I Stared Back At Myself From The Abyss
Some notes on the artist and society
The purpose of art is to lay bare the questions that have been concealed by the answers. — James Baldwin
I didn't become an artist with any lofty aspirations about saving the world. I just liked the way that it felt when my hand moved across the page, the sound of the keyboard, the quiet, the bloom of images. Anyone who is doing their job correctly is working to save the world. That's nothing special.
I also didn't become an artist because I wanted to be famous. I was too young to even really understand what "famous"" meant when I made that decision. Once you meet enough artists you begin to get a feel for who actually enjoys the work, and who just wants to get invited to parties and win awards and have dinner with famous people. Curiosity and growth is often sacrificed for trend-chasing and they put more effort into their social media presence than their art. I wouldn't worry too much about these people. History always recognizes them for frauds.
Art is dangerous. I used to think this was a cozy platitude because artists need to be made self-important, but it's true. So much of human violence is spawned out of an idea. The wrong idea will have people feeding you to the dark, to the wolves, to anything hungry enough to eat. The wrong idea will spill blood across continents, turn every shadow into a monster.
The artist is not a politician or an ideologue. Art often intersects with these spheres but first it must connect with people on the emotional level. Art is about the experience that exists beyond words. Not a foregone conclusion, but an experience. An interaction. A question. Everything else is propaganda.
Failure is important on the path to success, but bitterness, resentment, and giving up will guarantee ultimate failure. You should be afraid of that kind of failure. It will only cost you everything.
At the same time, personal failure isn't that big of a deal. Even if you fail as an artist you can still be a good example as a friend, human being, citizen. Maybe art just isn't for you. A passing fancy. A phase. There are so many of us struggling to make art because we are nature's experiments. Even if one of us fails, not all of us will.
The artist is almost always in a constant struggle between their continued existence and the ability to fully express themselves. Free speech isn't real. It's a myth. There have always been things you can't say without devastating consequences. And that space changes depending on the culture.
If someone doesn't absolutely hate you for the things that you create, you're probably not pushing yourself hard enough.
The concept of a writing "career" is overrated. Oftentimes it's a Faustian bargain. You get to do what you want (writing) but oftentimes you don't get to actually write what you want. Unless you just like the act of physically typing out words, it sort of defeats the purpose. The ideal outcome is to get paid to do the kind of writing that you want, but only a few people manage to achieve that.
There is an entire industry of rabid, sociopathic predators who want nothing more than to take your money because they know you're hungry for a dream. To many in the world your desire to be an artist is more important than anything you could ever produce, because desire can be exploited in a way that the art itself can't.
The worst thing you can do to yourself as an artist is try to sell your soul and realize that nobody's buying. It turns out that what you thought was worthwhile was ordinary, unwanted, and there are millions of people out there who are willing to do more, for less, and they're actually enthusiastic about it. Grateful, even.
So many people talk about being courageous in their art but they don't even know how to say "no" to a party invite or tell someone the truth when it's difficult. How can you expect to be an artist who can tell the brutal, unflinching truth about the world around you when you're so lost you've forgotten the lies you've told yourself?
People often tell me that I'm "lucky" that I'm able to have the resources I need in order to write, like they just fell into my lap and I didn't orchestrate my whole life in order to do that. Every single life decision I've made has taken my ability to continue writing in consideration. Don't expect the right life circumstances to happen by accident.
The only truly transgressive art is that which tells the truth. And nothing makes people more hateful, angry, murderous, and cruel than a truth they don't want to hear.
The artist is not a pure vessel, and society is not a tainting force. Artists often express the desire to be left completely alone in order to create, but if such a thing were to actually happen they'd either disappear or become completely irrelevant. It is the pressure of society and its demands that shapes the artist. Its the pressure that can turn your iron into steel.
Artist as factory worker, artist as blue collar, artist as someone who must constantly “produce” has been an overall net negative. You cannot sit down and do mental work for 8 hours like you would on a factory line. And although you can learn craft in an MFA or a writer’s workshop, it can’t actually provide you with something worthwhile to actually say. Art requires input. Sunshine. Experience. Blood. Pain. Revelation. Without that, you have nothing.
The risk of squeezing yourself into a “niche” or overly developing a particular style is that you can become a bland parody of yourself. In the desire to make yourself marketable you become afraid to branch out and experiment. It’s like a martial artist who only punches with their right arm because it feels stronger, but never develops their left, so it continues to shrivel. You rely on your strengths by obscuring your weakness. All the while you will feel pressure to continue doing what people love, but making it different at the same time. What results is often a bloated, weak, insipid version of what originally made you popular - because you haven’t allowed yourself to evolve.
So many artists like to share that “beware of artists” quote. You know the one. “Beware of artists. They mix with all classes of society and are therefore most dangerous.” The truth is most artists don’t mix beyond their own social class. They’re often afraid of people who aren’t like them. Their art reflects this. There is a fear and disdain for the other. You have to go outside of your comfort zone if you want to understand how people unlike yourself live.
In the last few years I've discovered it's not that insane people are drawn to creativity. It's that the interaction with creativity itself is what can make you insane.
Every artist has to go through dealing with people who have an opinion on the direction of their art or how they should craft their "image." Take their advice into consideration, but also don't take it too seriously. It's the job of others to try to sell you, but they don't always understand how you do what you do. If you're not like everyone else, you can't be packaged and presented like everyone else without losing what makes you special. And ultimately, you're the only one who knows which direction you want to go in.
It's easy to create art that deconstructs society. Art that indulges your worst impulses. Nihilism is the joy of destruction, and the expression of our own suffering, unleashed upon the world. It's much more difficult sift through the ash and the rubble of the universe, tongue of the angry sun on your back, and find something worthwhile to celebrate.
Success is not the same thing as popularity. You'll never know the impact of your work or who will be changed by the experience.
Not all art is positive. Some art makes the world worse. Especially art that tells a lie to appease whoever you think might have power over you. A lot of people don’t see a problem with putting on a jester hat to dance for a room of drooling, idiot children who think they’re emperors.
Don't trust any "artist" whose source of income is telling people exactly what they want to hear. If your survival is dependent on a foregone conclusion then you'll feel compelled to be dishonest with yourself.
You only have one lifetime to do something worthwhile. Everything that doesn't get you closer to your goal of being an artist is a distraction. Stop saying "yes" to appease people. Stop doing things you know are just procrastinating. Everything needs to be aligned in the right direction or your likelihood of failure increases exponentially.
Sometimes your art will want to take you into the abyss, and you have to follow. Images that trigger like a gun in the back of your mouth. Venom in your tears. And often before you get to the other side, you'll realize that the thing, that awful thing, that stares back at you from the dark, is your reflection.
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