David Lynch: Artist as Entrepreneur

THERE IS MORE THAN ONE CONTENDER for the title “Full Service Artiste.” At least, H. Niyazi thinks so. Niyazi is the invaluable art history maven and pundit behind Three Pipe Problem, a lively blog aka 3Pipe.net. He nominates David Lynch, included on 3PP’s posted list of key topics—Caravaggio, Georgione, Titian, Vermeer, et alia. (Just why Lynch is sneaked in to the pantheon is something to take up with 3PP. I am just telling.)

If you are old enough to remember Twin Peaks,  a top-rated TV serial in the 1990s, you should know Lynch. He was co-creator of both the show and its signature score. Lynch is also a filmmaker, director, painter, and—as night follows day on the LA celebrity circuit—an evangelist for Transcendental Meditation. [Remember that? Mia Farrow, the Beatles and assorted ashram groupies were into TM back in the ’60s and ’70s.] Think of him as the Tom Cruise of TM. For Cruise, its Scientology; he and Lynch are down adjoining rabbit holes.

Niyazi is much taken with Lynch, not as a pseudo-Tantric conduit of beneficent cosmic forces but as a director:

David Lynch is one of the most intriguing film directors of the modern era. From arthouse masterpieces to big budget sci-fi epics, Lynch manages to stamp his own style into every frame. It is hard not to watch a Lynch creation and feel his presence, something which not too many other directors can boast of.

If you have missed Lynch’s movies, especially ones that have become cult classics [Eraserhead, The Elephant Man, Mulholland Drive], it is enough to know that he has been dubbed “the Renaissance man of American filmmaking.” Much as I like going to the movies, painting matters to me more. So, forgive me if I skip over his contribution to the history of cinema and go straight to his contribution to art history:


David Lynch, "Change the Fucking Channel"


Lynch attended the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts at the same time as Vincent Desiderio. It does not look as if they attended the same classes. Here is Desiderio:


Vincent Desiderio, "Couple"


And here is Lynch, again:


David Lynch, "Nihilistic Delusion" (1983)


This is the kind of anti-art that removes itself from judgment. It can be promoted or ignored but it cannot be judged on visual criteria. Pundits and commissioned apologists can support it on the basis of that all-purpose solvent, expression. But imagination and expression are not the same. There are many kinds of expression. Burping, passing wind, twitching, cramping, blinking and other involuntary actions are all expressions of something. So are bad teeth, sour breath, broken fingernails and stains on your shirt front. Why the visual equivalent of uncontrolled, unmediated action—impulsive mark-making—should pass  as art is a question for cultural historians.

It is impossible not to wonder what the presumptions of TM play in Lynch’s brand of self-exhibition on canvas. Western civilization’s contemplative tradition runs deep. Its post-war turn to the East, still fashionable after 40-50 years, is a variety of escape from the demands of its own heritage, one rooted in an understanding of transcendence far richer than what is on offer in TM class.  It is rooted, too, in the recognition of a Reality that cannot be mastered. The Christian contemplative understands that man is oriented toward an end. He invests himself with meaning by seeking to unite himself with his end, which he calls God.

TM is misnamed. The TMer transcends nothing. Each individual is his own gigantic enterprise who dives into himself to find the divine within. His inner divinity is a mirror image of the naturalist’s inner ape. Neither interior entity requires recognition—nor an accompanying reverence—for truths outside oneself. TMers are devoted to their own functioning. By contrast, the Christian contemplative is pledged to spiritual plenitude, an ascension. [To be loudly distinguished from TM’s enthusiasm for levitation.]

Ultimately, TM is a utilitarian doctrine. Jeremy Bentham would have approved, most likely. TM reduces time-honored meditative techniques to a material means to reduce stress and anxiety. Where would art be if stress were eliminated? If there is anything that serious artists need it is a certain anxiety over the worth—the transcendent value, if you will—of their work. And a serious culture requires a corresponding concern. Without that saving disquiet, there are only the blessings of promotion and the market. Not quite an avenue to the good.

