Enjoy the last days before Lent. If you intend to watch the Academy Awards on Sunday, you may be interested to know the backstory of one of the nominated documentaries, Cavedigger. A few months ago, I read about the documentary’s subject, Ra Paulette the cave sculptor, in “How a modern caveman could win an Academy Award.” It is worth your time to visit just to see the incredible work that the man does. From the article:
The caves are not enormous; mostly, their square footage would be comparable to rooms or perhaps small houses. His ambitions for them are outsize, though, as he describes in a new documentary shortlisted for an Academy Award, “CaveDigger,” directed by Jeffrey Karoff:
“These caves are designed as transcendent spaces. The fact that the cave is underground and you feel the earth around you yet the sun is pouring in: Those are the juxtapositions of the two metaphors of our life, the inside, the within, and the without. it’s a perceptual trick that brings out deep, expansive emotionality.”
And when he says “transcendent,” he isn’t just being flowery. “I want to subject mercilessly a person to the aesthetic in a way that stimulates a deep emotionality to the point where it becomes a transformative tool. That’s a big goal, but I’m ready for it.”
He doesn’t do it for glory, and he certainly doesn’t do it for money: When he’s been paid at all for his work, he’s generally earned perhaps $15 or $20 an hour.
“I don’t put any energy into being a success in the world,” he says. “My strategy is to wait for something from heaven to come along and lay it on me.”
He has taken a few commissions, not all of which have gone well.
“Ra’s not your typical person, which is what I like about him,” says his close friend, ex-girlfriend and onetime patron, Liz Riedel. “He doesn’t do things for himself, he does things for art. He does things for other people”—meaning the viewer of his art, not necessarily the person paying for it.
Riedel and her husband, Shel Neymark, commissioned a piece from him that was supposed to take two months and cost $2,000. They knew what they were getting into, though: They privately doubled his estimate, figuring that Paulette being Paulette, he’d take four months and $4,000.
It took two years—during which Riedel learned that she had cancer. She underwent grueling treatments. The couple asked Paulette many times to stop, and even believed once or twice that they’d convinced him. Still he refused to leave the project.
“When he has a shovel in his hand, he’s like a coke addict with piles of coke. He just loves to keep going and going,” Neymark said.
They admit, though: The work he produced for them was transcendent.
Paulette’s story reminds me of one of my first lessons in college, though I did not learn it at the time. In a freshman American political philosophy course, the professor (one of many Straussians in my formation) explained the liberal commercial republican ideal of bourgeois self reliance and then asked about the people who do not fit well into such a regime—like artists. I considered myself a libertarian at the time, and I reckoned that such a man would just live in poverty if not starve. I didn’t give it much more thought than a Social Darwinian sigh and a nonchalant tant pis pour lui. If our hypothetical man wanted to flourish, he would have to play the game like everyone else. Over time, though, I came to realize that a society impoverishes itself by not furnishing niches for human diversity in disposition and talent. Of course, the breadth that a regime can allow depends on its strength; a civilization under constant threat of martial annihilation necessarily focuses on making its people soldiers rather than artists. Yet, it is the less for it. Sparta is a fact to behold, but its excellence came at great costs. Regimes—and their lawgivers—must weigh such benefits and costs in trying to maximize the excellence of their people. A nation of shopkeepers has its value, but it offers a very narrow path for human fulfillment.