Why We Do It…

By age 14, I knew. I knew I wanted to pursue a life of creativity. I was sure, as only a 14-year-old can be, that I would follow my passion for music and for art. I played the guitar, the violin and the piano daily, and I painted murals on my walls, to my mother’s horror.

And like most kids in my generation (straddled as I was between the free-love hippie era and the balls-out Punk era, both of which live on in my heart, though they have their squabbles almost daily), and perhaps in any generation, my horrified mother cited that age-old admonition: ‘You’ll never make it as an artist/musician! Go to college! Get a degree to fall back on!’

An admonition that had fallen upon the ears of many of my idols, it seems. George Harrison (of the Beatles and the Traveling Willburys, in case I had to mention that) was told by his mother so often “the guitar is a nice hobby, George, but you’ll never make a living at it” that he had the phrase engraved on a gold plague which he had hung on mom’s wall.

And indeed, I did both: went to college, and despite mom’s admonition, I pursued a career in art and music. And paid the rent doing both!

I don’t blame the mothers. We are raised in a culture that says some very paradoxical things about art, creativity and fame. Our heroes are the creative geniuses and the pop stars. From my own youth, the Beatles, who were not only great songwriters, but who created the blueprint for modern musical recording; The Rolling Stones, who were chameleons that switched styles with each new album (at least until Ron Wood came along); The Sex Pistols, who revolutionized the three chord song; Bow Wow Wow, who I mention just because I think they were the greatest band of the otherwise musically bereft ’80s; Madonna, who was perhaps the first artist to seamlessly parlay music, fashion, photography and performance  into a single brilliant career; up to the now, Miley Cyrus who may be laughable but who refuses to be dismissed, and who makes as much a commotion with her lifestyle as her performance, while never falling prey to the darkness that befell her predecessors in that arena, Lindsay and Britney. All of these figures have been the heroes of their generation, and several later generations, revered for their contribution to popular culture, rewarded with wealth and celebrity.

But we also grow up hearing about the fate of what is believed to be the majority of artists: we’re told Van Gogh died penniless; we’re fed the stereotype of the painter who lives as a pauper in a garret; we’re certainly told “you’ll never make it as a musician, you’ll starve!” We watch shows like American Idol and The Voice, where one or two hopefuls rise above, while hundreds fall behind and disappear into visual obscurity, never to be heard from again outside of their Youtube channel. Those who do not make the cut whine that they’ll have to go back to teaching, or waste collection, or ranch-handing.

Indeed, an issue with our culture, with our upbringing, is that the few are worshiped, admired, emulated; but we are told that the only sign that their art has value is in the money they make from it. If you are wealthy, our culture says, you must be good; if you are poor, you must suck.

And while our culture feeds us images of the successful creators, it also warns us that we will never be among them. Our family, our teachers, our peers tell us we will never rise to be one of the lucky few who are revered for their art: we will starve, die penniless, fall into squalor if we even dare to try anything other than entertaining at parties, or painting flowers on the weekend in the park.

But never mind the successes you’ve never heard of—name one, just one, of the very well paid musicians playing there, yea, over there, in the background, behind the singers on The Voice or American Idol; name that woman who sang and played guitar on the cruise ship you vacationed on last year (in case you don’t know how that works, she makes $800 a week, is housed and fed by the cruise line, and travels the world); Name that painter whose work you see on the wall-sized mural at the bank you use, or the creator of Nemo, or  Jasmine, or Riley. Can’t name one of them, can you? Still believe you’ll starve? Singer Billy Joel said it so well in My Life, a song about a man who quits his ‘real job’ to pursue a career in comedy:

I don’t need you to worry for me cause I’m alright
I don’t want you to tell me it’s time to come home
I don’t care what you say anymore, this is my life
Go ahead with your own life and leave me alone

(Billy Joel’s lyrics belong to him and his publishing company…used with respect)

That fear, that terror of financial failure, is a lie, meant to scare artists from pursuit of their passion. Yet the brave pursue on, and face the challenge. Why? (We’re getting to that).

And among the thousand insecurities we face as artists, the fear of financial failure is just one. More profound for so many of us is the fear of creative failure. Or even more profound, the terror of failure of our personal worth.

I know I’ve mentioned a few times my love of Sally Mann’s autobiography, Hold Still. In it she talks about her struggle with poverty, controversy over her work, and most profoundly, artistic insecurity. She quotes her journals from the years she was seeking her place as an artist:

Can the artist produce under any motivation other than insecurity?… And is the end product, the tangible creation, made less valuable, less beautiful by the fact that it derives from a basic insecurity?

