CHARLES KRUGER: art for life’s sake

Thurs Jan 20, 11, Martha Bros. Coffee — Church St.

(Evan Karp)

Credit: William Storage

A year ago, at the age of 53, Charles Kruger was fired from his job as a high school teacher. Although he had started painting 4 years prior, he felt like the artist within had expired. Rather than search for another job immediately, Charles attempted to attend 90 art and culture events in 90 days and to document the experience on his blog, Storming Bohemia. To read it from the beginning is to see the man’s eyes open again, and his perspectives reflect this rapid acuity. He has just finished his first month as a high school language arts teacher for the Monterey County Office of Education at an alternative school for incarcerated youthful offenders.

This is the second in a series of profiles for SF Weekly.

Evan Karp: What do you think makes somebody a writer?

Charles Kruger: I guess what makes a writer is a drive to communicate. I guess I don’t differentiate between the different arts. An artist is an artist. It’s about the drive to communicate, to get past the separation from other people. … I think we are naturally separated but I think some of us feel it more intensely than others.

EK: And you would argue, perhaps, that artists in general feel that separation more strongly, or less strongly?

CK: I think artists in general feel an obligation to bridge that separation more strongly.

EK: For you personally, are your attempts to communicate, then, born out of your own need?

CK: It’s born out of a need to justify myself. To feel like my life is meaningful. Because—and I don’t know if other artists experience this, but—I think that there was a period of my life, especially as a child, when I felt extremely unworthy …

EK: Do you think you would be at any point satisfied? That you would feel satiated beyond the need to express yourself?

CK: Not so far.

EK: Is that a concern of yours?

CK: No it’s not, because there’s a satisfaction in realizing that there’s legitimacy in making that full commitment to the community. I used to think I wanted to make good art—something that people would say was good art—that would give me positive feedback. And that’s no longer an issue. It’s more a matter of being committed to the identity of being an artist. That’s the important contribution. The artifact is incidental. It’s wonderful, but it’s not the most important thing. Not for me. Maybe for others. Maybe after I’m dead the artifact is the most important thing. But for the living artist in the community, the artifact is the least important thing. It’s the commitment to live for it that matters.

EK: So in that sense, really, the poet is the poem.

CK: That’s it exactly. The artist is the creation. Our willingness to commit to that, to live for our art and for the communication and that sort of depth experience in the culture, is what the great contribution is. And that’s important to me because it means that even if I don’t produce a great artifact, then my engagement in the process is valuable to me and to the community. And I get satisfaction out of that.

EK: In a way your art is really just your bones—it doesn’t really change that much. The artifact, I mean; that’s the only thing you leave behind, in that sense.

CK: Well no, I wouldn’t say that. What you leave behind is the artifact. After I’m gone, the artifact will matter (if anything does). But while I’m here, the artifact is secondary. The artifact is not necessary to justify my being an artist. My commitment justifies my being an artist—that has its own need, and makes its own contribution to the community. Once I’m dead, that commitment is no longer there to communicate unless maybe I’ve inspired some others, but the artifacts will be there.

EK: So it’s all relative, art.

CK: It’s all relative. When Picasso was alive, his significance was that he was alive and painting. Once he passed, it’s the paintings that are significant. Suppose he passed having been Picasso, and if history had determined that the paintings had been worthless then he wouldn’t have left the artifacts, and he wouldn’t be that important historically, but his life would not be meaningless. He would still have been Picasso. You see? That’s what matters.

EK: What are some of the challenges you face? To prove to yourself that you are that artist?

CK: Honestly, fewer and fewer. When I started making this commitment to being an artist, the challenges were how do I hold my head up when I don’t know if my stuff is as good as the next guy’s. And that’s passed. I no longer care, really, whether it’s as good as the next guy’s. It is a challenge to maintain that, to understand my own voice, and that that’s valuable only because it’s my own voice—and being loyal to that, being honest to that. … So that’s the big challenge, is to be honest to my own voice, even when it seems inadequate. Even when it seems like the writing isn’t that good or the painting isn’t that good, to just remember it’s mine and I have to follow that to the end. That’s the only thing worth doing. And you hope that in doing that something very valuable will emerge, but it’s impossible to judge it for yourself. I’m amazed when some of the younger people look at it and say Yes, this is wonderful; OK. I’m glad that you do. But that’s not what I’m about. I’m about just being loyal to that voice.

EK: I’m not sure I agree with the idea that a writer is more important than his books.

CK: Remember: I said that while the writer is alive. … It’s an obscenity to suggest that the work—that the artifact—is more important than the living writer. It’s an offensive idea.

EK: What about when an artist loses it? What about when they’ve already written their best book?

CK: They’re still more important than the book. They’re a living human person.

EK: So? So are they [gestures]. So are we!

CK: Damnit Evan if the writer is past their prime, and they’ve written a wonderful book, and I came to you and I said, “Now here’s the choice: the writer can die tomorrow, but if he dies tomorrow, the book will survive; however, if you’re willing to destroy that wonderful book and the writer gets 10 more years in the community, would you destroy the book?

EK: No!

CK: I would. Without a second thought.

EK: That’s heresy!

CK: Actually the opposite is heresy. I would destroy the book; there will be other books and other writers; let this person live and be a part of our world.

CK: If there were an artist who had produced only mediocre work, and they died 20 years earlier but had written a masterpiece … would that be better?

EK: I think the artist would certainly say yes, and I think any artist who’s really serious would probably say yes. I’ll say that about myself. What’s the point of your life?

CK: There is no point to our lives.

EK: Well, but you make a point. It’s like you said: art is the vehicle by which you give your life meaning. If the point is to make yourself so that you don’t need art, right, so that you don’t require that extra meaning … that’s an accomplishment. Then sure—just live your life. But

CK: It’s a debate that Allen Ginsberg had with his meditation teachers. Because he meditated and he’d go back to his teachers, “Oh it was a wonderful meditation! I got all of these images.” And the teacher would say “You’re not supposed to get images. That’s not why you’re meditating. That’s a distraction.” And Ginsberg said, “But look! Look at the poems. Look at the poems I wrote.” “That’s a distraction. It’s not about the poems.” Ginsberg kept meditating. And he stayed with the teachers. Why didn’t he tell the teachers, “Nevermind you, I’m a poet!”

EK: Well, because he was a poet.

CK: Exactly. And he’d be a poet whether he produced the images or not.

EK: Well right but think about what this culture would be like if “Howl” were never written. It’d be far worse.

CK: Well yes probably but it’s a meaningless question because it was.

EK: But it’s not meaningless because it determines which side I take in this question, for instance. Not just me! In general. Is the point for me to feel content with my life or is the point for me to produce something that is so indisputably great that it reformulates the way people look at themselves and [changes] the way they think. You know? I think that might be more important than my contentment.

CK: I don’t know.

EK: Yeah I don’t either.

CK: Find your own voice and follow it. Without worrying about whether that voice is as great as Ginsberg’s. Or anybody else’s. It may not be. A tiny little blip! But it’s yours. And that’s what you’ve got to give; you’ve got to give that.