Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Does the Audience Matter? 3 (In the Extremes)

Several stories encountered this past week have led me to think about the artist's relation to the audience again.

On cable TV, there was on one of those home-design channels, a special about "extreme Xmas decorations" that featured people who went all out in there annual festival of excess. There was a segment on a young man in Palm Springs, CA, who has built over a hundred robot Xmas sculptures, including some made from recycled TVs. He had over a million lights in his hand-made toyland backlot, complete with Xmas rides and holiday-themed walk-throughs.

I am reminded of how people who have a passion for dance, for music, art, or poetry, by most ordinary standards lack common sense. Why would a young girl want to become a prima ballerina pursue a ballet career, knowing full well she will have to retire at an early age after a successful dance career that can cripple and cause lifelong chronic pain in feet, joints, and torso? Why would anyone subject themselves to that? (The easy answer to a complex motivation: because they have to, because it's like breathing, they have to do it, or die.)

So, what is it about obsession in the arts? Does it require monomania, or obsession, a very tight focus on an artistic project, in order to succeed at it? Does this mean that artists who manage to not become overly obsessed about their art—who manage, for example, to have a family life, a social life, to be engaged in relationship with the world—cannot succeed as famous artists?

Not at all. Keep in mind that the cultural stereotypes about the "mad artist" filter for stories about eccentrics, people who lack social skills and graces. We tend to hear about artists who live on the edge, who live extreme lives, doing extreme things—because such stories sell more newspapers, and get better TV ratings. Such stories are "sexy." The reason we hear so many such stories, which have the (unintended?) consequence of reinforcing the stereotypes, is because everone loves a good story with memorable characters. Extremism is good press.

By the criterion of having an obsessive occupation with your art, every troglodyte computer gamer/programmer would be a successful artist; the truth is, most of them are not. Therefore, obsession is not what makes the art great and memorable. Obsession may be what gets the social-misfit artist noticed, and ambition, perseverance, and determination in the face of all obstacles may be allows them to rise above the pack and succeed, financially—but the same is true of architects and businessman. What obsession does do, like the man in the desert with the giant homemade Santa robot, is get you your Warholian 15 minutes of fame. Remember too that Warhol, in his sly way, was satirizing his own fame, in which he had become "famous just for being famous," when he stated this (famous!) formulation. Soundbytes get repeated, because they're shorter and easier to remember than detailed, thoughtful analyses.

Obsession may be a genuine driving force in creativity: the fuse that allows us to do as much as we do. There is a positive side to necessity in creativity—the dancer who has to dance, or die—in that, if we keep it in balance with the rest of our lives, we can become terrifically productive as artists. Most artists have more ideas than they can ever execute: ignoring everything else in life but your art-making can at least relieve the personal pressure one feels to create, create, create. As an artist I have two favorite four-letter words: D-O-N-E and N-E-X-T. I know I'm not alone in this. There are indeed days in which I have to write a poem, or make a piece of music, or i feel I'm going to explode from within. I know that's common for other artists, too. What may look like obsession from teh outside, too, might be determination to follow one's bliss, follow one's muse, pay attention to the inner daimon, and do what one has to do. Like many other artists, when I'm on a role, I sometimes skip meals. You go as long as you can, while the iron's hot; you can collapse, afterwards. Rilke's "great giving," during which he finished the Duino Elegies and wrote all of the Sonnets to Orpheus, was like that. There is a discipline to this, as well, in the willingness to give up everything else, in order to focus on the iron, while it's hot. It's not a discipline approved of by society, which never seems to understand the necessity of art, but typically views it as a decorative luxury; but for all that, it is no less a discipline.

Where is the audience in all this? Present, but not accounted for. Of course, the robot reindeer sculptures are meant to be appreciated, to be viewed, even laughed over. The artist seemed to know how silly his project was, even as he kept doing it. To him, it was a project that mattered, and they may be all the justification any artist needs. But the audience is an unknown: you don't know who will show up to the viewing, or the recital or reading. You have to faith that there will be audience for what you create, but you don't stop creating simply because you haven't found your audience yet. Numerous cases of artists who became appreciated only after their deaths reinforce that point, even as they also reinforce the stereotype of the artist unappreciated in his or her own lifetime, like the prophet who is never listened to in his home village.

So, monomania may just be a necessary shedding of everything unnecessary, that distracts us from the process of making art. Obsession, even when it looks more like possession, can be the necessary focus we need to block out everything irrelevant to the process, in order to more clearly here the inner voices of inspiration.

Do I think the robot reindeer in the Palm Springs desert are great fine art? No. But they sure are interesting—and fun.

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