Share, Listen, Think

Creating

In Art on January 30, 2013 at 4:27 pm

By Bekah McNeel

The question has been posed: is the act of creating inherently selfless? I don’t know the answer, so there is no cohesive argument here presented. But, here are the thoughts that led me toward no conclusion…

In 2006 I saw Kevin Spacey perform in Eugene O’Neill’s Moon for the Misbegotten at the Old Vic in London. All of the actors were wonderful. They were clearly well-trained, believable, evocative, and committed. But then Spacey came on stage. Or rather it was as though he grew out of the stage. Like some sort of fleshly vine winding around the dialogue and blocking. The cast was full of exquisite actors…but he was James Tyrone, Jr.

Afterward, like good American celeb fanatics, my girlfriends and I headed to the rear stage door (a cheery split door in an atmospherically dodgy alley) and met the estimable actor when he popped his head out like the doorman of Oz to sign autographs.

Kevin Spacey, or the specter thereof, looked haggard. He was clearly utterly spent by the wrought performance. Or perhaps from years of such performances. We stood and chatted with/at him, got our photos and left.

It’s common to hear creative people say that they are doing the thing that they can’t not do. In other words, they must do. I must write. My husband must design. It’s our gravitational pull and to deny it would be misery. So in some ways it might look selfish, like we’re just doing the thing we like to do, regardless of the fact that we’ll never be “finished.” Like the only reason we create is to throw pennies into the void.

glass sculpture sky

Photo by Roger Brown
Glass Sculpture
Alaska

But what separates this telos, this mysterious gravity, from selfishness is that its pull on me has absolutely nothing to do with how much I like doing it or hope to benefit from it. Some days it is all out war. Some days I avoid it. Some days I feel sort of “eh,” about it. I have no idea if it will render me rich, famous, and happy; or if this passion will slowly eat away my soul and leave me mumbling about the greatness that just slipped my grasp.

Whatever it was made Kevin Spacey look like he’d been run over by a truck.

Two years later, I witnessed this drained, vacant face again, this time on a much younger man. A friend of mine was playing in his final recital for his doctoral degree in piano performance. While he was on stage, the energy was incredibly similar to the organic fusion of performer and medium that I had witnessed between Spacey and the stage. Afterward, we all filed backstage to congratulate and gush over the 27-year-old pianist. Rather than the jaunty buzz of a performer enjoying applause and accolades, he was propped against a wall, barely upright, and rather pale. His gracious wife ushered us all through, helped him give polite words of thanks, and then escorted him home.

Creativity at its best, is painfully exhausting. It’s the sort of thing that leaves one staring into the void, emotionally wrung and utterly satisfied.

resurrection bay

Photo by Roger Brown
Resurrection Bay
Alaska

The painter Jacinto Guevara told me that he has to get his ego entirely out of the way in order to paint anything worthwhile. When he’s trying to impress people he can see it in his work, compromising the subject.

It’s not thankless work, though. Looking at something you’ve created is incredibly gratifying. Knowing that something exists that did not exist before is a really awe-inspiring thing. If this sounds a lot like how parents view their kids sometimes, that’s not surprising. Often generativity is treated as a creative act, hence the term procreation.  And certainly there is an amount of selflessness involved in parenting.

In the end though, parenting is different in that if it is done well, it is eventually unnecessary. A painter cannot paint so well that one day she comes to her studio to find colors appearing on canvas without her consent or design. Yes, some artists, especially actors and writers, talk about the work taking over, about the characters doing things that surprise them. But in a physiological sense, the hand of the artist cannot leave the brush if they want the paint to be on the canvas, while a parent’s hand must leave the child’s shoulder if he is to properly grow. Paintings can take on “life” but not volition.

So in some ways, creativity is like having a constant infant in a constant state of need, and while it gives great joy it also uses every bit of energy.

Point Lobos

Photo by Roger Brown
Point Lobos
California

How do we reconcile this with the popular image of the self-absorbed artist dressed in black, brooding on about the hollowness of society? Or the drug-addled starlet talking about her “process?” Or the basic hedonism we expect to see from the artistic community?

