Sunday, May 1, 2011

Who is the better man?

This puzzles me: Take two brothers, Pierre and Alphonse, both artists.

Pierre painted charming pictures of his picturesque seaside village, and sold hundreds of them a year for a goodly price to tourists. His charming paintings sold so well that over the years he and his wife lived in comfort in a nice home. Their children grew up and married and Pierre knew the satisfaction of using his painting income to help give them a start. Pierre finally retired to a comfortable leisure of fishing and taking his grandchildren to the beach.

Alphonse, on the other hand, refused to paint "charming" pictures for the tourists. He had a vision and he followed it on canvas after canvas--all unappreciated for their lack of prettiness and meaning. Undaunted, Alphonse painted his vision with a frenzy. He never married, never worked at gainful employment. When he was close to starvation, he crawled to Pierre's door, was taken in, fed, clothed and brought back to health, whereupon he would leave the stultifying bourgeoise atmosphere of Pierre's house to continue painting his vision.

They are both dead now. Pierre's grandchildren are prosperous, well-settled, and have fond memories of the old gentleman, whose charming paintings may still be found in second-hand stores. Alphonse has no grandchildren, but he has been discovered by the art world, and art dealers are making huge amounts of money selling his paintings. He is famous. Books are written about him.

Who is the better man? Are we judged by the life we live while we are alive? Or if our life was miserable, can all of our poor choices be disregarded if we leave a legacy? And what legacy? Pigment on canvas or loving descendants?

Now this is the true Joan thinking: Why can't the Alphonse's of life paint charming pictures half the day and "visionary" images the other half? Should a writer who writes advertising copy during the day and "the great American novel" at night, loathe the work that gives him heat, food and security to write at night?

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