Wednesday, June 28, 2023

Life is short 

“Life is short,
and art long,
opportunity fleeting,
experimentations perilous,
and judgment difficult.”
– Hippocrates
It sounds a little cooler in Latin, “Ars longa, vita brevis”, the entire quote is considered to mean, “skillfulness takes time and life is short.” It can take a lifetime to acquire a skill or master a craft but a lifetime is too short of a time to put it to use fully. Two practitioners of such skill who are favourites of mine have died recently, Bruce McCall and John Romita Sr.

A classic McCall illustration of the adsurdity of excess.

Bruce McCall was a preeminent satirist whose primary medium of choice was illustration, though he called himself a writer who drew (easier for editors to fill the assignment). I have a book of his, All Meat Looks Like Countries or so I thought. The actual title is All Meat Looks Like South America. How did I screw up that title? Even that titular mix up feels like a McCall gag somehow.

Often, I find myself lamenting the absolute ugliness of the built environment. Toronto has some lovely moments of architecture but overall the city feels like a guy who leaves the house wearing torn cargo shorts or grubby sweat pants. Yet McCall celebrated the modern, built world. He savoured our consumer achievements while simultaneously making fun of our follies. He populated his work with massive cars with unreal fins and flotillas of dirigibles full of tuxedoed guests enjoying a fine meal. As a Canadian living and working in the US, he created a world of ingenious contrivances even more American than even Americans could imagine. His work was always a balance of the optimism of a futurist with the cleverness of the sceptic. “Wouldn’t it be cool if cars had rockets and could fly but can you imagine how bad the traffic would be?!”

Peter Parker caught in a melodramatic Romita moment.

John Romita Sr was known primarily as the artist who gave Spider-man his most iconic images (along with countless other characters such as Wolverine, Luke Cage, The Punisher). While Spider-man was created by Jack Kirby, Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, so many of the yellowed Spider-man comics I bought as a kid and still have, where drawn by Romita. Upon visiting New York City for the first time I felt I knew the place. Of course New York City is the backdrop to many films and television series but its rooftops, water towers and brick-lined alley ways to me were the settings for every Spider-man battle drawn by Romita.

This leads me to another interpretation of “Ars Longa”. Art is long. Life is short. The art someone creates will last longer than any one individual. That art just doesn’t just live longer on walls, screens or in books but also in the mind of the audience who enjoy it. That’s how I’ll keep the memory of these artists alive. In my mind’s eye.

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