Artists, as aesthetes, tend to surround themselves with things they like. Part of their aesthetic is about what they select and what they discard. Ordinary people do this in their everyday lives, too. The totality of their comfortable existence is a product of the things they choose to embrace and equally of those that they reject. These things can be fashion, architecture, ways of speaking, political ideals, the colours they choose for their walls (why is it always bleeding magnolia?!), you name it. We’re all curators and our aesthetic choices are what define us as artists and people.
The problem with that approach is that it rapidly becomes sterile and sclerotic. Eventually, you surround yourself with only the things you like and you become an intellectual museum piece. While ideas and art move on, always innovating, you freeze yourself in a moment in time. That might feel comfortable, safe and secure, but it’s also consigning yourself to increasing irrelevance. You’ve opted out. You’re no longer part of the struggle and the debate. You know what you think and what you like and everything else is jettisoned from your world view. You have become, in effect, bigoted.
We see this effect on social media and in art classes, alike. On social media, you tend to endorse and follow only those people that say things you agree with and who are the sorts of people you would like. Algorithmic timelines then ensure that these people’s postings are what you preferentially see. In art class, people will cluster around a particular style and approach, rejecting all others, in the interests of group-think and unity. We subtly conform to those around us, simply by choosing to be with them, instead of amongst people that will challenge and discomfort us. We’d rather sip coffee over insipid chatter, than participate in meaningful, animated discourse with people that might change our minds.
We form these little hermetically sealed bubbles to exist within and so everything we hear is as if in an echo chamber. It’s just a reinforcement of things we would think, say or create anyway. We choose to block out the discordant noises and shut out the light that hurts our eyes. We’d rather have our certainties and our prejudices stroked and reassured, than run the risk of being proven wrong. We’d much prefer to perfect our ability to render the bland and superficial, in our art, with photo-realistic fidelity, than to attempt the risky endeavour of creating something abstract, or in false colours, or with genuine emotional impact, badly. We aren’t, in the main, aesthetic researchers, explorers or seekers. We’re aesthetic adopters.
When I was a young child, you couldn’t force me to eat prawns (shrimp). The very smell and look of them was repulsive to me. I didn’t get as far as tasting one, because the very idea of them made my skin crawl. Later in life, I eventually relented and tasted one. Oh my word! What had I been missing? These delicacies of the sea were utterly delicious. Since my first taste of one, I’ve been fortunate enough to seek out and enjoy some of the most exquisite examples. The best ones were in Spain and Queensland. Had I doggedly stuck to my initial prejudice, I would have denied myself an entire universe of pleasure. My stubborn insistence that I knew what I would and wouldn’t like proved to be wrong. I was idiotic. In truth, the years in which I eschewed prawns were nothing more than lost opportunity to enjoy one of life’s finer things.
Your tastes change and evolve, whether or not you are aware of it or want it to happen. It’s inevitable that, as you age, your senses change and you are inadvertently exposed to new aesthetic experiences, until one day you find yourself appreciating the finer points of things you didn’t much care for, or even notice, before. I initially saw disco music as worthless, but have since come to appreciate its finer points. It’s still not a favourite style of music, for me, but the excellent things in it definitely inform the way I create music in my own style. The attitude is useful. There are things I learnt from disco music that can make anybody’s music better, including my own, in a style quite removed from disco.
Your perspectives change, too. Whereas I was pretty sure of my views on a wide range of subjects, in my early twenties, I’ve come to realise that I really didn’t know enough about what I thought, to think through all the inevitable consequences of upholding those ideas and ideals. I know better now. I’ve read challenging books and watched challenging movies. I’ve listened to people with ideas opposite to my own, who eventually persuaded me to see the rationale and reason behind what they were saying. There are many ideas I blindly endorsed, as a younger man, which I have come to see through, in later life. I expect that ideas I hold today will also eventually succumb to better information and deeper understanding. Being so sure of what you think that you stop questioning your opening assumptions is quite dangerous. The rulers of everything rely on most people doing this, in fact. People fixate on and ossify ideas that are repeated to them and that suits the people harvesting the rest of the population, for personal gain, just fine.
You see, each and every one of us has been neuroprogrammed, deliberately and systematically, since we were born. Those that seek to preserve their privileges spend vast fortunes repetitively reinforcing ideas that they want the rest of us, without the resources to influence the masses ourselves, to adhere to. We’re fed convenient ideas that defuse dissent and reinforce obedience and subservience. We are deliberately passivated, in order to shore up their vast fortunes. Our capacity for neuroplasticity is taken advantage of and we are brainwashed to think what we think, without being aware of the process, or acknowledging that the ideas we hold most fervently are not our own – they were implanted in us for a purpose.