Well here are some theories on how the arts got a reputation for selfishness:

1)     Celebrity often makes people behave badly, whether they are artists or not. The only reason we are hearing about the great icons of art behaving badly is because they are icons. They are famous. It’s not painting or singing or acting that makes them act badly, it’s the fawning.

2)     Artistic temperaments are prone to introversion and/or iconoclasm, which renders them largely misunderstood. The assumption is that they are saying, “Screw you, I do what I want.” Some are, but they are more politicians than artists. Artists, if and when they are off-putting, are probably just saying, “I’m not sure I get you, and you sort of scare me. Please go away.”

3)     Artists can be a bit needy. But then again, when your life work is judged only by critics, ticket sales, and public opinion, the need for affirmation is probably stronger than, say, a job where doing well means taking home a fat bonus check.

4)     A lot of people like the image of the arts more than the arts themselves. They were once called imposters, in a more romantic era. Later the vogue term became frauds, phonies, fakes, jerks, posers, and tools. By any name, they are the unfortunate trolls under the front porch of the arts community, waiting to greet visitors and tell them all about their “craft.” The magic word to make them go away: “so show me what you’ve been working on.”

5)     Some artists are selfish.

Theory number five highlights an important truth. An artist is not his work. An artist is a person, and most people struggle with selfishness to a degree. However, the process of creating doesn’t demand that a person be a creator all the time. Only in the moment of pen going to page, voice going to ear, and chisel going to stone does the artist need to be free of ambition outside of one singular goal: this piece, this song, this scene. Unless you are wholly devoted to it, then something else crams itself onto the canvas and muddles the picture.

Art is not about altruism, wanting to give something to the universe. That would be far too high a demand. If universal goodwill were required in order for anything to be created, then the body of worthwhile work would consist of a cross and a crown of thorns, because that’s pretty much the only act I know of wherein the agent correctly assessed his power and desire to save the world. If artists thought that they could “give something to the world” the hubris would do as much damage as any amount of selfishness. Ego by another name. It’s how we get preachy art.

Inherently, an artist must believe that what they are doing is noble enough. If their goal is to create something good, true, and beautiful, then that is, in my opinion, enough. Let them use the rest of their life serving self or others. But the surest way to create a load of crap is to create something that aspires to be more or less than the best book ever written, best painting ever painted, or best song ever sung. (It is also my opinion that when done in the knowledge of God’s presence that this is worshipful.) The art will demand all. Make no mistake, the rest of the world will benefit as it sees fit.

All this being said, I have to acknowledge that there are people so skillful, so talented, so at the top of their game that they can create really great stuff with their ego and world-saving ambitions all crammed into the frame. There are some people who make pretentious art, and it’s good. Some didactic movies that are fun to watch.

At the end of the day, creativity is not a magic virtue that belongs to a special class of humans. It’s a basic trait, endowed in varying degrees to flawed creatures. And while talent, vision and inspiration are rare, the ability to create something is common. All humans have it.

In The War of Art, Pressfield describes a creative process that is more akin to chaining oneself to a desk than sitting by a bubbling brook and waiting for inspiration to strike. It’s certainly this way for me. It takes two hours of writing total garbage to crank out a sentence or two of my best work. Hard work is the courtship of the muses.

As much as I want to believe that some art is special, that there’s a raw, real, gut-wrenching purity to the best art, I don’t know. I love the Rolling Stones. I think they’ve got soul, and energy and all the good stuff. But they’ve been performing for 50 years. Surely not every one of those nights was magic. Piet Mondrian painted squares and lines. They are brilliant. They are provocative. They are visionary. But I could not point to Composition No. III Blanc-Jaune and say, “this has the spark” and to Composition No. 10 and say, “this one was done with selfish motives.” Who could?

Somewhere within the complex mixture of practice, talent, inspiration, skill, and desire, there’s bound to be fits of selfishness. However, there is a great deal of potential for generosity, sacrifice, and devotion as well. Without those latter things we would have art, but what good would it do us?

dew drop

Photo by Roger Brown
Dew Drop
California

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