s I’ve stated before, music leaves me cold, bored. It touches nothing within me. Only while exercising, or driving home too tired even for Sean Hannity’s self-righteous prattle, will I, out of desperation, turn on music. But to sit down and do nothing but listen to musical notes? The idea is, to me, inconceivable (though I admit that I did enjoy taking my teenaged daughter to hear Celtic Woman, especially when they sang “Orinoco Flow” [youtube.com/watch]).
I’m not a total Philistine, though. I do like art, and living in the museum-rich Washington, D.C., area has given me many opportunities to do nothing but stare at paint on canvas, including the paint that William de Kooning put on his. Fascinated by him, I recently devoured Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan’s Pulitzer Prize-winning biography, De Kooning: An American Master. The book must have made an impression because my wife said that for weeks I couldn’t stop talking about it.
De Kooning was born from the poor in the Netherlands of 1904. He showed his artistic talents young and studied art while working for commercial designers. In 1926 he stowed away on a ship to the United States, where he settled in Manhattan.
Early on he did well as a commercial artist. Then, determined to do nothing but “pure” art, he quit his job, telling the boss that he wasn’t getting paid enough. When his boss offered to double the salary, de Kooning quit anyway. Though known and respected among other artists in downtown Manhattan, de Kooning labored for years amid poverty and general obscurity. Friends would sometimes buy his paintings, just so they could help support him and it wouldn’t appear like charity.
Then, after World War II de Kooning had his own shows, his work sold, and he was hailed as a great American artist. The stowaway from Rotterdam had made it big in America.
And—what did he do? He drank himself sick. Hardly a teetotaler before success, after success de Kooning swam in booze. The more famous he got, the deeper he went, binging for weeks until only hospital detoxification could keep him alive long enough so he could dive in again.
But why? He had everything. And that’s precisely the problem. He got what any artist wants—fame, money, adulation—only to discover that all this wasn’t enough. Nothing here is. No matter what the world lavished on him, he was still the same person, with the same past, the same weakness, and the same fears. Success doesn’t change us from being the warped, sin-damaged mortals we are from the womb on. De Kooning was confronted, too, with the cold, immutable fact that in some wet loamy hole worms were licking their chops in anticipation of his arrival, and all the one-man shows and fantastic prices for his paintings couldn’t keep him from them, either.
De Kooning discovered, I think, what many others have, which is that you strive all your life for what you want from this world, only to discover how meaningless it is. Having everything, Solomon declared it all useless. “Vanity of vanities, saith the preacher; all is vanity” (Eccl. 12:8, KJV). The Hebrew word translated “vanity” is hebel, which means “vapor,” “breath,” giving the idea of things fleeting, evanescent, temporary. All we gain here is hebel because we are hebel; death is as wired into our birth as angles are into triangles.
That’s why the Bible repeatedly talks of the “eternal life” found in Christ; it’s why it repeatedly points us to a reality that transcends the pain, emptiness, and bitterness of this reality. For without that hope, Kirkegaard wrote after burying a friend, why not “step down into the grave with him, and draw lots for who should have the misfortune to be the last alive to throw the last three spades of earth on the last of the dead?”
Or like de Kooning, you can take it more slowly, one sip at a time. Or you can give your life to Jesus, and live with the promise of a “new heavens and a new earth: and the former shall not be remembered, nor come into mind” (Isa. 65:17, KJV).