The Emotional Trauma of Trying Hard

A friend of mine said something profoundly interesting recently.  He said, “Seems to be a certain truth in the suggestion that the lessons you find it hard to learn keep on coming back… until you learn them.”  There are things that are recurrent, in your life, that if you fail to learn from them, you’re doomed to repeat, until you do.  For me, it’s the hard life lesson that the things that make my heart sing the most are virtually worthless to everybody else.  They have no value and command no respect or reward, but to me, they mean everything.  These are the very things that make my eyes sparkle.  They are the things that light up my curiosity and enthusiasm.  As a consequence, the yawning, cavernous, abysmal gulf between what I love and what people value about me is thrown up into my face, time and time again.  They don’t care for my creativity, artistry or inventiveness.  What they are willing to pay for is my efficiency and ability to get things done, as a directed functionary – an effective cog in the machine, if you will.  It’s a painful reminder that everything about me that I regard as worthwhile is of no discernible consequence to the world of commerce at all.

Another friend of mine remarked on the recurrent nightmares that the more free-spirited, diligent, independent and creative engineers among us seem to share in common.  He noted that he and his colleagues all spoke about, “having nightmares about not being able to graduate because you somehow forget to attend some course.”  He reflected on this further:  “And what I found strange and memorable about it was I probably had only stopped having them in the not so recent past.  Probably 25+ years of decreasing severity”.  His explanation for why this might be such a commonly shared nightmare was that, “we cared a lot about what we did, and that could give you nightmares.”

I’ve had this same nightmare myself and it was recurrent.  I think it tells us something important about highly motivated, creative people.  I have my own ideas about why it might be such a common experience.  The way I see it, all creative people are shoe-horned into an institutional education system that makes constant judgements about their worthiness.  We are taught to seek approval at every step, for fear of being screened out and discarded.  Those of us that care passionately about what we do (making things well, for example) are subjected to a seemingly endless series of tests, tasks, challenges and burning hoops to leap through, or over, or to go around, or else we will be deemed unfit for the higher purpose to which we aspire.  It gets to the point where the thresholds seem artificial and arbitrary and the judges unqualified to tell whether you are good enough or not.

I think that, as a consequence of the continual pressure to prove one’s worthiness, seeking the approval of those outside of ourselves, all the time, we suffer from all manner of recurrent “failure” nightmares, “imposter syndrome” nightmares, “missing the boat” nightmares and “failure to qualify due to some stupid missed course or requirement” nightmares.  It’s a sign of psychological violence and damage.  People who care passionately about what they do, but who are told they require the approval and sponsorship of others, in order to be able to do it, feel the hurt and harm acutely.  The damage is caused by the fear induced in them that, for reasons out of their immediate control, they might be shut out of doing what they want to do most.  Judgement is harsh because it is frequently unjust.

The reality of the situation is stark.  Yes, you are good enough, because you are passionate about what you do and because you unfailingly try hard to do it well and to get better at it.  You want to please and you want people to be pleased with what you do for them.  Your passion is being offered in their service.  If you think about this rationally, for one moment, that’s the only grade you really need to pass.  You need to be content, within yourself, that you are doing the very best you can at the thing you love to do most.

Unfortunately, the ugly reality is that you are not permitted to do the thing you do best, no matter how passionate you are about it and how much you care about it, or even how good you happen to be at it, unless you can get past the arbitrary, senseless, frequently ignorant and indifferent gate keepers.  That’s why you’re being judged.  Those are the people with the power to crush your dreams and damage your soul.  How did they get to be the gate keepers anyway?

The truth is that the power of the gate keeper is arbitrary power.  It was given to them by a million different circumstances, but they all amount to placing them in charge of controlling others.  Whether that is through money, connections or lucky happenstance, all of a sudden a hierarchy is formed and this previously ordinary person is given the power of a God over who gets to play and who doesn’t.  Unfortunately, they’re still a fallible, ordinary human being, so in many cases they abuse their power or use it clumsily and capriciously.  They’re not equipped, in fact, to have power over whether or not another soul gets to express themselves in their purest, best way.  And that’s where it all goes wrong.

