Artist’s Notebook 1/6/2020
I’ve tried to start this series of notes several times now, and each previous iteration began with a whiny list of apologies: for suffering the reader with my navel-gazing, for writing about the process of making art when I find most writing about the process of making art pretty awful, for apologizing in the first place. I’m not sure why I’ve wanted to start by apologizing, maybe I am too grounded in the idea of an audience and assume they will find the whole subject as dull as I do. But I find it necessary to think through a particular artistic problem just now, and can assume (it being a comfortable thought) that no one will ever read this, so there is no one to bore but myself.
The problem that has recently occupied me, the question that has moved onto the lumpy sofa in my head and will not leave is this: why bother? I do not mean why does anyone bother making art, I am as fully convinced of the need (in the strongest sense of the word) for art in life than I am just about anything–art is foundational, formative, born of the architectonic principles that underlie culture, identity, life, it is the way we knock down and build again the walls and windows between self and self, without which we would die. No, what I mean is why do I bother, and perhaps this is why I assume the subject a dull one, because my struggle is just as boring as everyone else’s (except maybe Knausgaard, who is just slightly more boring than the rest). I write and make music and other kinds of art, it has consumed most of my life, and I cannot seem to remember why, though the compulsion persists (obviously? I am writing this, though that is weak proof).
Why I should bother continuing with a kind of labor that has always seemed as essential to existence as breathing is a difficult question to come to terms with, it is existential, and my instinct it answer existentially and affirm, yes, it is a pointless exercise, but so is life itself, so hitch up those trousers and soldier on, looking for joy and satisfaction as they appear, also without any clear reason. But while contextualizing the pointlessness of creativity within the pointlessness of existence is comforting, it doesn’t help answer my question, it just applies it to every other damn thing I could be doing now instead of making art.
Perhaps it is the growing imminence of death, now that I have crossed age 50 and am peering down an increasingly short tunnel, and the associated sense of possibilities narrowing, that from this moment on, the side of the scale laden with opportunities for exploring artistic creation is tilting inexorably upwards, and the side with–what, sitting back and enjoying life, playing shuffleboard, bus trips to the mall, sickness, pain that requires my entire attention to manage–is getting heavier and heavier. I suppose that the opportunity for exploring my ability to endure novel forms of illness is growing, which is a kind of growth and not as entirely sarcastic as it first seems.
Should not a winnowing of possibilities instead make me cling more fiercely to those that do exist, that can be created, and try to wring all I can from them? Even granted that was a choice I could make, now that the seed of doubt has sprouted its worm, the original question–why bother?–corrupts even that attitude. For a while, I thought the problem was that I have no great successes–the socially measured sort–to point to, I am not an award winning anything, the number of persons who are even aware I make books and music and such is very minimal, but that is how I have gone about being an artist, not intentionally avoiding “success” but doing next to nothing to achieve it, because I simply don’t see the value in status. I don’t even like it when people compliment my new sweater, praise makes me uncomfortable and strongly motivated to change the subject. So, a diminished potential for garnering the attention I don’t want seems like a dead-end, in terms of analyzing my recent laziness and lack of compulsion toward artistic activity.
I could just be tired, I guess, a state of being which is closely related to some of these other issues I’ve been fumbling with. The exhaustion I refer to is as much due to the sociocultural condition in which I live, in a country run by an aspiring tyrant who occupies so much space in our collective emotional reservoir that everyone I know is tired, tired of thinking about the asshole who is making the world more dangerous, and much, much more stupid, at a time in the history of our species when we really need leaders who will accomplish the exact opposite. Why bother making art when the planet is burning and the worst are filled with a passionate intensity? Well, because we’re in that situation is one answer, and if it were that easy, I would not have to write all this out. But it is not that easy.
The all-too-common and all-too-wrongheaded idea that each age is a decline from the glories of those preceding it is one whose wrongness I have long kept in mind, a map I have hanging over that lumpy couch in my head. Also, that it applies as well to the scale of individual lives: youth is not the golden time from which we inexorably decline, mac and cheese from a box does not taste good just because it tasted good when I was four and knew no better; each stage of life is it’s own, with it’s own set of difficulties and opportunities. If I am to escape my conundrum and remind myself that my own narrowing sense of possibility might actually be just an example of this Golden Age thinking, and the reality is something more subtle, less a decline in opportunity than a sharper sense of how to choose what is worth doing and to what I should devote my energy, then I need to remember this lesson. And, by “remember,” I mean find a way to apply the same logic to the world that is making me so tired, since, as they say in the Mahāvākyas, Tat Tvam Asi, Thou art That, the individual and the absolute are manifestations of each other.
I am sure I have not solved my problem, but writing through it has helped, and at some point during the process, I could feel the rhythms of the work start thrumming again. And, as Elias Canetti once wrote, “so long as there are people in the world who have no power whatsoever, I cannot lose all hope”–all art, even the most craven, attention-seeking, sycophantic garbage, is an offering, to my fellow beings and to existence in all its warts and wonders, and there is nothing more to life than that, nothing more holy.