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Vivian Maier and Art for Art’s Sake

Vivian Maier self portrait from John Maloof's

Bruce is in the kitchen sharpening our old, dull knives on the electric knife sharpener he got me for Christmas. It was nice that we both got and gave several presents that we will clearly share and share alike. We had a lovely day yesterday—a quiet morning together, an afternoon buffet and more gift opening with family and step-family, and an evening with our friends D and T at their new home, eating a little chicken curry and sharing the results of last week’s baking. We watched a digital fire on the TV screen since it is much too hot in Florida these days to even think of building a real one.

In the afternoon, while we were at Rick and Susie’s, I brought up what was probably my favorite gift this year—a book of photographs by Vivian Maier that Bruce had secretly ordered for me last April. Rick was still experimenting with a new remote device for their TV, and Bruce pulled up a slideshow of Maier’s work while we sat chatting, to test out the slideshow function on the remote and to show everyone what we were talking about. Soon everyone was mesmerized by the images on the screen. There are several portfolios on and on I find her photos truly stunning.

Maier provides a good bridge for me between the fleeting Christmas holiday and the looming New Year’s one. Though the spreading recognition of her work probably won’t make any of the mass media’s “Top Events of 2011” lists, I consider my learning of her work one of my favorite discoveries of the year.

In fact, it was early in 2011 that I first heard of Vivian Maier and shared on Facebook this news report from WTTW in Chicago. Attention to her work has continued to grow this year, including a more recent report on CBS News (sorry about the unavoidable ad). More details of her life have emerged.

It’s interesting to me that, on the CBS video, gallery owner Howard Greenberg says repeatedly that Vivian Maier was “certainly no amateur.” In fact, what inspired me most about her story last year was that she was entirely an amateur. She took photographs not for any monetary, professional, or reputational gain. She took photographs because this was how she saw the world, because she was an artist and she clearly loved the art.

Amateur status has come to mean to most people an inferior result, but what Vivian Maier gave to me this time last year was a way to see my way forward through a return to working at my art because I love the activity, not because of some elusive potential professional gain. That is the more precise definition of the term “amateur,” and it suits Vivian Maier perfectly. She was an amateur who was also a master, and what she spent her time and effort on was her work, not on self-promotion or networking or salesmanship.

There’s a bit of a tragic element in that, as she died shortly before her work began receiving its due, and we all tend to assume that she would have enjoyed the recognition. But for all artists, it is difficult to sort out the love of the work and the daily practice of the work from the attention-seeking. Where is the right balance? We don’t know whether Maier ever walked into a gallery and showed her prints to a dealer, but it seems highly doubtful. Instead, she emphasized the “10,000 hours” of practice that are necessary for anyone to become a master at something and that Malcolm Gladwell noted in Outliers.

So I have found a new twist on the phrase “art for art’s sake.” In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries it was used to indicate the opposite of social realism or other art with a moral or instructional purpose and was often used to criticize work like photography that contained an element of social commentary. Today, I have taken to using it to indicate instead the opposite of art with a commercial or professional purpose. Politics was once taken to pollute art, but now it may be the rank commercialism of all forms of it that corrupts it as much as politics does.

Vivian Maier took a lot of photos of poor people. She shows them in positions of vulnerability, their shoes worn, their faces dirty, their bodies thin and damaged. Yet, we see that same sense of vulnerability in the more well-off ladies with their fox fur stoles and businessmen with their white shirts. As an artist, she is a great equalizer, and I do think that her humanitarianism these days takes on political implications. Yet her pictures are never didactic. They simply open us to the world that was. And she never worried about offending or pleasing a patron or buyer. I think that shows in her work. Her devotion to her art, rather than to a career, will inspire me for a long time to come.