In lieu of wisdom, the gate keepers invent seemingly fair (but often specious) tests, gating conditions, standards, examinations, evaluations, certifications and the like, in an attempt to provide a means to tell who should go forward and who should not.  Sadly, they don’t know what they’re testing, they have little grasp of what a good one looks like, their tests and examinations are easily gamed and scammed and as a consequence, some of the bad ones get through and many of the good ones get shut out.

That’s why the money doesn’t always follow your commitment, passion and talent.  There are arbitrary, nonsense barriers in the way.  There are thousands of people you meet that can say “no”, but very few that can say “yes”.  None of that means you’re no good at what you are most passionate about, though.  It just means that access is denied for ridiculous reasons and you must spend a lot of your time and energy navigating the faulty gate keepers.

Were the world organised differently (and this is a real, workable possibility that we inexplicably leave sitting on the table), it would be possible to just do what you do best, without gate keepers.  What are they keeping you from?  Access to money?  Access to resources?  Why are those things scarce?  They aren’t scarce.  If distributed more equitably than they are today, you would have enough money and resources to do whatever you want.  The money and resources are there.  What is lacking is a will to distribute them.

The only reason that we don’t throw the gates open wide, so that whoever wants do to something they are passionate about can, whatever that happens to be, is because those sitting on the most money fear what will happen if they release their grip on it.  At the bottom of that fear is insecurity.  It speaks to their fear that, if left to their own devices to follow their own bliss, either they have no bliss (or don’t know what it is), or they fear they won’t be good enough to survive (which is a ridiculous fear, if the world’s wealth were distributed equitably), or else that their real talent is purposeless accumulation of money and the manipulation of others; a talent which won’t find a willing cohort of obedient participants, in a world where everybody else can follow their bliss.  The gate keepers fear judgement, too.  They can’t stand the shame.

It seems to me that if we decided, just decided, to remove judgementalism from the world and instead concentrate on doing what we all love to do most and do best, we could avoid the traumatisation of creative people and remove the fears of the gate keepers.  A product of the screening process, with all its approval stages and tests, is those recurrent nightmares and hard life lessons which, frankly, we could all live without.  They serve no purpose.  Psychological damage is not healthy.

I’ve seen it time and again.  I’ve seen very talented, motivated, selfless, passionate, excellent, creative people reduced to believing they are abject failures, because of corporate redundancies or institutional rejections, which often have their root in financial finagling, rather than due to any deficiency in the work effort of those people that cared about doing their work well and doing something worthwhile and important, in their work.  It’s wrong that these souls and spirits should be so wantonly crushed and oppressed.  It leads people to believe that they’re not good enough.

They are good enough.  They’re more than good enough.  These people are creative, artistic, hard working and effective at repeatedly producing imaginative results, in tangible form.  They’re much better than the shitty system of gates and gate keepers deserves; a system that we uphold only in order to maintain illegitimate, unearned and undeserved privilege.

Creative people can do better than this.

Update:  After posting this article, an advertisement for a paid workshop, where creatives could supposedly learn to make more money, appeared on my twitter timeline.  The thrust of the message behind the workshop turned out to be that creatives are marketing themselves ineffectively or wrongly.  To me, this is just another species of telling people that there was a vital course they missed, which will prevent them from succeeding and therefore failing, due to their own indolence.  It compounds the nightmares and inflicts more psychological violence on them.

I’m afraid the undoubtedly well-meaning person that offered the workshop didn’t receive my most charitable questions, I regret to say.  Needless to add, they completely failed to understand that their extraordinary claim (“make more money as a creative”) was not backed by extraordinary evidence.  They did not offer a money back guarantee for workshop attendees that failed to make more money as a creative, following the workshop and did not understand why failing to stand behind their product was problematic.  The course leader also could not or would not cite how many of their workshop’s previous participants had, indeed, gone on to make more money as a creative.

The world is full of people like this, who make money by telling creative people that their own starvation is due to some terrible lack in their approach, or due to some other profound personal flaw.  Please don’t give them your money or take their psychological abuse to heart.  If you are creating, you are already successfully doing it.  There are any number of external reasons, unrelated to your qualities as a person, an artist or creative being, which can prevent you from making money from your creative endeavours, irrespective of how diligently you market yourself.  I blog about some of them, often.

