The Tale of the Indian Gent

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A FAMOUS European sculptor told me this story.

He and his wife were visiting India. A man of Ghandi-like appearance approached them and named a price; he said that if they paid it, he would oblige them by climbing to the top of a very high cliff that happened to be handily located within their view. Once aloft, he would proceed to launch himself without further ado off said cliff. A short while later he would land, accurately, in a bucket, placed conveniently, if rather distantly, at ground level. Which bucket he now held up for their inspection.

It was full of water, but it was not big. It was, in fact, a bucket-sized bucket. It was definitely not a man-sized bucket. For a higher price he would empty it of water and land in it quite dry, he said.

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Intrigued - but not entirely convinced - the sculptor plied him with a question.

"Are you a holy man?" he enquired.

"Oh, no, no," the man replied, "I am a businessman."

The sculptor and his wife have since found these two, apparently opposite, categories a humorously useful means of character assessment when they meet someone new. I could see (a little unkindly, perhaps) how it might apply to some of my friends and relations! What intrigues me, though, is the amusing assumption that the categories are necessarily mutually exclusive. In practice they are surely more often two sides of a single character. Of course, this goes against preferred mythology. But these two sid es do not have to be out of sync. Without doubt it depends on the degree to which the "business" side is regulated by the "holy."

As for the Indian gentleman, the anecdote leaves me wondering.

By calling himself a "businessman," he clearly meant that the making of money was his chief motive, however two-dimensional a view of "the businessman" this might entail. But by discounting the idea of his being "a holy man," he opened up a question about what exactly a "holy man" might be. That it had nothing whatever, in his eyes, to do with the ability to jump from the top of a sheer cliff into a bucket, with or without water in it, suggests a telling distinction in his mind: that holiness was not a s pecies of magic or a circus act, even in India.

It was not a kind of rash gamble. He knew that at any rate.

I suspect he may not have been much of a businessman really. The unanswered question is what he would have done if my friends had actually taken up his challenge and handed him his fee.

If he'd scarpered without jumping - simply absconded, a wealthier person - he would have proved himself to be ... a con-man. He would not have shown himself to be a true businessman since the essential element of building genuine confidence for future transactions would have been noticeably missing.

If, on the other hand, he had taken their money and had then played his part and leapt neatly through the swirling air currents of a Delhi afternoon to land precisely (and alive) in his chosen galvanized steel container, he would then, like the best of businessmen, have earned his money. It seems likely that his business would have flourished forthwith on the grounds that all the world loves a successful showman, even if he is a businessman too.

It seems, actually, a little strange that he did not describe himself as a "showman." But then that could be because he had no intention of doing anything so entirely stupid as to actually leap bucketward.

What strikes me, however, as even more strange, is that the famous sculptor didn't immediately recognize what this man actually was: a fellow spirit. He was an artist!

He proffered, after all, wonderment. He proposed delight. Promised the unforgettable - a thing of visual intensity. His act would be a doing that was purposeless in itself but with its own inherent meaning. A happening. A controlled movement through three-dimensions. A conceptual sculpture.

The fact that he asked for payment first - which sculptors and painters do not generally do - may have been what threw the sculptor off the scent. If the artist had realized he was confronted indeed by the very Leonardo of bucket-jumping, the Michelangelo of cliff divers, would he not then have willingly handed over the requisite rupees?

After all, as a successful Western artist himself, he could hardly claim to have no commercial instinct. His art may be pure art, but it is also a thing of the market place. His art supports him financially.

Of course we are still romantically attached to the concept of the artist as idealistically detached from monetary motivations. If we weren't, more artists would act as their own dealers. If for "artist" we read "holy man" (and that is certainly the status many artists claim for themselves), for "dealer" we would read "businessman": a clear separation of roles. There is little question which is thought the higher form of life.

But this arrangement is based on something of a myth. A dealer friend of mine talks of "interdependence" between three parties: artist, dealer, and collector. This seems closer to the facts: Everyone today is to concentrate on what he or she does best to the benefit of all, but that doesn't mean that each individual has to be stuck rigidly in a particular hierarchical mold. The collector occasionally turns dealer and tries to sell back a work of art to the "real dealer" at a profit. Some dealers are av id collectors on the side. And for all I know, some may even be artists, too. Some collectors are certainly artists, and vice versa. Some artists act as their own dealers. Other artists prevail sometimes upon their dealers not to set too high a price on their work - or to set a higher price. And I've never met an artist who isn't interested in selling his or her work.

Only independently wealthy artists could claim to have no interest in the commercial side of their art, and even they enjoy the appreciation of being collected.

On the other hand, too much commercialism in artists does make you wonder where their sense of value is concentrated. There is something that is not just romantic idealism about artists holding themselves above the commercial. Something that rings true about the self-test that asks: "If I never sell a single work, will I then still paint and paint and paint? Will I still paint with the foresight and greatness of feeling and devotion that I would if my work sold?" Van Gogh did. Yet, Van Gogh, who painted regardless of commerce, desperately wanted to sell his paintings so that his long-suffering brother wouldn't have to go on buying his paints for him. And Cezanne, who was independently wealthy, still painted with the rigor and self-sacrifice of a saint. With both these artists, though for different reasons, money was not the motive.

But then they were artists. They were utterly serious. They weren't jumping off cliffs into buckets. Hmmmm - maybe, you know, that Indian gentleman wasn't really an artist. Maybe he was just a clown. Or maybe it was April 1st.

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