“Twelve Moments in the Life of the Artist” Summary

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Last Updated on July 16, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1106

One

At an early age, Sedaris’s sister Gretchen demonstrates genuine ability as an artist, both in practical capability and in temperament. Her art is encouraged by teachers who see her talent and by her parents, who both try to claim genetic responsibility for her abilities. Their father, in an attempt...

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One

At an early age, Sedaris’s sister Gretchen demonstrates genuine ability as an artist, both in practical capability and in temperament. Her art is encouraged by teachers who see her talent and by her parents, who both try to claim genetic responsibility for her abilities. Their father, in an attempt to prove his latent artistic gift, begins painting in the basement for a time. Thinking that he must be able to paint, too, if his sister and parents can, Sedaris begins what he describes as his “long and disgraceful blue period.”

Two

Sedaris finds painting too difficult and explores other artistic endeavors, such as tracing comic book characters and convincing himself that he could have come up with them on his own. He is intrigued by the life of an artist and imagines himself as a well-dressed Parisian virtuoso, recreating the forms of his nude male models. Despite his lofty daydreams, he seems not to have any artistic talent of his own, and he is deeply jealous of Gretchen, who continues to receive prizes and praise for her artwork both at and outside of school.

Three

Still struggling with his feelings of artistic inadequacy, Sedaris enrolls in college as an art major. The thought of becoming visibly aroused while drawing nude male models in his life-drawing class worries Sedaris, but the first model turns out to be a woman. Sedaris’s anxiety remains, however, when he realizes that the other students can draw much better than he can. Unsuccessfully, he experiments with a number of other mediums, including printmaking, sculpture, and pottery. For Christmas, he gives his mother a set of his ugly pottery mugs, which she uses as pet bowls.

Four

Sedaris transfers to another college and eventually stops attending art classes altogether, in favor of smoking weed with his roommate. He befriends a group of stoner filmmakers, who like to talk about their projects but seldom actually create anything. Sedaris accompanies them to various screenings of depressing and boring films. True art, Sedaris thinks, requires despair, and this is fortunate, because he is surely miserable. However, since he cannot get a degree in “sulking,” Sedaris drops out of college.

Five

Sedaris returns to North Carolina around the time Gretchen begins attending the Rhode Island School of Design. He begins to experiment with both conceptual art and crystal methamphetamine. He enjoys this particular drug because it eliminates all doubt of his genius, as well as the inconvenient desires to eat and sleep. During this time, Sedaris thinks of himself as “living art” and part of a modern artistic movement that subverts and rejects the classical art forms at which his sister is so skilled. He pities his friends who still struggle to sell little pieces at art fairs, while his whole world—even the stains in his tub—is art, and evidence of his own artistic brilliance.

Six

Sedaris’s drug dealer, bored of his incessant talking, introduces him to a group of similarly minded addicts whose conceptual art “pieces” are made out of unusual or macabre materials, including a giant nest made of human hair. Inspired, Sedaris creates his own piece, composed of garbage and random objects meticulously listed and collected in boxes, and his piece is accepted at an art museum’s juried biennial. His new friends assert that Sedaris was only accepted because his art is simple and “easy to swallow,” and they do not attend the show. His mother and drug dealer do attend the exhibit, though Sedaris’s mother gets drunk and clearly does not appreciate any of the art.

Seven

Sedaris participates in a friend’s performance art piece, which takes place in a filthy, abandoned tobacco factory and is intentionally uncomfortable, macabre, and incoherent. His parents, who attend the premiere, consider the performance to be a punishment, and the show is particularly unsuccessful. The group blames its failure on an insufficiently enlightened public.

Eight

Sedaris’s group of avant-garde friends disbands when the members, resentful and jealous, claim to be tired of performing only the group leader’s art pieces. Ironically, they seem unwilling to recognize that none of them, except the leader, are willing to take any initiative within the group. After the group breaks up, Sedaris is invited to participate in a new exhibit at the museum. He accepts because he needs money for drugs.

Nine

Sedaris describes working on his new museum piece as an exercise in finding appropriately absurd objects for his performance. At a secondhand store, he buys a number of sock puppets. When he announces that he’s an artist, the cashier proudly reveals that the sock puppets were made by her niece, also an artist. Sedaris behaves egotistically towards this woman, considering her too ignorant to appreciate a true artist like himself.

Ten

On the day of the performance piece, Sedaris has not slept for days and is intensely high. Onstage, he slices pineapples, cuts his own hair with garden shears, and eviscerates sock puppets before placing their remains in a boot. However, his performance is interrupted by his father, who heckles him with loud comedic commentary. The audience responds positively to his father’s comments, and the museum curator believes that Sedaris’s father was part of the piece—indeed, the best part. Inspired by his success, his father asks for a cut of the money and starts regularly calling to suggest new performance pieces. Sedaris coldly rejects them, still furious at his father for stealing his thunder.

Eleven

When his drug dealer moves away to seek treatment, Sedaris’s life implodes. Having spent his savings on drugs that lasted only ten days, Sedaris experiences crippling withdrawal symptoms and intense depression. He even snorts everything off his apartment floor in the hopes that some speed had been dropped there. He wills himself, lazily, to perform again at the museum, and although his former artist friends attend, none of them has drugs either. Sedaris feels horrible shame about the general state of his life and considers giving up art altogether. Finally, he decides to return to art school.

Twelve

Sedaris sits through someone else’s painfully absurd performance piece. Like everyone else, he is pining for the exit. He reflects that though he still does many awful things, he no longer does performance art, and that is “something to celebrate.” At the end, he finds something reasonably nice to say and exits. As he does so, he feels free and unencumbered—no longer expected to see the deep connections between unrelated things and no longer burdened, he notes wryly, by a deep sense of artistic genius. He has emerged into a brighter world with a new sense of clarity, capability, and freedom.

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