I think it is cruel, ghoulish and vampire-like to prey on the hopes and dreams of other creatives, in order to make your living, without putting your money where your advice is.  People that don’t at least attempt to succeed as artists have no business telling other artists why they aren’t succeeding financially, as artists, except that there are plenty of “training” businesses that do precisely that, aren’t there?  If somebody claims to tell you, a creative, how to make more money as a creative, ask to see their creations first.  Also ask if they have any hard evidence that their advice works and ask whether they are prepared to back the soundness of their advice with some sort of concrete guarantee of efficacy.  Telling you it’s all up to you how you apply their advice is weasel wording to get themselves off the hook from having to deliver what they promise.  You’re entitled to see the proof.

That isn’t to say you shouldn’t take care of the marketing and promotion side of your creative life, but it is totally obvious and pointing it out, for money, isn’t very helpful.  Don’t let anyone bully you into believing that your lack of financial rewards is all your own fault.  You don’t need one more psychological scar or nightmare.  The fact that you create and care about your creations is amazing in itself and is a success of a kind that the moneyed world cannot adequately grasp.

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Music Has Been a Blessing and a Curse

There is something they never tell you, when you decide to become a musician.  They never tell you that it is both a blessing and a curse.

In many ways, music has, for me, been my sanctuary and an all-consuming interest, throughout my entire life.  I am definitely enriched, as a sentient and sensitive human being, because I spent time on my music (but less enriched in my bank balance).  Music has been a comfort, a friend, an escape, a protective fortress, a place to feel comfortable, a way to appear cool, a conduit to lasting friendships, a confidence builder, a way to relax and de-stress, a joy, a pleasure, an emotional release, a means of self-expression, my hope and dream, a way to strike up interesting conversations with people that wouldn’t ordinarily look twice and it has been the stable rock that has been at the centre of my life, ever since I was very small.  For those many blessings I am eternally grateful.  I am no less grateful for the time and money my parents devoted to my musical education and to my nearly obsessive hobby.  I am also lucky to have a musical wife and two musical children who, while rolling their eyes every time I see a guitar shop, are indulgent and supportive of my music.  Those blessings are considerable.

The curse is that it has been a Tantalus.  I have never been able to make it a paying proposition to the extent that I can support a family in comparative middle class comfort.  To do so would entail sacrifices that I am not prepared to make, on behalf of my family.  They deserve a better living and shouldn’t have to endure deprivation, so that I may create.  I also realise that making music full-time means your ability to obtain better gear and more musical learning resources becomes severely constrained.  We have always been a twinkle in each other’s eye, music and I, but somehow never made it all the way.  The frustration of needing to play down your lifelong interest in music, for the convenience of others’ egos, or to silently nod and grin, when a professional musician of less experience, ability and polish calls you a mere amateur, is quite wearing, in the end.  Never being able to devote the time to get your skills up to the level you would like is also quite annoying.  However, the worst curse is the feeling that there is still music inside of you that needs to be released, but you just can’t get it done.  You’re busy earning a living instead.  I may be one of the better music producers that nobody has ever heard about, for all I know.

The music industry is a cruel and unjust place, which appears to rip off its best artists more today than it ever did.  Starting from the base it started at, in the fifties (for argument’s sake), that can only mean it has gone from abysmal to worse.  Audiences are fickle, everybody else gets paid first and there is no certainty in building a life around your music.  I don’t know any musician, personally, that has really managed to square the circle of maintaining a reasonable family life, some income stability and yet remain free to pursue their art with some degree of artistic independence.  Not a single one.  They’ve all struggled.  Everybody I know has had to make some sort of terrible compromises along the way.  I don’t know many top-flight musicians, but I know a few.  The legions of next-tier musicians I know, to a man and woman, have found it a massive struggle to keep going with their music.  Every one of them has a terrible story to tell.

All of that is not to say that working as an actuary or quantity surveyor is not without its terrible compromises, either and I suppose that’s my point.  We’ve reached a nadir, in human affairs, where it is seemingly impossible to do what you love most, without terrible sacrifices, compromises and heartache.  That represents an enormous amount of psychological pain and stress, in aggregate.  But here’s the thing that mystifies me utterly: nobody can tell me why a human life should have to be like that.

