At the end of his life, Henri Matisse made art for a chapel. It was a strange thing for an atheist to do. That Matisse would make religious art was especially annoying to his friend Picasso. In one exchange, Picasso asked Matisse, sarcastically, why he didn’t just make art for a brothel.
“Because nobody asked me,” was Matisse’s reply.
You could take this answer as pure cynicism. The artist as gun for hire. “I make art wherever people pay me to make art. A church, a brothel, it doesn’t really matter.” Perhaps, in answering this way, Matisse was playing the tough guy in front of his friend and sometimes rival.
But there is another way to read Matisse’s answer. It is to take seriously that the asking matters. Matisse was asked to make art for a chapel, not for a brothel. He was—to raise the tempo of the language—called to do it.
Matisse seems to have seen it that way too. He always called the chapel his “masterpiece.” He said he was “fated” to do the work.