Monday, November 06, 2006

Does the Audience Matter? (Notes Towards a Position Paper)

There’s the art we do because we love doing it, that we do for ourselves, and will always do, and will always be interested in doing, no matter what; and there is the art that we do, that we may not think much of, that the rest of the world, starting with other artists, encourages us to do because they love it when we do it. And then there is the art that we will be remembered for having been done by us, if we’re remembered at all. (Literary immortality, or at least longevity.) There is no shortage of ironies in this creative life. The root of that irony lies in the difference between our expectations and hopes for our creative legacy, and what that legacy will truly be.

I am reminded of a science fiction novella I read back in the 60s or 70s, which has stuck in my mind all these years, about a man who is a time-traveling historical researcher. He goes back in time to interview creative people such as Georges Bizet, the composer of Carmen and other operas, none of which were successful in Bizet's own lifetime; the protagonist also meets other artists of that era. Part of the novella consists of the protagonist's memoir-writings of these encounters; these are truly sublime passages, full of insight into the creative life, and into an artist’s successes and failures. The other main plotline of the story is how another time researcher from the protagonist’s own future comes back to visit him; because of his memoirs, he is very famous in the future. The deep irony of the story is that he is a painter who wants to be remembered for his paintings; but now he knows that he will be remembered for his writings, and there’s nothing he can do about it. At the end of the story, he sighs, and for the moment, puts down brush and takes up pen; but he knows he will go back to his painting, eventually, simply because he loves to do it. He is a mature enough character to accept the irony of his own artistic life, without despair. The novella involves a complex layering of past and future, artistic intention and artistic result, and on a more subtle level is a meditation on the law of unintended consequences.

I am reminded also of May Sarton, who throughout her life thought of herself first and foremost as a poet. But rather than for her poems, she is most likely to be durably remembered for her exquisite and luminous published journals: the books wherein she talks about the creative process, her home life, growing old, her trials and frustrations and triumphs, and in every way gives a deep and meaningful look into the artist’s life and work. Her revelation of her self, and her creative process, is profound. The most famous of her journals is Journal of a Solitude, but I find the later-life journals such as At Seventy even more rewarding. Sarton’s poetry was good, sometimes very good, but not consistently great; individual poems achieve greatness, I think, but overall, her very best writing is her prose. Two or three of her novels will also keep her name alive, I believe, perhaps Kinds of Love or Anger. For myself, her two most overtly autobiographical novels, which deal with themes of same-sex love and its connection to the creative life, Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing and The Education of Harriet Hatfield, will always have a place on my shelf; Mermaids in particular is a novel that speaks very directly to me. Sarton is also a writer who, I now believe, the reader needs to be mature enough to appreciate and understand; I first read her in my 20s, and didn’t get that much out of her; but after I passed the age of 40, I re-read her and got a tremendous range of insight out of her combined writings. Everything clicked, and I became completely absorbed. I think that Sarton may be one of those writers who you can't really appreciate till you're 40 or so.

The irony of intent should be apparent by now: we may not be remembered, if we are remembered at all, for those products of our art that we most value ourselves. Instead, we may be remembered for artistic products that we ourselves don't think very much about, or value highly.

The question that is all-too-often asked of artists by callow reporters is: If you would wish to be remembered for just one thing, what would that thing be? I reject this question completely. It is a question that feeds ego and expectations, it leads us to risk self-deception and denial, and it serves only to deepen the irony under discussion here. I think the question completely misses the point of what it means to be an artist. It is completely the wrong question to ask of artists.

The real truth here is that we, as artists, have no control over our artistic legacy. No control whatsoever. We cannot dictate to the future that which we would prefer to be known for having done. We can edit ourselves, try to preserve our privacy, leave things out; at most, this leaves a gap in the record, which, if there is interest enough someday, some biographer will try to sleuth. Perhaps some time-traveling historical researcher will come back to interview us about those gaps. But the verdict of time will always be beyond our attempts to manipulate it.

So, the reason to make art remains located in the present tense, not in the future. All we can do is produce. Artists who think too much about their legacies, who live too much in the future, cannot be content, or ever happy. The reason to make art is simply to make art: no other reason. All we can do is make art, and make art, and keep making art, till we drop.

Don’t make art for fame and fortune—those are accidental, on the evidence, since for every great artist who achieves fame there are usually several just as good who don’t—and by all means don’t do it for posterity. Do it for yourself. Do it to please yourself. Do what you have to do, to satisfy your own artistic urges. Do it because it’s as essential to your well-being as breathing. Do it because you must do it, or die. Anything other reason to make art is insufficient.

I have no idea what I will be remembered for, if I am remembered at all. I don’t think about it much, except to note the probability that the pieces that I personally care about the most are the least likely for which I will be remembered. My experience in dealing with an audience has often been that the art that I make, that I myself value the least, is the art for which I often receive the most encouragement. I note the irony, without judging it or the people involved. It’s actively amusing, when I do think about it. I note that the encouragement and praise does feed my ego, if I let it; but praise is not essential for making art. I recognize that I’m good at more than one form, genre, and medium of creative artwork: I recognize that I’m good at more than one artistic pursuit, and choose not to choose between them, and choose not to value one medium over the rest. This is a polymath stance that is often neither supported nor understood.

The artform out of which I personally get the most satisfaction, music, is the one artform which has least often provided me a steady income. In some ways, that’s liberating, because I don’t feel forced to compromise my music, to prostitute it (even though I would, if asked to), or to change it in any way to please others. In other ways, this is the root of irony: the painter who will be remembered for his memoirs, the poet who will be remembered for her journals.

Where we bury our egos in our work, where we invest our self-worth in our product, sometimes so deeply that we are not even aware of our buried investments—those are the places which can kick us back, hard. Any ego I develop about my artwork, in any genre, is profoundly laughable, and the irony of legacy both reminds me to keep myself from getting inflated, and also puts everything in perspective. I think perhaps the true test of artistic durability is: will anybody give a damn about it in a hundred years? It’s okay if they don’t; we shall not cease to paint, even though we know our memoirs will be what everyone remembers us for.

Sure, you can get good, useful feedback, critique, and support from other artists—some of whom will understand what drives you better, at core, than your loved ones ever will—and you might even develop an audience for your work. I’ve made my living, at times, from commercial and production art; but that isn’t my art, and even though I always undertake it with the utmost craft and skill that I am able to bring to it, in the end I don’t care about it. It’s not the art I do for myself, to myself, out of myself. It’s time-bound and ephemeral. Ironically, of course, my commercial illustration work has had an inherently wider audience than any of my personal artwork has ever had.

The trick to preserving one’s sanity, in this unstable, back-biting and crazy-making world of art, though, is to not care about it too much. Non-attachment to outcomes is an important self-discipline that any artist would be well-served to cultivate.

So, that’s how you keep going: you ignore the irony of legacy, or laugh at it, always remembering that the last laugh will be on you.

The reason to do your art remains, simply, to do your art. Do it because it must he done. Do it because you have to. Do it because no one else can do it the way you do it, with your specific sense of the craft and tools of your media. Do it because you can’t live without doing it. Do it because you have no other choice but to do it.

All audiences come later, if they come at all.

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