They mansplain that it’s economics, or the system, or that it isn’t reasonable to expect to live a life of happiness, yet that is always trotted out as the stated aim of all political and economic systems.  Why the high failure rate in fulfilling on that promise?  Can it really be that we’re born to suffer, and then die, when things like music provide so many opportunities for sublime happiness and an exquisite emotional life?  Surely, in the twenty first century, when we are glutted and sated with just about everything and commodity prices are plummeting, there would be ways of distributing the abundance more equitably, without forcing the majority of people to foreswear the things that make their hearts sing.  Call me naive.

All that prevents this dream coming true is the greed of a few who lay claim to the most.  That’s all.  The hierarchies and deference we maintain, to enable them to do so, is all in our heads.  The privileged keep it this way because they cannot stand sharing.  You having more hurts their feelings of self-importance.  But that’s all it hurts.  They still have more than enough, even if they share.  There’s a hell of a lot of opulence to go around.

I bet none of them play guitar well.

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To the uninitiated (and even to initiates), the process of turning nothing into something, as artists do, is mystical and magical.  How does the raw material mutate into a work of art?  What is the mysterious power of imagination to turn ordinary, mundane art materials into emotionally affective works, which excite and ignite the senses?

The range of possible art materials to use is overwhelming, including words, sounds, media, paint, paper, canvas, clay, precious metals, and even foodstuffs and so on, but the resultant artworks exhibit greater variety and diversity still.  The possibilities are seemingly infinite, even when the starting point is far more constrained.  How does a mere mortal conjure infinity out of finite resources?

Artists are often seen, in the popular imagination, as a species of magician or alchemist.  The work they do is transformational, transformative and pure transmutation.  They unleash things, bring them forth into being, call them into existence, summon them from who knows where, seemingly through the use of black magic or dark arts (in the sense that their skills and techniques are somewhat poorly understood, by the observer).

We’ve all had the experience of beholding a work of art and wondering how the artist made it, or more commonly, what caused them to think about making that particular work of art and what motivated them to start and then to see the creation through to completion.  We marvel.  It seems inexplicable.  The origins of outstanding artistic ideas are often obscure, or even esoteric.

There is nothing necessarily intentionally tricky or dishonest about it.  Artists exercise their powers of creation instinctively all the time.  It’s one of their superpowers, as artists.  Creation comes as easily as any other survival reflex.  In many ways, it is their creativity that sustains their minds, bodies and souls.  It is an expression of their very essence, as sentient beings, in an indifferent universe.  Life may be abundant, in the universe, but the life on this small planet is currently the only life we know.  There’s something special about a creature that can bring forth something new and vital, from something old and lifeless.

The act of creation, of course, has unpredictable consequences.  Not even the creator of a work of art can predict its effect and impact on other people.  By conjuring up some new piece of art, the artist can unlock something in other people’s minds, or release something into the world that, as a work of art, can take on a life all of its own.  The arc of its story and existence cannot be controlled by the artist and need not correspond in any way to the arc of the artist’s personal story.

Sometimes, the smallest steps you take in the right direction, as a creator, can end up being the biggest step of your life.  You can’t always tell which steps are going to be the decisive ones and where your steps will lead you, as an artist.  Some steps, disappointingly, take you no further forward, while others can change you and your relationships forever.  Although your act of creation might seem small, it might be the one thing that ultimately changes your entire life, or somebody else’s.

Often, the thing that seems like magic, which the artist employs in creating their art, can turn out to be little more than holding up a metaphorical mirror to their society.  People may be amazed, shocked or horrified to see themselves as they really are, through art.  Art has the capacity to reveal truth to those that do not wish to acknowledge it.  It that a conjuring trick?  I don’t think so.  I think it has more in common with divine revelation.

Coming out as a conjurer, by making people aware of your artistry, can change how you are perceived by others, quite profoundly.  You are sometimes seen as awesome, incomprehensible, vaguely frightening or threatening, mysterious, or from some other world.  It makes you a little bit dangerous, in their eyes.  You are above intimidation and control.  Your insights brazenly expose the ruses and wheezes so frequently used by the powerful to keep the powerless oppressed.  You are a hazard to entrenched dogma.

The dark side of an artist’s seemingly magical powers of conjuring creations out of thin air is that they also possess the ability to turn blatant lies into widely accepted fact, by the application of unjustifiable hyperbole and fear.  Not all artists use their conjury for good.  It is regrettable indeed that some of the finest artistic conjurers are, in truth, dark magicians.  Wisdom is not always congruent with powers of creation.

