Well… no new music this week. I had planned to have the song I’ ve been currently working on for what seems like an eternity finished over the weekend but the ‘real world’, maybe (probably) aided and abetted by Mercury retrograde – the cosmic trickster – threw me a couple of major curves that had to be dealt with. It’s Tuesday night and for now, those things have been dealt with. New music next week…
Instead, I find myself now writing about some things that had been on my mind and bothering me since the death of Amy Winehouse 2 1/2 weeks ago. Specifically, this idea that “great art is born out of great pain”. In other words, the whole ‘romantic notion’ and myth of the ‘tortured artist’. I really started wondering and asking a few questions about that… again. For instance: is great art produced only as the result of great pain? or… unless you’re suffering sufficiently, does that mean you can’t ever produce great art?
It’s kind of amazing to me that these are still prevailing assumptions about art/music and what it takes to make art, probably not among most artists themselves, but in the way it persists in society in general. As if to confirm this, I was in my favorite little coffee spot this past Sunday morning – Drip on Lovers Lane (in the U.P.) – talking to a couple of people and the subject of music and Amy Winehouse came up; one woman said, “artists have to suffer to make their art.” Well… I countered by saying that “that was a dangerous assumption to have about art because it just perpetuates that whole tortured artist thing – it’s a stereotype”, but that’s how deeply ingrained this idea seems to be (the “starving artist” would be a close corollary).
So I wondered… Does being engaged in the process of creating necessarily incline one to having inner ‘demons’ or do you create works of art because you know you have them and are trying to keep them at bay? Does that become the necessity?
What about those artists who are simply expressing joy through their work? Does that automatically disqualify those works from being great art? And why should it come down to a choice, seemingly, between being happy and healthy, relatively speaking, or producing great art? Which do you want more? Why not both?
An excerpt from a popular book I read about 20 years ago (has it been 20 years now?):
“In retrospect, I am astounded I could let go of the drama of being a suffering artist. Nothing dies harder than a bad idea. And few ideas are worse than the ones we have about art. We can charge so many things off to our suffering-artist identity: drunkenness, promiscuity, fiscal problems, a certain ruthlessness or self-destructiveness in matters of the heart. We all know how broke-crazy-promiscuous-unreliable artists are. And if they don’t have to be, then what’s my excuse?
“The idea that I could be sane, sober, and creative terrified me, implying, as it did, the possibility of personal accountability…” – Julia Cameron, The Artist’s Way
“Personal accountability”… hmm, that doesn’t sound terribly ‘romantic’. Sounds kinda… boring. The last part of that paragraph:
“You mean if I have these gifts, I’m supposed to use them?” Yes.”
In one sense, it would seem that not much has changed. What has changed in 20 years is the proliferation and speed of media, just the sheer saturation of it on a daily basis. Perhaps that tends to reinforce this kind of [pop] cultural myth where artists are concerned. You can see where I’m going with this, but I don’t want to get into all that just yet…
Who and what defines what ‘great art’ is anyway? It’s all subjective… ask 20 people what they consider to be great art/music and you’ll get a list of their personal favorites/preferences and 20 different answers. Why be concerned about great art at all? Because you can’t think about making ‘great art’ while you’re in the process of doing it, i.e., that designation doesn’t come from artists themselves. We’re just doing our thing, man, whether it’s pushing paint around on canvas or banging on the drums or piano keys – just makin’ some noise. You express what is yours to express or what you have to express. If it’s authentically yours – filtered through whatever influences you’ve digested – you can only draw from your own experience and vocabulary.
This cultural myth goes a lot deeper and back a long, long way and I can tell I’m probably going to drag poor old Orpheus and Narcissus into this somewhere down the line, so this is Part 1. The basic point is that I think we need to challenge (defuse) and re-think most of these commonly held beliefs/assumptions where art and artists are concerned in society, particularly where they are perpetuated through media outlets, and start to come up with a better model. The first thing is just to start by asking questions. I don’t necessarily have any answers, but something I’ve found useful is to remember that creating is just something you do, it’s not who you are… or as Frank Zappa put it: “Shut up and play yer guitar.”
Part 2 sometime soon…