’ retreat without having any money to pay for it, and what exactly defines value in art. What’s with having to pay to go to retreats, anyways? Don’t creative vacations belong at the end of a Capital One commercial under the category “priceless”?? Well, the people who have to pay to run them say, no, they actually cost about 500 to 1000€ per week, per person, and 300 if you want to supplement the cost of your stay with hard labor, which surely holds the additional benefit of being good for the creative process. As it turns out, art is expensive and time-consuming. Supplies cost money, and if you are in the creative world with the desire to exhibit your works to others, so does publicity. People like Picasso, recognized at age five for his artistic genius, have fared a bit better in the funding department than others, and then there are artists who have no desire to receive funds or recognition for their work—they just find art a necessary means of release. It’s a well-known cliché of the artistic world that artists “create for themselves and not others”–that, ideally, creation occurs for creation’s sake. Van Gogh and Gauguin would have been perfectly content creating without an audience, and Van Gogh notably did just that, living and dying in poverty and driven by the only urge he followed: to paint.
So, it is with the concept of self-sacrificial art in mind that I intend to do my writing in an 11€ Roman hostel, filled with the noise and stench of the world, rather than in the peace of a silken bed in the south of France. I figure that if something sports a 500€ price tag, it will probably cost an inflated amount in a few years, when hopefully I will be able to buy it with my inflated salary. Don’t get me wrong—I think that quiet and calm are often necessary to the writing process, but at the moment they are luxuries that are to be enjoyed later in life. It’s the costless opportunities that are impossible to recreate—that time I accidentally referred to “high heels” as “pencils” when learning a foreign language, or that uncomfortable 48-hour bus ride that ended up on the edge of a clear lake under the rising sun. You see, that bus ride cost only 50 argentine pesos and inspired a full book of poetry with just one single moment. I can’t lie to myself: I would certainly do a lot of things to be able to spend a month at a quiet writers retreat in the middle of the wilderness, but spending my year’s savings is not one of them. I try to remind myself that art is not glamour. Even Marcel Proust, who was ‘not of the disposition’ to hold a job and lived entirely off of his father’s wealth, lived in painful obscurity until after his death. So, money sucks and, looking at Vincent van Gogh, art survives without it.
For a more modern reference, I would like to point your attention to the Grammy’s, which I’m sure you all watched in order to understand this week’s fashion do’s and don’ts. This newscast on NPR points out that the show was extraordinarily long (3.75 hours) for the amount of awards it presents (ten.) NPR attributes this to the fact that most people are watching the Grammys to see Daft Punk sit around in space helmets and critique Lorde’s outfit. NPR would like to point out that there were a few Grammy winners who had other things on their mind Sunday evening, notably the awards themselves. These people are the ones severely worried about losing the $5,000 necklace that was loaned to them for the occasion; hopefully, they’re the ones who politely declined said necklace and will later write a song about the excess that comes with celebration. These are the artists who spent a lifetime of pennies hoping someone would appreciate their work, and the ones for whom the Grammys are truly something special: a ceremony to award hard work, social contribution and impressing talent. People who become vocalists, dancers, painters, authors or sculptors (the list goes on…) do so because they hold a particular vision of the world that they feel is worth sharing, and can’t help but do just that. So, while they create to fulfill an intrinsic need, they also inevitably create because their need to make art mirrors the world’s need to receive it. And they don’t often find creation in penthouses, although they certainly can, being artists.
I’m not going to pretend that I’m a saint who has given up all her possessions to start a chicken-and-art commune, but I’ve learned a few lessons while traveling. Where you meet great people, or great mountains, or puny wooded trails possibly forged by deer and leading into a bear’s den, you find art. Cheese and corn and all things cliché, but money can’t buy words on a page. I won’t deny, however, that a good night’s sleep might be helpful for the creative process, as well as the company of kindred artistic spirits, so I will certainly reapply to the writers’ retreat in the south of France when I feel a little more financially sound to do so. For now, I cherish the free art that exists every time I encounter the beak problem: when a hummingbird flies at full-speed into your mouth, and you have to find a way to depict how much it hurt when the beak scraped down your throat, and all the confusion and joy you felt as it did so.