Can we unravel what lies at the root of these conjuring powers?  According to noted art collector, Mera Rubell, “Art is a language which opens your heart to the Other”.  Language implies a commonly understood means of communication, shared between people.  “Other”, expressed as a proper noun, has deeper implications: alternatives, different viewpoints, other worlds, something not of our mundane, every day experience, that which is outside of “us”.  It encourages us to go beyond ourselves.

Art historian, Claire Bishop, says, “Art is a form of experimental activity overlapping with the world”.  That tells us that art is experimentation and that the experiments overlap with our generally perceived reality, but the implication is that the overlap need not be total.  Experimentation is generally a route to understanding or discovery.  It is empirical, quantitative and qualitative, following a method of enquiry.  Artists need to try things that have not been tried, investigated the never investigated and push the boundaries of artistic perception.

Leo Ferrari, the philosophy professor, claims that, “Art is not beauty or novelty; art is effectiveness and disruption.”  According to this analysis, art is active, affective, it causes effects, and it disrupts and changes things.  It’s not simply something pleasant to look at and behold, nor is it something we’ve never seen before, which we regard as novel.  Art is a force for the advancement of human understanding.  Art must do something to the world in which it exists.

When contemporary artist, Amalia Pica, explains what art is for, she says, “It’s a way of resisting the lack of meaning in things, a desperate attempt to make sense of how random and absurd the world is – and it’s also a way of celebrating exactly that.”  I’m not sure things have no meaning, though we may very well perceive them to be meaningless, without art to help us make sense of what seems to be random and absurd.  In my view, some of the greatest absurdities in the world are drearily predictable and produced methodically, rather than truly random.  In any case, art is seen as a tool for understanding and rationalising that which appears to be senseless.  It is also a way to celebrate the truly random aspects of life – those occurrences that are wonderful, but defy rational explanation.  The making of art itself can be viewed as one of these, I think.

It is clear that if you are conjuring art into existence, it ought to be about something outside of yourself, which causes an audience to think and feel differently than they did, before being exposed to the art in question.  It has to experiment with the world, make sense of the seemingly insensible and actively change the world.

One of the most confrontational subjects for an artist to take on, today, is income inequality, because it will prod and disrupt those who are the very patrons of their art (they being the main beneficiaries of inequality).  Artists can have some real fun with this.  The inequality is wholly illegitimate, based on arbitrary and entrenched privilege and this is a rich vein of inspiration, to be mined at length and depth.  When we think of France of the Belle Epoch, the art we view today as most redolent and representative of those times speaks to the social conditions and consequences of widely upheld ideas that were most evident, at the time.

In one hundred and fifty years’ time, people will want to see the Art of Inequality, representing the folly of our dysfunctional economic distributions and its attendant injustices, because that is what will characterise our era most vividly.  We might not acknowledge it today, but the upper tiers of the art world are utterly dependent on the richest people, who have benefited most from income inequalities, buoying up the prices of their works.  Isn’t that a delicious irony, which paints an indelible and iridescent picture of our current times for future art aficionados to remark upon?

No less a flamboyant and high profile art collector as Charles Saatchi, “finds this new, super-rich art-buying crowd vulgar and depressingly shallow.  Do any of these people actually enjoy looking at art?  Or do they simply enjoy having easily recognised, big-brand name pictures, bought ostentatiously in auction rooms at eye-catching prices, to decorate their several homes, floating and otherwise, in an instant demonstration of drop-dead coolth and wealth.  Their pleasure is to be found in having their lovely friends measuring the weight of their baubles and being awestruck”.

Artists, you need to be making art about this: big brand, herd mentality, shallowness, superficiality, and fragile egos, dependent on the adulation of others who evaluate the size of their balls.  Depict people who are wholly disengaged with the actual art, whose life consists of meaningless accumulation of properties they rarely live in, as a vehicle for making a statement about their own unearned, illegitimate privilege, which they somehow think they can legitimise by sufficiently grand and flagrantly ostentatious purchases.  They’re worth it, right?  They don’t love art, they just love to be seen as art lovers; two very different things.  Everything is bought for the impression it will make.

