Wednesday, August 11, 2010

art isn't easy

I got into an email discussion with someone about some lyrics from Sondheim's "Sunday in the Park With George." In the song, an artist is desperately trying to raise funds for his art. He sings:

Art isn't easy
Overnight you're a trend
You're the right combination
Then the trend's at an end
You're suddenly last year's sensation!
All they ever want is repetition
All they really like is what they know
Gotta keep a link with your tradition
Gotta learn to trust your intuition
While you re-establish your position
So that you can be on exhibit...
So that your work can be on exhibition!

Our discussion centered around the last two lines. My friend asked me why the artist started to sing about putting himself on exhibition and then changed it to putting his WORK on exhibition. This is my attempt at an answer:

Why do people make art? I'm sure there are many reasons, but most of them can be thrown into two categories: to show off or to study. "Study" is not exactly the right word. What I mean is that someone might paint the Brooklyn Bridge because he's fascinated with its form: its lines, angles and colors. Someone might direct "Hamlet" because he's in love with Shakespeare's language and wants to get up close and personal with it. Etc. There's a social element, too, of course. He wants to share his love, fascination, insight and obsession with others.

The other motive -- the show-off one -- comes in a variety of flavors. A LOT of artists create art to get laid. This is a form of "peacocking." A bird shows off his bright feathers; a painter shows off his brush strokes. Think of groupies and rockstars, etc. Other artists just want to be seen as special or creative or smart.

(It's important to note that these drives needn't necessarily be conscious. A peacock doesn't think "I want some nice peahen ass!" when he fans out his tail. It's instinctual. I am married and not looking for groupies, but that doesn't mean I'm not partly driven by peacocking instincts. It's not a rational-based drive. The same might be true for studiers. It's not necessarily the case that they say, "I want to study the Brooklyn Bridge." They might just feel oddly attracted to it for reasons they don't understand. This drive is probably based in an instinct as primal as the sex drive -- the need for an animal to explore its environment.)

How do you tell if a specific artist is a peacock or a scholar? The acid test is this:

God: What's your favorite subject?

Artist: Desert landscapes.

God: Okay, here's what I'm going to do. I'm going to give you enough money so that you don't have to work. You can just paint your landscapes full time, for as long as you want.

Artist: AWESOME!

God: There's one catch: if anyone besides you ever looks at your paintings, they'll disappear. So you'll have to make them just for yourself. No one else will ever be impressed by them. No one else will care about them. No one else will even see them.

How will the artist react? Well, it depends on the artist. Most artists will be disappointed, because whether they are show-offs or not, they are usually communicators. But one kind of artist will totally lose interest. The ONLY reason -- or the main reason -- he is into art is for peacocking. Another type may be sad about it. He may even consider it a deal breaker. But at the very least, he'll be tempted by God's offer. He's SO into landscapes that even though no one will ever get to see his work, he's very tempted by the idea of getting to spend unlimited amounts of time doing that work.

(When you ask this kind of artist why he does what he does -- why he dances, writes, paints, acts -- he often says "because I have to." I can tell you from personal experience that this feels very true. Of course, I won't die if I stop directing plays. But it FEELS very primal. And not always pleasurable. Often, I don't enjoy what I do. I don't necessarily hate it, either. It doesn't seem to have much to do with enjoyment. It's "who I am." If you took my audience away, I would be upset. I might quit for a while. But I'm pretty sure that eventually I'd find myself creating again. Even if it was just telling myself stories in a dark room.)

The question is whether or not these two goals -- the self and the work -- can coexist happily. Obviously they sometimes can. We all know of brilliant artists who are also very popular and seem to love the spotlight. The problem is that (in my view) that's just good luck. While the two goals won't necessarily clash, they are likely to clash. (And notice how while some movie stars seem to bask in the spotlight, others flee from it. Just the fact that someone is a star doesn't mean he wants to be one. He may love acting but hate losing his private life. But he can't necessarily control the fact that fans adore him.)

As an audience member (viewer, listener, reader, etc.), I care more about the art than the artist. I don't want my experience to suffer because an artist didn't carry through on his work because he thought it would make him look bad. I don't want to have to watch some gratuitous special effect thrown in because the artist wanted me to be impressed with his showmanship. What I want is to fall in love with his story's characters; be excited by its plot; be enthralled by the colors in a still life; the melody of a song; etc.

The HARDEST part of making art is avoiding sidetracks. You have a vision. But it's SO easy for that vision to get derailed. Lack of money can derail it; lack of energy can derail it; lack of time can derail it... wanting to get laid can derail it. To create something worthwhile, you have to focus, focus, focus. You have to keep your eyes on the prize. This is why self-promotion and "study" are (usually) at odds. The former tends to detail the latter.

(Less often, the latter can derail the former. An rock star can get into the business to meet girls, but then get totally seduced by the art and science of harmonics, rhythm, melody, etc. He might find himself passing up a date because he wants to finish writing a song!)

Most normal humans have both of these urges. We want to be loved (liked, fucked, though of as special...) and we want to study (to immerse ourselves, to experience, to work through problems...). So my categorizations of the show-off and the scholar are extremes. I am probably more of a scholar than a show off, but I definitely have an ego. I get exhibitionist urges. What helps me is to just note that these two drives exist and to be as conscious as I can about which is driving me at the moment. And to think as clearly as I can about what my goal is and whether or not my current state is moving me closer to or farther away from that goal.

1 comment:

Marcus said...

I should note that this dichotomy becomes most interesting and paradoxical in autobiographical works. Of course, there's a sense in which all works are autobiographical, but surely there's a difference (at least in degree) between a painting of the Brooklyn Bridge and a self portrait. Much of the writing I love is very personal and self-revelatory. And the artists I work with most often are actors -- people who have to draw heavily on themselves (their "paintbrushes" are their own bodies!) even when they are telling other people's stories.

But the type autobiography I most admire is naked and confessional. Some actors (writers, etc.) seem to be saying "Look at me! Look at me! Look at me!" And -- here's the key -- they're saying "And when you look at me, see me as a HERO!" (Or as a great lover! Or as an intellectual powerhouse! Or as a man or woman of great virtue and compassion!)

The problem is that this art communicates nothing to me, because I can't relate to it. I might be able to enjoy a little bit of wish-fulfillment-based fantasizing ("I want to be a hero, too!"), but deep down I know I'm not a hero, a great lover, an intellectual powerhouse, or a shining example of virtue and selflessness. Deep down, I know that I'm a fuckup.

It's hard for me to dwell on my faults, so I've gotten really good at ignoring them, justifying them and hiding from them. That's a "talent" I have -- I've been cultivating it since I was wearing diapers. So I'm not impressed with actors who have the same skills. They are like watching jugglers who can only juggle one ball.

Tell me something I DON'T know.

The actors I want to see are the ones who are much braver than I am. The ones who are willing to strip themselves raw and stand in front of me, letting me prod at all their faults while at the same time making me want to shield my eyes and run from the room. I truly, truly admire these people. They have the courage to admit to something that is so basic and obvious that it's amazing how many layers of bullshit we've piled on to pretend it's not true: we're animals.

Again, this is about subduing ego for the sake of art -- which is to say for the sake of truth.