Lynch is certainly entrepreneurial. And for a man devoted to stressless bliss and more bliss, he drinks a helluva lot of coffee: 10 to 20 cups a day. He supports his caffeine habit with his own brand of coffee (David Lynch Organic Coffee, $20 a pound, available from Amazon). How much Elmer Gantry is there in Lynch’s tax exempt, nonprofit foundation, with its Maharishi-ish programs for global health and serenity? How much does Lynch pay himself as founder and CEO of a high-sounding but screwball charity with megalomaniacal ambition? (Lynch hawks TM as a cure-all for women, Native Americans, veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder, depressed teens, any mental disorder you can name. It does not mention coffee nerves, though.)

In sum, David Lynch as a painter is, at once, a specimen of pop-culture inanity and an exploiter of it. Much like James Franco. Movie-making aside, Lynch is most interesting as a shrewd operator—the embodiment of a more complex form of creativity than art buffs acknowledge.

Note: H. Niyazi responds in the comment section with a succinct statement of why Lynch earns a place alongside Titian, Vermeer, et alia.


© 2011 Maureen Mullarkey


  1. In some interview last year, Lynch said his painting was influenced by Francis Bacon. Does that explain anything?

  2. Fascinating piece Maureen! It was a true honour to be included in this discussion. Your point about Lynch as a visual entrepreneur is well stated. In this respect he inherits the great tradition of successful artists whose business nouse brought them success in their own lifetime – artists such as Raphael, Titian, and Caravaggio.

    There are a small handful of film makers that at once have a mainstream presence whilst maintaining a degree of auteur elusiveness. Lynch is one of these. Peter Greenaway is another, though nowhere near Lynch as far being a commercial entity.

    I must admit, I have had some difficulty connecting with Lynch since he began piling on the TM. In older interviews and books such as the amazing ‘Lynch on Lynch’ – there is barely a mention of it – now it is largely all he talks about.

    My disconnect with this aspect of him has as much to do with my own background – but I do find his photography interesting – perhaps more than his artwork. It speaks a closer visual language to that expressed in his films, which is how I and many others became interested in Lynch.

    I think you have done an admiral job to keep the focus on Lynch and his art beyond cinema. As my linked article demonstrates, Lynch as an example of the germination of iconic images are what place him alongside Giorgione, Titian et al in a visual sense. Hearing Lynch talk about where ideas come from and what to do with them is fascinating. Much more fun that the TM rhetoric.

    @Andrew – Lynch is often coy with his influences, but sometimes lets a name or two slip – as he did with that Bacon reference. In ‘Lynch on Lynch’ he also states a deep affection for Kafka – saying that he ‘feels like a brother’ – which he then qualifies by admitting that a lot people say that about Kafka! It’s a great read – it spans Lynch’s cinema and visual arts career in equal degrees.

    Kind regards

  3. Other than the “good job” realism of Desiderio, is there anything to recommend his paintings? The overwrought drama in them is unbearable. It’s like Odd Nerdrum without perversity, or Norman Rockwell without wit.

    I have to go with Lynch on this one: “change the fucking channel.” I’d much rather have a violent monkey in a cape than another A+ figure painting (that’s really just an excuse to paint some silky fabric).

  4. Ah, come on, Sam. Valid comment about Desiderio but that is not the point of the comparison. If there is nothing to be said for craft [“good job”] what’s the point of art school? Why did Lynch bother? He could get a show on the basis of celebrity, not craft.

  5. Every manmade joy in life is directly attributable to someone who has learned their craft. I don’t want to even bother with badly crafted, movies, meals, wine, writing, paintings, sculpture or architecture. Try going to a dentist who is shitty at his or her craft and see where that gets you.

    Beyond that is great art, which is a “crafted” piece of experience— an unforgettable and ineffable moment— that makes us feel alive and keenly glad to be so. As Nietzsche said: “The essence of all beautiful art, all great art is gratitude.”

    As a filmaker, David Lynch is a compulsive, overindulgent stylist, incapable of a denouement. Twin Peaks was a weekly version of “Here kitty, kitty.”—only more banal!

    As a visual artist, moreover, his efforts never go beyond gestural vomit.

  6. Painter Joe, I see Ms. Mullarkey making a fairly direct “good student / bad student” comparison. But it takes about the same amount of imagination to find Desiderio’s paintings good as it does Lynch’s bad.