If you cannot make art about this rich subject matter, you aren’t really trying, as an artist.  I assure you that people of future generations will find our habits, in relation to art, an absolute hoot, or else a precursor to their own more advanced degeneracy.  It might even be held up as a shining example of best practice from a bygone Golden Age.  All that can be certain, in a world of uncertainties, is that this aspect of our culture – our enthusiastic and insouciant embrace of extremes of wealth inequality – will stand out as marking it, for centuries to come.

Of course, continuing to make banal, chocolate box art, as an artist, is, in a sense, exactly describing the same phenomenon, but from the artist’s perspective, rather than that of the art consumer.  This reduces art to being a trophy, rather than as a conveyor of meaning.

If you don’t want to tackle that unpleasant subject matter (wealth inequality and unearned privilege), you could always try depicting the fragility of human life and the delicate balance of our natural environment, which is rapidly being destroyed in order to play a human-invented game of finance, called “Profit”.  If that doesn’t inspire you to conjure up works of relevance and significance to future generations, then consider the growing, creeping, global totalitarianism that is currently enveloping us all, suffocating every last independent thought and idea, by stealth.

If those subjects don’t inspire you to conjure, then perhaps you could make art that references living in a time in history when a handful of delusional, self-appointed, cynical, sociopathic, megalomaniacs could spread insane deceptions and have the entire population join in, blindly, obediently and overzealously, to amplify the falsehoods and the consequent harm.  Rarely has there been more of this sort of thing happening, in human affairs.

I submit that these are the ideas that will be the future monuments to our time, just as Fascism, Communism and rampant Capitalism came to characterise the twentieth century, mostly through industrial scale death and destruction, waged via an almost completely unbroken sequence of successive wars.  The twenty-first century trends I have described above are how future people will understand our era.  Artists who make art that speaks to this subject matter, lucidly and honestly, are going to be the most immortal of us all.  Their art, making concrete and powerful statements about these popular delusions and trends, will stand the test of time.

Art is potent magic and artists are more powerful conjurers than they usually realise.  What we depict and represent provides the means of understanding who we are and what we thought.  It clarifies our contemporary ideas, if we care to notice, but also snap-shots our zeitgeist for future generations to marvel at and perhaps condemn.

Of course, that said, you could always conjure up a better world, with better outcomes for all, through your art.  The power is in your hands.

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I Think I Might Have Two Brains

Does anybody else experience this?  You’re in the midst of cooking a meal, having a bath, eating or brushing your teeth and all of a sudden, part of your brain thinks, “I’ve just had a brilliant idea that must be turned into reality RIGHT NOW!”  So, you try to rush through whatever mundane thing it is that you are in the midst of doing, before your brain forgets the brilliant idea, or loses enthusiasm for it.  It happens to me all the time.

It’s as though there are actually two brains inside my skull.  One is trying to take care of bodily necessities, for survival and the other one takes any lull in the excitement as an excuse to create some.  At any moment that isn’t full of action or activity, the creative half of my brain decides it’s time to hatch a new scheme, or plan, or piece of writing.

Usually, ideas are not delivered in an orderly, serial way either.  The usual experience is that a flood of ideas comes – five different ones at a time – all of which need to be attended to now.  The fact that the flood gates open and a deluge of creative ideas is unleashed usually heightens my fear of not capturing any one of them.

The creative brain can be quite fickle.  If you don’t pay immediate attention to the idea that has just been delivered, it can sulk and make it impossible for you to access that nascent idea at a later time.  Access is denied.  You cannot, for the life of you, even remember why it was so exciting at the time.  Can there be any more frustrating a feeling as knowing you had an interesting idea, but not being able to entirely remember what it was?

My family often witnesses me frantically dashing toward the computer, fumbling to open Evernote on my iPhone, or scratching around for a pen and paper.  During those moments, they know that to attempt to speak to me, engage me in conversation, or discover, through any means of communication whatsoever, what it is I am dashing to capture is all about, is an utterly futile and self-defeating pursuit.  I will only grunt, wave them away or get cross, if I have to stop and explain, at the seemingly extreme risk of the idea evaporating entirely.  They know me well enough, now, to simply stand back until the brainstorm abates.

My practical self feels guilt about this.  It’s very rude to cut people off without explanation.  Sometimes, they are trying to say something important, which deserves my full attention, but I fail to give them my time, to listen and respond.  I feel bad about that.  I am also aware that it is also important to maintain body and soul and to complete those little mundane life tasks that have to be done.  What’s so special about the latest idea anyway?  They come all the time.  Surely missing one won’t matter.