I think we all struggle with this, the yearning to be great, yet the compelling evidence of our eyes that we seldom produce the work that lives in our heads when we apply paint to canvas. The final product always seems to fall short. There always seems to be someone better than us, someone whose art shines like the sun while ours is, at best, a dim street light.

I read a book while in art school, and for the life of me I cannot remember what book or what author. But one passage has stuck with me all these years. I’m paraphrasing, but the passage spoke of the author’s students who did not want to ‘waste’ materials on a piece that would not be ‘perfect.’ The author wisely cautioned, do not aspire to become an artist unless you are prepared to go through reams of paper, gallons of paint, piles of canvas. No true art is created on a first try, or second try, or fiftieth try.

I harken back to Sally Mann, who speaks of the hundreds of prints she throws away because they are not good enough, in order to get that one print with which she is happy. Speaking of the agony of this process, Mann says,

It would be a lot easier for me to believe…that I was extraordinary in some way. Artists go out of their way to reinforce the perception that good art is made by…people with an exceptional gift…. Ordinary art is what I am making. I am a regular person making doggedly ordinary art….but…”ordinary art” is the art that most of us, those of us not Proust or Mozart, actually make.

Oh Sally Mann, how I loved you when all I saw was your photography…how much more I love you now!

Ordinary people making ordinary art; throwing away reams of paper, using gallons of paint, wasting piles of canvas. Anxious to show that final ‘good’ piece, or song, or character, yet terrified that the reaction will be ‘mm..’ or ‘that’s not your best work,’ or even worse, ‘oh, that’s nice.’

Nice! The worst thing an artist can hear! The painters who make their rent selling paintings of fleur-de-lis hung on the Jackson Square fence in the French Quarter produce ‘nice’ art. The musicians who play on adult listening recordings to be played on elevators play ‘nice’ music. No artist wants to show a family member, or a friend, or a romantic partner a painting on which they’ve spent hours of time, and actually, years or decades of experience, to be told it’s ‘nice.’ Nice is what you call the card your aunt sends you for Easter.

So why? Why do we paint, perform, write, sketch, when we are faced with the million challenges that lurk within and without: financial uncertainty, the whims of taste, the lack of peoples’ understanding of our brilliance and vision, the lack of support from well meaning family and friends, the gnawing disdain we have for our own work, our own worth, our own right to dare be expressive, and most of all, the risk of being told our work is ‘nice’?

I think it’s because when you have the bug, the artistic vision, the passion to create, it is a compulsion. You cannot rest, cannot sleep, cannot function in the normal world, unless you find a way to express that urge to create something that was not there before. The thing that is uniquely new, and uniquely you. And it is unique: no two artists can produce the same work, even when subject and materials are the same. I read of a conversation between two of my favorite authors, Neil Gaiman and Jonathan Carroll; Gaiman, showing an artist’s insecurities, wondered if his plot to the Sandman installment A Game Of You was too similar to Carroll’s brilliant Bones Of The Moon. Carroll told Gaiman that it didn’t matter; Gaiman would tell the story in his own unique way, and that would make it distinct from Carroll’s.

So the point of this rambling post, if indeed there is one, is this, I guess: success in artistic creation cannot be measured in coin (although our culture tells us that is its only value); It cannot be measured in comparison to anothers’ creation…is Hendrix a better guitarist than Clapton? (the early ’70s conversation starter in any pot-filled hippie den). Who cares? They’re both brilliant, they both changed the instrument forever, and who cares what stoned people think anyway? (No offense to stoned people: legalize!). It cannot be measured by any yardstick other than the artists’ own perception of its worth. Is it the way you imagined it would be? By some happy accident, is it better? Did it teach you something in the process of its creation? Is it simply better than your last piece? If yes to any of these, it’s successful.

We create because we must. As the Jewish expression goes, “if not me, who? If not now, when?” While this was meant to express philanthropy, art can change the world. If you do not create that art that changes the world through your unique vision, who will? If you do not create it now, every moment, every second, when will you?

If the answer to these is obvious to you, then I submit that you know why you do it.

Books I’ve referenced in this post:

Hold Still, Sally Mann

Bones Of the Moon, Jonathan Carroll

A Game Of You, Neil Gaiman

My beautiful girlfriend, the librarian, says ‘reading is good for you!’


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