But neuroplasticity works both ways. We can reprogramme ourselves. Through techniques of repetition and continual exposure, we can immerse ourselves in ideas and aesthetics that are antithetical to the interests of the privileged elite. We can counteract the effects of twenty four hour, rolling news, with its drumbeat propagandisation, by reading alternative things, watching other ideas and exposing ourselves to ideas that initially cause us a feeling of emotional and intellectual discomfort. We can overcome our own psychological inertia and begin to replace the ideas that were implanted in us, since we were children, with ideas that we’ve thought through, which faithfully reflect our human values and which we choose. If we can’t choose the things we think, then we have no choice in anything. Sadly, so few of us acknowledge that the things we think were put into our heads by other people, for their own interests, without us even noticing.
It’s vitally important, as an artist and as a human being, to stay open to the possibility that there are other possibilities. Other ideas and aesthetics might be the prawns we’re currently refusing to eat, because we think they will be odious. We may be denying ourselves intellectual delights and uplifting, emotional sustenance, simply because we refuse to entertain the very idea of understanding and embracing other ideas and aesthetics. Stay open to new ideas and viewpoints or ways of seeing, even if they offend your aesthetic sense. Your current viewpoints and aesthetic choices might be wrong, or not serving you as well as alternatives might. It’s quite probable that they are.
Try to learn from everything; even stuff you don’t agree with or like. Keep a few cranky extremists on your timeline, but genuinely attempt to understand their viewpoint. Sometimes, they’re just damaged people, spewing their bile and hurt over everybody else, in an attempt to lessen the personal burden of it, but often not. Often, the crank with the unworkable, unrealistic, utopian idea is onto something very valuable. Sometimes the obnoxious, flag-burning renegade, with every conspiracy theory under the sun in their head, has exposed a real, gaping hole in the official story and revealed the manipulation and manipulators that need to stay in the shadows to be most effective. Neuroprogramming fails, you see, if you can perceive the unsavoury motivations of the programmer.
The best way to develop your technique, as an artist, is to do the work that feels least comfortable and familiar. They call it “going outside of your comfort zone”. As a musician, try to play in a style you wouldn’t normally listen to, for no other reason than to inject new ideas, adapted from the style you don’t like, into the style you do like. Always look for the gems. You still might discard most of what you encounter, but if you were honest, you would always find out why other people like what you do not and find a way to respect and admire that aspect of it.
It works for painters, too. Use the brushes, mediums, painting techniques and colours you don’t particularly like. Paint in styles you prefer to bypass, in the art gallery. Try to discover the aesthetic aspect that makes it work for other people. See if you can make that idea work for you, somehow. Be a collector and explorer of other ways of seeing and doing. Get out of your self-imposed rut. Creativity springs from this willingness to explore and experiment. If you visit only your own, familiar neighbourhood, pretty soon you have encyclopaedic knowledge of it, but not much else. Being an expert on a small world is not as exciting or useful as knowing a little about a vast world.
As a writer, use words you wouldn’t ordinarily use, in sentences you wouldn’t normally write. Read books that express views you don’t agree with, or which tell stories in a way you find awkward and unfamiliar. Write dialogue the way you would hear it and say it, not the way it has come to be stylised, in other people’s writing. Break the rules. Try to distinguish convention and habit from genuinely useful techniques. If you write, write with honesty and heart, not in an attempt to emulate the style of a great writer. If the style checking programmes indicate that your work is less than conformant with the designated style rules, rejoice!
The paradox at the heart of focusing your life and your art on things you like is this: When it is all said and done, you can always find something disagreeable in even the most agreeable of companions or artworks. Hence, there is no point in trying to surround yourself with only the things you like. It’s exposure to the things that you don’t like that shape you into a better human being. Being insular and isolated merely confirms you in your conservative, obsequious, subservient, obedient, designated role.
That’s a role that short changes you, denying you the opportunity to be the best human being you can possibly be and it’s one that short changes the rest of us, because your greatest gifts are never fully realised and shared. It doesn’t even serve the privileged elites as well as unleashing your talent and potential would.
But they don’t see it that way, do they? They’re stuck in their own echo chamber bubbles, living in gated communities, rising above the ordinary miseries of the common people through their sheer purchasing power. They don’t interact or experience. Instead, they seal themselves into their own private clubs and exclusive enclaves. From their cosy viewpoint, they imagine a world out there that is theirs to control and farm, by right. They never consider the possibility that a populace that disobeys and challenges the rulers of everything and doesn’t do what it’s told is actually the route to realising a much better world for them, too.
“None of us are as smart as all of us.” – Japanese Proverb