There’s the nub of the problem.  You can never tell which idea is truly great and which, if missed, would cause untold regret.  That is partly insane, of course, because if the idea is great, it ought to recur to you.  Flashes of brilliance that herald true genius ought to, under normal circumstances, assert themselves repeatedly, until you do something about them.  The fear of forgetting just one idea is kind of irrational, if I were honest with myself.

Like many creative people, though, I’m not completely honest with myself.  My two competing brains conspire against me to make it so.  They thrive off their ability to have me at their beck and call, whatever their competing agendas dictate.  It doesn’t matter if I am late, tired, in a hurry, physically exhausted or I am trying to sleep, just a little longer.  Whatever time of day or night that an idea hatches, I will be made aware of it, regardless of my conscious state and I will have to respond.

Maybe it’s just me.  It could be that nobody else has this feeling.  I do, though.  It is both wonderfully liberating and simultaneously incarcerating.  Having a single brain, I think, would be much easier.  On the other hand, having a second, unconscious brain that is content to mull over different problems, in the background, while I do other things, is quite good, too.  It isn’t much to ask to pay attention to it when it brings something from my unconscious, that it has been working diligently away at for some time, to my conscious awareness, is it?  It’s the least I can do.

I have no way of knowing if other people live like this and consider it to be normal.  I’ve always been this way.  I had always assumed everybody else is the same.  Sometimes I wonder, though.  There are an awful lot of people who can produce little evidence of such sudden ideas occurring to them.  Maybe they ignore them, or simply don’t find a way to capture them, in time.  Perhaps the ideas never come at all, or very infrequently.

Do you have two brains?

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Celebrity and Artistry

It seems to me that, as the economy has become increasingly unequal, most fields of human endeavour have reduced to a “winner takes all” contest, where the winner gets all the spoils and the rest barely subsist.  I’ve noticed this concentration of success in the arts too.  Nowadays, it seems to be the case that the only really financially successful artists, who can work on their own terms, have had to become celebrity artists in order to do so.

If they’re not already celebrities, they are intent on becoming minor celebrities, in the hope of raising their profile to that of full celebrity, at which point they don’t have to worry about starving, as an artist, any more.  This has been a successful tactic for many artists.  There is a long history of artists who make more money from personal appearances and product endorsements than they do through sales of their artistic output.  The recording industry is full of them.  Perhaps acting is, too.  Some artists make far more money making a television documentary, which endorses and publicises their art, than they do from their art itself.  So, are they television presenters, at that point, or artists?  What takes primacy – their celebrity or their artistry?

At some point, regrettably, being a celebrity takes over and being an artist takes a back seat.  Being a celebrity and being an artist are two distinctly different things, in reality.  One is concerned with public image and exposure.  The other is concerned with perfecting an imaginative vision in tangible form.  I don’t deny that there can be some overlap, but which tail wags which dog?

Some celebrity artists stop developing, as artists.  Their art becomes an afterthought, to sustain their celebrity career, instead of vice versa.  You can see this for yourself.  Records stop being made.  Paintings become less frequent.  Chefs stop cooking.  The old hits are trotted out repeatedly, like some grotesque, gothic exhumation from a long-forgotten crypt and their new work is a shadow of their earlier work.  This isn’t because they got old, or because they forgot how to be artists, it’s because they’re distracted with the travel, the schedules, the appearances, their appearance and a set of concerns wholly divorced from making their art.

It’s amazing that their art gets a look in at all, in reality.  Even if they struggle to maintain an authentic artistic career, they devote less and less time to preparation and to actually producing their art.  Time becomes too expensive to devote to inspiration, refinement, musing, jamming or experimenting.  They have to produce their art quickly, on schedule and move on.  It resembles factory production, more than artistry.

Sometimes, they hire assistants, who are the real artists now, while the celebrity artist looks on, issues directives and claims authorship of the work of other people’s hands, intellects and experience.  Their celebrity commitments won’t permit otherwise.  Consequently, the quality of their output stagnates and even plummets.  There is little integrity in becoming a thinly-disguised marketing machine, just because everybody knows your name and face.

