only so many arrows

For every major artist whose latter works calcify into mannerism, there are a thousand minor ones who never make it that far. After all, we have only so many arrows in our quiver. To take up other weapons, and hit the target again and again? Such plasticity of attack is difficult to achieve, and beyond exhausting to maintain, and that’s not even taking into account a marketplace where brand recognition is everything, where a static, reliably “signature” style is a terrific asset. Even an artist as notoriously uncompromising as Mark Rothko chose more or less deliberately in midcareer, according to his biographer, to give the world what it already wanted from him. And what did it want? It wanted “Rothkos.” It wanted ineffable hovering rectangles of color, and more ineffable hovering rectangles of color, not some doodly semisurrealist multi-forms no one knew what to do with. And so the artist, who begins by laying siege to the precut frames of the past, and reducing them to splinters, sues for peace later and frames himself.

Not that most of us wouldn’t happily settle for this. Not that it isn’t smarter to acknowledge our limits, and keep doing what we already know we can do. And if occasionally we get a postcard from that difficult country we’ve chosen to fly over or avoid, and always on the back is the same message (HE NOT BUSY BEING BORN IS BUSY DYING), OK, we can live with that. Not everyone is a bloody fucking genius, after all.

Robert Cohen - Going to the Tigers, found in the latest issue of The Believer.

Image: Mark Rothko, Untitled, 1944/1945.