When I was a child, there were two very clever girls in my class. I liked them a lot, because they were not only outstandingly clever, but very sweet, as well. It was a joy to be in their company and I was fond of them both. One day, though, they went mad. I don’t mean literally mad, I just mean that it appeared to me as if they had suddenly taken leave of their senses.
I should explain. There was a childhood game, which I wasn’t yet aware of, called “Arp-Arp”. This was a way of creating a secret language, in which normal words are modified by adding the syllable “arp” immediately before every vowel sound. Hence, “pig” becomes “parpig”. “How are you today?” translates as “Harpow arpare yarpou tarpodarpay?” It’s an ingenious game, enabled by a very simple rule. These two, seemingly overnight, became expert speakers of Arp-Arp and speak they did!
The problem was I couldn’t figure out the simple rule, initially. My two friends delighted in having “secret” conversations, within earshot of everybody, secure in the knowledge that nobody could figure out what they were saying to each other. They became quite fluent, too. I can remember the feeling of being excluded, of being bewildered by the stream of seemingly nonsensical, incomprehensible words flying back and forth and of trying desperately to crack the code. They had a super power which I couldn’t access. It didn’t feel fair and it was more than a little humiliating to no longer be their intellectual equal (a situation which persists to this very day, incidentally, but only because they both achieved spectacular things in highly demanding, intellectual careers, which I am very proud of them both for).
Then, by some chance or miracle, I figured out the rule. I remember the moment. The answer came to me in a blinding, sudden flash of lucid insight. It was this simple? Now I felt even more stupid for having made such a meal of trying to figure it out. It was ridiculously easy, once you knew. How could I have missed it?
It was a very useful life lesson, however, though I didn’t know it at the time. When I became involved in software engineering, I used to meet a certain kind of programmer, from time to time (and several times in my career). I like to think of this type of programmer as a member of the sacred order of the Lords of Unix. What I mean by that is that they were fluent in the arcana and intricacies of using Unix, a computer operating system, when most programmers were not. As with Arp-Arp, the rules of Unix are actually quite simple, if you know them, but initially daunting and quite incomprehensible, if you are trying to figure them out for yourself, with nobody to help you crack the code.
What was irritating about the Lords of Unix (and what I was well aware of) was the fact that they loved to tell everyone that would listen how special they were, because of their “secret” knowledge, yet what they were trading on was, to me, just another version of Arp-Arp. They invariably built up their parts and acted as if they were God’s gift to software engineering, swaggering around and denigrating others, because they knew all the escape sequences and command line options off by heart. Instead of sharing their knowledge generously, they guarded it jealously. It was their one means of remaining one up on everybody else, after all.
What was self evident, though was that, for all their emacs customisations or rapidity with the vi text editor (another religious schism, which I won’t go into now), they couldn’t build things, out of software, that were reliable, useful and which delighted users. Some of their software creations weren’t worth a damn, despite their astonishing insight into tar balls and gnu. They couldn’t even agree, between themselves, how many spaces a tab character, in the source code, should be. Was it four or was it eight? Neither side would budge on the matter. Consequently, much of the shared source code soon degenerated into an indentation mess. Progress became all but impossible.
What was obvious to me was that they were bragging about and fetish-ising about the wrong super power. Knowing Unix is fine, even at Unix Lord level, but knowing how to create software that was great to use, worked and which people would happily pay money for, was a very different super power – one which was as foreign to them as Arp-Arp had been to me, at first. They had made a much bigger deal of a super power that wasn’t the only relevant skill required than was prudent. It turned out that the Lords of Unix did not have a monopoly on wisdom after all.
Art is about connecting with humanity; emotionally, intellectually, instinctually. It isn’t about technical skill or the mastery of arcane terms and knowledge. It’s not about separating yourself from others; it’s about embracing them. I think many artists run the risk of acting like the Lords of Unix. They play up the importance of their superior technical knowledge, while being wholly unable to connect with an audience, on any level.
Guitar shredders notoriously do this. They’ve become infamous for it, as a group. They spend so much time learning to whip up and down the fretboard, playing every imaginable scale and arpeggio, with lightning speed and finesse, yet they fail to create music that reaches people, moves them or says anything worth saying, other than, “Watch me. Behold my Lord of Shred skills, minions! Weep at your guitar playing inferiority!”
So does every artist that is all about the technique. In music, so many players worship the reproduction of other people’s improvisations, while being wholly disconnected from any ability to improvise in an original way themselves. Isn’t that tragic? Imagine developing a fine and nuanced taste for something you can’t actually do. Painters, writers and poets are not immune, either. Each group has their own equivalent of the Lords of Unix. They are all hiding what are essentially the same as the rules of Arp-Arp, from what they assert are lesser, mortal artists of their ilk. Meanwhile, their egos inflate in direct proportion to the boredom and disinterest they inflict on their hapless audiences.
Don’t pride yourself on your access to what you believe to be secret, occult knowledge. Instead, use that knowledge in the pursuit of real artistic goals. Share it. The acquisition of secret knowledge, for its own sake, is not art; it’s narcissism. Don’t be somebody that knows everything about how to write (or compose or paint), but has nothing to say and no ability to say it in their own distinctive way.
If you become one of the Lords of Whatever, I’ll come around to your house personally and speak Arp-Arp at you non-stop, while shredding interminably on my guitar and running a shell script to change the creation date of all of your computer files.
You can’t say you weren’t warned.