    Champions of Bouguereau dismissed the Impressionist painting as “cow licks.” Ms. Mullarkey’s paragraph that begins with “This is the kind of anti-art…” might be plagiarizing Monet’s critics circa 1865.

    Craft and creativity aren’t the same; sometimes they are in apparent conflict. We now see craft in Impressionist work, but that’s because we now see what they were after and how they got there. Cow licks is how you do it.

    Rear guard critics speak of “craft” and “beauty” like they are eternal Platonic forms, or the way Jesus taught his disciples how to draw.

    To me, craft is a vehicle, not an end. It is to take you somewhere. A craft can be abandoned or perversely applied for several reasons, often political. Manet went sloppy and lowbrow against the French bourgeoisie, and Massacio abandoned decorative ornamentation in favor of naturalism. These are challenges to craft.

    So who is really hankering to see the next batch of atelier graduates? If creativity can exist in this formulaic style (do we still like creativity?), it will be pretty superficial, like Steven Assail painting mohawks or my friend putting jeans on St. Paul.

    It might be said that Lynch isn’t after anything, or after anything worthwhile, but I don’t think any of us actually know that. Nor is it possible to say he has no craft; he simply isn’t employing a craft you want to see. I personally see craft in his work, but not anything a critic will find on their checklist.

  7. Well Sam, with all due respect, I wonder if you’re in touch with your own unconscious assumptions regarding art history, which seems full of bias, pejoratives and boilerplate avant garde agitprop.

    I tend to agree with your first post wrt Nerdrum and Desiderio—in terms of their vision—but not their craft. You seem to imply that any artist with a love of craft stops there and can’t get beyond it. Yes, Bouguereau was as much of an escapist-stylist as Nerdrum and Desiderio—but also Lynch, in his own way. They’re called trendoids, btw—whether you’re a rear guarde critic or avant.
    But then do really look at Manet or any other artist with a genuine vision that goes beyond fashionable styles and you will see real life—not someone merely going through the motions of artistry.

    If you can’t see the regurgitated (you might say appropriated) Cy Twombly in “Nihilistic Delusion” or the aped folk/outsider quotes in “Change the Fucking Channel,” then I have to wonder in what way your knowledge serves you.

    It is art that makes life, makes interest, makes importance and I know of no substitute whatever for the force and beauty of its process.
    Max Eastman

  8. Robert, when you say you don’t bother with badly crafted movies, meals, wine, writing, paintings, sculpture or architecture, are you suggesting you know in advance what the maker was after but failed to achieve? So sushi is botched fish’n’chips.

    Saying Lynch is incapable of “a denouement” is like accusing Michelangelo of not painting boobs right or insisting the Shakers had no flair.

  9. Sam, I’ll finish my thought for you: I don’t bother finishing a badly made bottle of wine. I don’t bother finishing a poorly directed movie. I don’t bother to finish a meal that is defectively cooked. I don’t bother to walk around a sculpture that doesn’t engage my interest or curiosity . . . . and so forth.

    So no, I don’t “know in advance,” but I do have enough experience and a personal connoisseurship when it comes to artistry and I can tell, fairly quickly, when quality isn’t involved in an artist’s expression.

    Nonetheless, your similes of botched sushi, Michelangelo’s painted breasts and Shaker objects are all ludicrous and missing the point. I pointed to the moon and you’ve dwelled on my finger.

    Shakers were as much about craft and simplicity as they were about expressing the peace, order and beauty in their lives. Sushi, and the Zen esthetics that go into it, has absolutely nothing to do with fish & chips—other than the fact that both use fish and I love to eat both, provided they are made with love and thoughtful care. When they first unearthed the Belvedere Torso and brought it to Rome, Michelangelo said: “This sculptor knew more than God!” If you take a good look at his Sistine Sybils—which are all based on the torso—you might recognize that he just didn’t fixate on breasts the way American men seem to do, today.

    So tell me please, how is Lynch’s muddled, over-stylized and vapid expressions doing anything more than echoing a muddled, over-stylized and vapid culture of clueless art trendoids who think style and fashionable ideas-du-jour is great art?

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