We all think about our art in different ways. Those brought up to believe unquestioningly in market economies and in a culture of the self look at their art in what might be entirely the wrong way. In this world view, you produce art and it is sold, like making something in a craft workshop. End of story. There is nothing else. It’s a transaction. Finite. Closed. A singular point in time.
To make it possible, it is believed, you have to muster all of your creative energy, even if that means neglecting to care and share with others, so that somebody can take your work, for money and go away and appreciate it quietly, somewhere else. If you’re a performer, you might imagine that people come to see you, because you are wonderful and special, then you deliver your performance and that’s the end of it. We all part and go our separate ways.
It probably isn’t really like that.
We are all, whether you acknowledge it or not, connected. We share a culture, a zeitgeist and an environment. We are one species, on one planet. So far, we know of no other. How we create our art (or anything else, for that matter, including things made in craft workshops or production assembly lines) and how it is perceived, appreciated, consumed, loved and what meaning it carries all ripple forward in time. For a very long time.
Consider a painter. The painting you make is actually due to the fact that somebody loved and nurtured you into life, taught you to appreciate your talents and nature’s beauty. Somebody else may have showed you techniques and how to make your own aesthetic choices and made the opportunity for you to stand in front of an easel and paint. You didn’t get there on your own. You’re there as a proxy for everybody else that willed you to paint. Even your materials came from somewhere else, where somebody took the time and trouble to make them for you to use. If they cared about their manufacture, you can be assured that the paint is good, it will adhere for a long time, the colours won’t degrade, the pigment is consistently mixed with the medium and the paint is of a high quality. The same applies to your canvas. Your first brushstroke has already involved the love, support, integrity and care of a vast number of people, some of whom you will never meet.
What you paint, if it reaches an audience at all, continues to profoundly affect strangers for years. Think of all those Monets and Van Goghs. Those paintings are still hanging in galleries, astounding, inspiring, delighting and moving the emotions of people that weren’t even born when these painters died. Their consequential impact goes on, long after their own demise. Paintings by even the most obscure and unknown artists have this effect. People see them, long after they were made and cannot help but feel something of the struggle that was involved in their making. The beauty is evident for as long as the painting remains intact. That can be a period of time of hundreds of years.
Think of dear Freddie Mercury. Do you remember those concerts where he encouraged the audience to sing alternate lines of songs he had written? Where had the song come from? Was it from his imagination alone, or from his time? What did that audience interplay mean? Was that the spectacle of a person delivering a message in a one way traffic style, or was he playing with the audience, responding to them, interacting and enjoying a game that all were playing together, co-operatively? Was the audience responding because they were ordered to, or were they returning the love to him, in gratitude for his music? Did the music mean something to them because of how clever it was and how well crafted, or is it more likely that the song meant something, personally, to each member of that audience? How many significant life moments were marked and associated with “Love of My Life”? You see, while the song was made with a certain intention, it takes on its own life and meaning, when released to the public. It becomes a shared, collective memory – a part of the culture, because of its personal, intimate associations that individuals make between the song and moments of importance to their own lives.
I’ve heard it said that you should drop contact with negative (meaning unhappy or sad) people, rather than have your creative energy drained by these so-called “misery vampires”. They say you need to cut yourself off, as an island, so that you, alone, can continue to produce art. Well, if we all do that, who heals humanity? Who is left to comfort us, when terrible things happen to us? When one of us is crying, all of humanity is in pain. Surely for art to have any value at all, in the long run, it must be in the service of making humanity feel better, agitating to create a world in which terrible things happening to people is the exception, not a commonplace. You can’t lock yourself away in your studio, make something to earn a few bucks and treat your audience as mere consumers, too stupid to create their own art, utterly dependent on your brilliance to provide any. It isn’t like that at all.
You’re creating art because humanity provided you with that special privilege. What humanity wants back is something and somebody that cares about them. It has to be something that enlivens them, ignites, inspires, unites and connects them. They want to be comforted in their sorrows. They want a refuge in beauty, where there is ugliness. They want calm, when they are distressed. They want memorable milestones that they can attach their happiness and wonderment to, so that replaying the art brings those happy places and moments back to mind, vividly. They want clarity and answers, when there is confusion. They want to see a different way forward, when all avenues of enquiry and questioning have been stifled. They want freedom, when there is constraint. They want hope, when there is despair. They want to return the love, when they feel the love. They want to belong, when they have been alienated. They want to feel powerful, through your art, when they are feeling powerless. That’s the job of the artist. And it never ends. Your art, if it is made with integrity, has lasting value in this purpose.
So don’t be quick to see yourself as separate from humanity. You aren’t. You’re an intimate part of humanity and you are here to heal it, using the gifts and talents you have and were given, which can have such profound emotional impact. Your art can start revolutions. Your creative, positive energies are not yours alone, they are supplied and made possible by your community. You do not have the right to treat others with disdain, judgement, cruelty, harshness, coldness or unfeeling callousness. You already owe them better than that. You’re here to give back through all that you have been given, through your art.
Love humanity as much as it is capable of loving you. And that’s infinite, by the way.