A gift from Goya
My biggest internal conflict with society is the anger I feel towards the uneven distribution of money and resources on this funny planet. Growing up, I watched as so many vibrant flames burning with truth and ideals bent to the rules of the system, and eventually extinguished themselves one after the other.
Over time, I began to notice how young people take on internships with criminally low wages or start “temporary” jobs they never quit, that most workers produce unnecessary goods, and that the really useful labour is carried out by migrants under no legal contract or volunteers who lend their time to improve the world for free. Yes, In our society doing useful work is such a great privilege, that people actually do it for free.
The category of such people I’ve been thinking about the longest is artists. I find that the most valued artists must prostitute themselves to the vulgar tastes of the masses or the whims of those with money. And none of us, I think, want the highest representation of contemporary humanity to be prostitutes while proud, rebellious artists remain starving failures. How does one give value to originality and integrity? Being quite rigid in my idealism, the answer didn’t come to me for years, but one day, the first part of the answer was unexpectedly gifted to me.
During the pandemic, as a job, I carried out a series of international human organ donor transportation assignments. Yes, actually. I transported organs. And you will be surprised to learn that this demanding job is mostly done by volunteers who undergo a highly selective training process to get the gig, and who fly across the globe several times a week from one hospital to the other to help save lives, completely for free. One time, on one of my missions, having just delivered my organ to a hospital in Zaragoza — Spain, I had the rare but very welcome luxury of a whole day off before leaving for another hospital. Wandering around town, I found an exhibition of Francisco Goya who was born not too far away. This was in the middle of lockdown and the show was thus completely empty and mine to enjoy. Inside, I was delighted to discover the 80 Caprichos, a series of satirical illustrations on pieces of paper in which Goya very liberally criticized the church, powerful institutions, marriage, and Spanish royalty. Amusingly, the rooms next door intentionally displayed his most acclaimed and renowned portraits of the Spanish royals, which stood out on large, gold-framed canvases and were decorated with shimmering religious emblems of all sorts. It was nauseating. I realized that what we consider works of art are often just prostitution to the richest bidder. In that exhibition I didn’t see Goya inside the famous paintings commissioned by the royals and the church, but I sure caught a glimpse of him as a free man and artist in his satirical sketches through which he could vent his real thoughts.
And this was the first lesson Goya gifted me: Even if you dedicate your life to being an official portraitist for the royal family, not even the king himself shall silence your soul and your innate truth.
About a year later I was in Madrid for my new job (completely unrelated to organ transportation) and I met two delightful Indian women on vacation, who invited me to an organized city tour — One of those gimmicky tourist attractions, which, by the death of me, I usually avoid at all costs. However, the duo was so friendly that it would have been a shame not to abide and so I accepted their invitation. The tour turned out to be rather interesting, especially due to one important detail: Goya and I had once again crossed paths. We stopped at one of Madrid’s oldest restaurants, Casa Bodin, an institution in which Goya had spent time working, not as a featured artist, surprisingly, but as a dishwasher. Upon hearing this piece of information delivered quite unenthusiastically by the tour guide, all my fears of losing myself by compromising my soul to a seemingly malicious system melted away like snow. It may seem obvious that an artist is made of flesh and bones and must first eat above all things, but it isn’t that obvious for a young idealist who lives in fear of losing his inner flame.
Thus here came Goya’s second gift and lesson to me: If your soul is strong and your flame fearless, nothing you do in parallel to your dream will extinguish it. In fact, you can use it to nourish the boundless creativity and freedom inside you.
“Imagination abandoned by reason produces impossible monsters; united with her, she is the mother of the arts and source of their wonders.”
- Francisco Goya.