If art reflects life, then there seems little point in a life spent blocked off, tucked away from experience.
So many of the artists I know sacrifice those unified experiences life has to offer in the name of making time for their art. They skive off personal connections, they avoid adventures, they stifle too much movement or activity, they become perpetual homebodies, because they need to live within an incubator so they’ll have time to fiddle around ceaselessly, honing their skills or scrounging for materials…
The result is kitsch.
Aesthetics-driven art that appears to carry some weight—at first glance. Preachy-pulp-fiction-pop-culture-palatable writing. Technical writing, when people write about something they have no personal interaction with, because they read and they think, and for many that’s enough to replace firsthand experience. Hypothetical treatises of self-discovery. A robot’s account of feeling alive, of primal love. Such works are doomed after a time to abrupt obscurity, no matter how scandalous or beautiful an first impression they’d made.
Similarly, there’s the attempt to find meaning in others’ art. You can attempt to accrete an appreciation through humanity through Tolstoy or Camus or whichever other long-dead thinkers you elect as your middlemen. You can chase a path to “enlightenment” by reciting benevolent words as you run after Christ or Kundalini yogis.
However, their wisdom, no matter how it resonates with you, is not yours, because they walked, and bled, and felt things like abandonment and regret, in order to access it. Their truth may coincide with yours, but it is not identical to your truth. Conceptually relating to the suffering, the lust, the relief of others is not a substitute for experiencing them for yourself out in the world, and consequently working through your own real demons of jealousy, of humiliation or guilt.
At worst, all that reading about life from a detached, “objective” perspective can cultivate that academic or spiritual narcissism of those well-educated enough to trick themselves into thinking they know how everything works, that they’re experts in life—a field in which expertise could only ultimately be a curse.
I thought I was there, as well, until I realized I didn’t know shit. I still don’t, but I know a little more now than I did back when I thought I knew everything and pontificated from within the safety of an emotional condom.
I’ll admit that most of the artists I know who live this way have technical skills that surpass mine. It’s true that if I invested more time into practicing my craft, on the surface I’d probably look like a better artist.
But I’d just be churning out pretty stuff, not really knowing why. Stuff to put on a t-shirt that you might see in Urban Outfitters, stuff to decorate your house with and stick on your trendy coffee table. Stuff to stock a festival vendors’ booth. Not just useless—arguably a defining characteristic, maybe even a virtue, of art—but also meaningless.
That work may be able to shock you, but it won’t haunt you.
It may present social commentary, in disorganized rants or cutesy platitudes, but their source is media and late-night conversations, not sweat and trauma and flirtations with death and the bitter tears born of experiencing injustice. It’ll titillate or fluster, but it won’t give you indigestion.
That kind of work is crying wolf. It’s self-righteousness, silicone passion. If you ask me, it’s those who’ve at some point been broken down who have beautiful things to say.
Besides, I don’t want to make social commentary—I want to make existential commentary.
I want to suffer Hell and Nirvana and Purgatory before deigning to let them peek prematurely through my work. I want to mess with my own head until I feel like I’ve lost control, and then come back to tell you about it, and maybe you’ll come with me next time, and maybe we’ll fall in love and maybe we’ll tear each other apart and lose ourselves, and years later we’ll learn how to rise above those ugly thoughts and feelings and harness true compassion, and forgive ourselves and each other—and then maybe that’s when I’ll write something true. I want my path to wisdom to involve a lot of stumbling, landslides and pits, because the significance of your path is measured in how high you’ve risen from the depths into which you’ve fallen—I don’t want to reach the mountaintop via some wide, meandering trail and then claim enlightenment.
If I’m going to create anything I could call “art”, then I don’t want it to shock. I want it to stir up, even disturb. I want to drug you—by proffering myself as an example that shows you a glimpse of your shadow, a dark truth that you can’t quite deny you relate to.
More than that, I want to compel you to do it back to me—to do your very worst. I want my writing to be not a soapbox, but a dialogue across time and space—a divine argument between us strangers. I want you to boomerang back so I can learn from you, too.
So I dare you. Take it off. Look stupid. Misspell. Ask an elementary question, rather than pretending you understand. Be proud of something you made that was born of your own truth rather than extrapolated from the truths of those before you, even if it’s not “marketable”, even if someone calls it “low-brow” or “sophomoric” or “unoriginal”.
Sing, scream, forgive yourself for your mistakes and never apologize for your glories.
Deplete and push yourself to the outer limits of your existence—and then exercise true patience and forgiveness. Nurse yourself back to homeostasis, taking notes of what happens along the way.
Don’t construe these dares as absolutes. I hole up too, sure, as a reprieve from my otherwise torrential life—for just long enough so that I can write it all down, paint it, sing about it, recover from it, recalibrate to Center and practice Being over Doing. Lick my wounds and embrace what I might have previously called “boring”. Then I run back out into the storm again. Because it keeps me organic, keeps me human.
Our work is more stirring when you let life chew you up and spit you, tumbling, back into the cosmos. How else do we figure out what we’re made of, and who we are?
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Assistant Editor: Daniel Garcia / Editor: Catherine Monkman
Photo: elephant journal archives
This article has originally appeared on Rebelle Society.