Of course, with our current political economy, our monetary value system is such that artists that make it big are so rare that they’re bound to become celebrities, for that feat alone.  Their celebrity derives as much from their unlikely success and the scarcity of similarly remunerated peers, as it does from the quality and appeal of their artistic work.

Knowing that celebrity is the route to some type of economic independence (at the expense of a public private life), some people start out as deliberate celebrities, who become famous for being famous and then they graft a thin veneer of artistry on, as an afterthought.  We all know of musicians that couldn’t play a note or write a song, until long after they achieved acclaim.

The problem with this strategy, as a starving artist, is that celebrity is distraction and that’s why the powers in charge pay big money for it.  Distraction has value to them, in that it prevents the population from thinking important thoughts about deposing their illegitimate rulers.  Celebrities are there to make you think you could make it big, too and to help you forget that the world has important, pressing problems to address.  Instead, you are meant to be entertained by celebrities, so that you forget all about these things.

If that’s how you derive meaning from the world, as an artist, then by all means follow the celebrity path.  I think it’s a pretty shallow substitute to making great art, which has some real truth and radical ideas behind it, though, personally speaking.  That’s the sort of art that tends to have longevity.  Of course, this consigns me to the ranks of the starving, not to those with enough money to live as an artist, or at least a pastiche of one.

That thought leads me to the burning question: How do you become a successful artist without becoming a celebrity?  Is there a way, or is celebrity the only path out of obscurity and penury?  How do you protect your art practice, once celebrity status is foist upon you?  I don’t know the answers.  I’ve never been remotely close to becoming a celebrity to have a perspective worthy of the name, on any of these questions.  I do wonder, though.

Maybe celebrity artists see it entirely differently.  Perhaps they share a secret I don’t.  I’d be fascinated to know.

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I’m Still Not What I Had in Mind

Many artists, myself especially included, live life with a peculiar, pestilent dissatisfaction.  It’s the feeling that all is not as you would wish it to be.  Essentially, the feeling can best be described as not yet being the artist you wish you were.  That can mean in terms of skills, success, or acclaim…whatever.  For some artists, it’s the insatiable drive to produce works that correspond, faithfully and in high resolution, to our imaginings of them, or else a life that matches up to our fantasy artistic self-image, which we hold dear.

That’s why we are so driven.  As artists, we continue to hone our skills, challenge ourselves, learn, rehearse, improve, try new things out, grow, expand, perfect our work, make mistakes, be our own worst critic, repeat it until we can do it, tear things up, throw things away, practice, become obsessive, get frustrated, become impatient with ourselves, strive to bring the thing in our imagination into tangible reality, wish our art was closer to what we want it to be, etc.  The reason we keep on going and keep on trying to be better is because we’re still not what we had in mind.  This is where our own particular brand of artists’ madness comes from.

This pursuit never ends, until we are physically unable to pursue it any longer.

At some moments in the quest, you will feel you have come close to what you imagined and those are magical moments.  Catching a tantalising glimpse of the work and the artist you wished existed in reality, which you made, yourself, can be a very encouraging thing.  It can provide the fuel necessary to cross the next yawning, testing, terrifying chasm.  As soon as you reach the standard you wanted to reach, you always imagine a higher one.  At this point, you’re back to square one again.  Having become what you had in mind, you are back to still not being what you had in mind.  The only thing that changed was your mind.

At other times, the distance between what you had in mind and the reality seems so insurmountably far, that you want to give up.  You can give up at any time, of course.  You don’t have to let your imagination dictate your real life.  Your ambition does not have to be your master.  If you decide to proceed, it is because you want to.  That’s important to remember.  Your suffering is of the same species as Wile E. Coyote’s, chasing the elusive Road Runner.  At any time you choose, you can stop and the pain goes away.  On the other hand, another pain might take over…the pain of not seeing your quest through to its conclusion.  Giving up is not a particularly satisfying feeling.

The quest to become the thing we had in mind never ends, because we can never become what we had in mind.  There is always a newer, higher, better conception of ourselves in our imaginations, no matter what we accomplish or achieve.  Peace only comes when we find a way to accommodate the persistent difference.

At this point, our art stops developing too.

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Half a Decade of Creative Ideas for Starving Artists

WordPress informs me that I posted my first blog post 5 years ago today.

I’ve written quite a lot since then, really.

What do you think of it so far? :)

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