The Prayer (1889) by Camille Claudel
This subject is always important. When it is not so regarded, our culture is finished. Here are some thoughts on what makes an artist, and how one relates to the culture around them.
The Mainstream: Thing 1 and Thing 2
One popular opinion holds that an artist is one who holds up the mirror pointed outward, simply reflecting back what is happening in the news and popular culture.
This approach guarantees that nothing new or authentic will be created, because the motivation is entirely external: usually money and fame. While this mentality may prop up popular trends for some little time, it merely signifies the lingering death rattle of mainstream culture. And make no mistake, this culture is dead, because it’s all about trends, money and fame, actively stifling the sincere voices of goodwill which are necessary for any kind of worthwhile art. The tree is known by its fruit (or, in this case, its lack): no substance and little style.
Take a look around: where is the goodwill? Where is the love? Mainstream music expresses mainly lust and anger, thereby encouraging more of the same. The visual arts are swamped with hideous ugliness. What is the benefit? Lust, anger and ugliness are a true reflection of the culture, because too many people are accepting them as “artistic” or whatever. None of this serves art’s ultimate purpose.
“Authentic” means coming through the sincere artist who has something of value to offer. More on that below.
Another popular opinion is that artists should turn the mirror on themselves. This is to be expected in a selfie culture, but narcissism has zero value and does not qualify as art. Art is so much larger than any of us, and putting myself at the center instantly places me outside of that realm.
On the one hand, so much is presented as art that is merely reactionist: caricatures of politicians, rallying cries to this or that cause, or miniature diatribes trying too hard to catch on as memes. These are as disposable as their subjects, with no artistic point or merit.
On the other hand, so much is presented as art that is merely emotional venting. Art therapy exercises undoubtedly have great therapeutic value, but should not be confused with art. Therapy is best kept confidential, not published. Most of it comes across as simply whining: “Look at me, I’m such a victim!”
Of course, the energy of the introspective, therapeutic process can be transformed and shaped into something truly artistic, but that is another process. It comes after, and only if one has the courage to go deep to begin with.
That sums up the problem with mainstream culture: it’s mainly on the surface, superficial, mundane noise. If it’s not plain narcissism, it’s railing about political issues with the same kind of basic ignorance as those who are being complained about. This doesn’t solve anything, it only makes the problem worse. It is basically a “culture” of self-centered cowards.
Whose Job is it, Anyway?
The artist’s place is not to react to circumstances – whether external or internal. These are all fleeting and of, at best, debatable significance.
The errors, lies, venality and corruption of politicians, business people and others making the headlines should absolutely be investigated, researched and exposed. People have a right to be informed about these matters. That is the task of journalists, not artists. The artist’s role is much more important.
The Artist’s Nature and Role
Art is not a means to some material end. The first entry in this Intrinsic Beauty series spoke to this, by observing:
We have a deep hunger – an existential need – for beauty, in the world, and in our daily lives. That is intrinsic to human nature. That’s what attracts us to a nice sunset, to fine music or artwork. That’s what draws us out into nature. The quest for beauty is part of our quest for meaning, without which life is pointless.
The artist’s task is to be a vehicle for creation, to manifest works that offer a glimpse of the sublime and beautiful, to remind us of what’s important, because – being caught up in the news – we are so often forgetting.
The artist’s place is to be responsible – able to respond. This not the same as trite reactionism, and is the polar opposite of victimism, which is the abdication of responsibility.
To respond properly, one needs to be able to see the larger picture, with vision unpolluted by self-interest.
The true artist is neither a rabble-rouser nor a narcissist; not a follower, but a leader. (The artist is not interested in being a leader, but the act of creation is an act of leadership all the same. If I seek to be a leader, if I seek to influence others, placing myself at the center, then I am disqualified from art in the same way that anyone who wants political power is automatically unqualified to hold it.)
The artist’s responsibility is to transcend temporary circumstances (both external and internal) by showing us worlds of possibilities. As the shaman lives outside society but is always ready to offer spiritual guidance, the artist should not be distracted by transitory details, but instead offer us visions of timeless beauty, of eternal truths. The driving motivation must be love and goodwill.
The creative act takes place at the intersection of the material and spiritual worlds (feet on the ground, head in the clouds), and that energy comes from the spiritual realm. It is a gift, a visit, from a power that we can never command, but only hope to serve by channeling and offering it to others to the best of our abilities. False ego must be set aside for something worthwhile to manifest. Arrogance locks the door; humility is the key.
If I’m an artist, it’s because art comes through me, not from me. This distinction is crucial. Art is not about me; it stands on its own. I am merely a channel, and all the work I do to develop and refine technique is finally about opening the door to that sublimely beautiful power, getting out of its way and letting it resonate through me in the most honest way possible.
All of this is a decision and a discipline, which anyone worthy of the title “artist” must take very seriously. That’s where the fun begins!
The “Resistance” Myth
“Resistance” is a popular word nowadays among many who fancy themselves artists.
“Resist” is reactionist. You are reacting to something outside of yourself, not initiating something from within. You are controlled by the object of resistance. It barks and you protest. You are giving it your attention and your energy. You are taking the energy of the other into yourself. This is not resistance, it’s voluntary possession. You’re actually validating the object of resistance and giving it more power over you – and the joke’s on you, because that “power” is nothing but illusion.
Knee-jerk reaction is not response. We are not able to respond in a useful way when we’re reflexively jumping at a string being dangled by someone else, even more so when that someone is (understandably) despised.
An artist cannot function in this way, and any “art” created in this context is entirely dependent on the resisted object; it has no life of its own and will not outlast the regime.
Creation, authentic life, occurs outside of that codependent “resistance” relationship. True resistance means not getting sucked into the whole scene. If you want to resist the inhuman, just act human. This world is full of evil and we’re not going to make it go away. What we must do is manifest goodness as best we can, outside of that arena of evil.
We must understand that the entire political/business sphere of activity, admittedly a sideshow that we sometimes have to watch with one eye, is actually irrelevant to our human life. As far as possible, the artist must carry on without wasting time, attention and energy on the pigs fighting over the trough. They will always be there, but engaging the beauty is so much more important that one can’t take all the grunting seriously.
If you can paint or draw, why waste your energy making caricatures of the evil and ugly? They’re temporary and irrelevant, and all you’re doing is unintentionally glorifying them, thus perpetuating the problem.
Ignore them, let them fall into oblivion as they must, and make something beautiful that will last! That is the mandate of art.