The Artist and his Demons

Arthur Rimbaud - 1872
All writers are vain, selfish, and lazy, and at the bottom of their motives there lies a mystery. Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand. For all one knows that demon is simply the same instinct that makes a baby squall for attention.  GEORGE ORWELL

The urge to create is a fundamental expression of human existence, from the first cave fitted for living to the great symphonies and novels of the nineteenth century. This desire  to construct was galvanized by the birth of consciousness and has been honed by natural selection ever since.

Sometimes it's clear that what began as a practical, useful creation like the wheel can quickly become an expression of something much more complex as in a Bentley. Man creates both to quench an existential need and fill a practical purpose. As our resources and technology advance, the ego, insecurities, narcissism and occasionally an enlightened sense of form and function begin to play out. From weapons to architecture, the practical is overtaken by the need to express the esthetics's, worldview and insecurities of the creator and his milieu.

The Need for Narrative

Narrative emerged as the necessary antidote to consciousness. Once humans became aware of their own existence (probably as favorable mutation that gave crucial political advantages to our distant simian relatives), they needed a story to help them survive psychologically. As Edward Edinger put it “History and anthropology teach us that a human society cannot long survive unless its members are psychologically contained within a central living myth. Such a myth provides the individual with a reason for being.”

Individuals, tribes, ethnic groups, nations and religions must have a narrative to navigate them through linear time and prepare them for their eventual demise. The most dogmatic of these are the religious and patriotic myths that paint big pictures with broad strokes in their mission to explain and unify.

On the personal level people create narratives to explain how and why they are who they are, where they are headed and for what reason. The same can be said for families, organizations and businesses. Corporations nowadays insist on mission statements and a corporate narrative. You will never see a corporation simply say, "We are here to make money for our shareholders, we are driven by greed". It won’t do, just as few people like to describe themselves as controlling, manipulating creatures driven by the need to copulate and dominate their fellow humans. They much prefer to be called caretakers molded by a loving mother or BP, ‘Beyond Petroleum’

Somewhere between the ‘super’ stories of religions and nations and the quaint personal tales lies what we call art. It combines the need for narrative with the instinctual drive to create. Almost always it conjures personal history, myth and exceptionally it possesses the sublime nature of that which we are unable to "narratise". It is easy to imagine that the artistic expression emerged as byproduct of the two instinctual forces of creation and narrative.  This strange hybrid of the ‘shaman’ and the ‘carpenter’ became what we call the artist.

The Myth of the Artist

The artist is relegated to a no mans land between the guilds and the religious orders. Only when the art form becomes "sacred" are academies created to perpetuate it. This is almost always the death knell of the creative period. These academies stifle the original force much as organized religion smothers the "original spiritual experience".  A look at the schedule of a major symphony orchestra or classical dance group will show how "academization" of art is a clear sign that the form is creatively dead and its members are no longer "artists" but very skilled artisans dedicated to maintaining the art form for future generations. The propagation of graduate degrees in creative writing does not bode well for the novel.

Dylan Thomas
But the authentic artist must venture out into the unknown, determined to find that unique combination of relevant narrative and creative technique in order to tell a new story. Those that simply search for meaning become mystics, and those bent on building create all the artifacts of our modern world. The artist must combine the two drives, head off in the hinterland and come back with something new. He has often been marginalized, as he well should be. His place is not in the courts of the well to do but on the fringe, looking in.

The mystical journey is a solitary one. There is no need for an audience to approve of the performance. The mystic searches for an exclusive experience and for the artisan the marketplace is his judge and his reward is a monetary one.

The artist’s challenge is to take some of the mystics enlightenment and forge it into a tangible narrative.  For his work to "function" it must have an audience, yet for the artist this is simply a welcome consequence of a compulsive need to work and create.

No one gazes onto a blank white screen or canvas and decides to make something that will "sell". It simply will not create enough momentum to carry the artist through the arduous, painful process of writing, painting etc. Something else drives him and the only way to fulfill the need is to embed himself in the process. An approving public reinforces the mission, but it can never substitute the desire to create.

Entertainment or Art

A cheeseburger fulfills the same nutritional need as a fillet Mignon. Both, under the right circumstance, can be very enjoyable. The same can be said for Titanic and Roshomonon, Led Zeppelin and Shostakovich. The real question is whether the "high arts" are just cheeseburgers for neurotics. Do they fill the same need? Is the sophistication simply a form of reinforcing the social and economic status of elites?

Close to 50% of Americans don’t read, and it is safe to say that a large percentage never listen to music that hasn’t been written and performed in the last 50 years. Are these citizens missing something vital? Is a good episode of Lost enough to get us by? Much the same can be said for religion. A careful look at the cultural life of most Americans, or that of most in the industrialized, would reveal that the vast majority of people are fed a corporate culture from cradle to grave, from the films, news, books, high culture and low culture, almost nothing is put before them that has not passed through the hollowed halls of a multinational corporation. Most people would be afraid to watch a film, read a book, or listen to music that didn’t carry a reputable corporate brand. The same runs true for religion. If the original spiritual experience isn’t branded, most are skeptical.

Suzanne Valadon: Portrait of Erik Satie
In this generic, mediocre, corporately fascistic landscape the artist's mission is clear and true. He must cut through the advertising, propaganda, corporate speak, church speak, double talk and vulgarity and connect us once again with something that is beyond words and beyond comprehension. Only if he can both transmit that sense of eternal and rip the dogmatic and corporate filter to shreds has he done his job. The curious thing about the artist is that he may never know if he has been successful. Those artists that meet tremendous success in their own times  are often simply late.  Their success lies in re-hashing what has already been discovered, branding it and corporatizing it as in Steven Spielberg.

The artist is propelled by a compulsion beyond free will. What he creates befuddles him, and sometimes amazes him. As Borges put it, “What a writer wants to do is not what he does.”

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