The Other War of Art

Creative work is what is left on the battlefield after the fight between the rational mind…and the other thing.

Call it the soul, the unconscious mind, the muse; call it whatever you want because whatever you call it, you are referring to the same thing: that within your mind which you can’t by force of will access or control. 

If you’ve ever put a too-small fitted sheet on a too-large mattress you have some idea what it’s like trying to get “the other thing” to do what you want. She doesn’t listen. She hardly cares about deadlines. She doesn’t like your rational mind too much, though she needs him in order to exist as anything but a brief series of synapses.

It’s a cat and mouse game, and you only win if your rational mind forgets to chase, so that your muse no longer has to run and hide. When that happens, it’s easy to create.

That’s the thing about really hard things: when you do them really well, they stop being hard.

Creativity is indeed warfare, but the muse will only allow your rational mind a victory if there is no violence involved. Both sides must raise the white flag, come out from the trenches, and settle all the disputes peaceably.

War becomes a conversation, the conversation leads to agreement, and that agreement is expressed as an internally consistent artistic expression. Get tactical. Get clever. But if you start resenting one side, and favoring the other, peaceable terms will never be met, and you will never raise a monument in commemoration of the conflict.

 

 

 

Faith in Creativity

Prioritizing creativity makes very little rational sense until your output can earn you an income, and significantly affect the lives of others. Yet artists toil in obscurity and poverty nevertheless, sometimes finding an eventual redemption, and sometimes not.

Above all else, creativity is an act of faith. A faith in one’s own ability and worth, in the face of years of past mediocrity, and a future containing even more. Artists go to their canvases like prospectors to a potential mining site. They try not to get their hopes up. They try not to despair when things begin to go wrong. They try not to give

They try not to get their hopes up as they search for gold. They try not to despair when things begin to go wrong. They try not to give up until they absolutely have to. But both artists and prospectors conceal a deep hope that the next attempt will be the supreme success that changes everything.

But if success is your only impetus to creative action, a prolific artistic life will be impossible. Your own imagination will seem a dark forest, full of wrong turns and predators waiting to arrest your movement towards a completed work.

Be prepared to wander, and excited to get lost. Understand though you possess a compass, it does not always point true north. Aimless circles are a necessary part of creative navigation, and we all must trace thousands before the correct path can be found.

Culture Heroes

The human mind left unattended is bound by its functional purpose to imagine, predict, and emotionally react to the worst possible outcome. But only at the scale of minutes or days.

In matters of months, years, and decades, our default prediction patterns are worse than worthless, always assuming things will continue to be good if they are good now, and seldom preparing for future days of want and scarcity.

But luckily, the human mind has a startling capability to attend to itself.

We can watch ourselves doing something wrong and even look back at the delusional thoughts that caused our past mistakes.

We are all fools, but we are not blind fools. Through system and strategy, as well as good old-fashioned moderation and discipline, our worst tendencies can be accounted for, and our greatest gifts exploited to the point of compensation for our errors.

Any look back at the plethora of modern cultural heroes shows how willing we are to forgive those who did a few great things.

Generally, we ignore the mediocre, ridicule the bad, briefly enjoy the good, and revere the great with almost religious fervor.

The good is found in the bargain bin, while images of the great are plastered on every tee shirt next to 50-year-old records still being sold as if they were new.

It would be a noble, near perfect meritocracy, if not for the questionable taste of the general public and its strange tendency to occasionally latch onto something truly bad and elevate it to a position of taste-making for popular culture.

 

 

 

Of Effort and Magic

Great writers will often type out great works, just to feel what well-structured language feels like as it comes out onto the page.

Painters learn by copying the great works with an exactness that forces them to the same solutions and techniques that the masters used.

In school, we learn science by repeating experiments that were once groundbreaking and demonstrative of the Universe’s foundational laws.

Great athletes review film, generals study battles from the past, and musicians must learn the songs of others before they can compose their own.

In learning and perfecting any skill, there is a constant balance between the fresh energy of the beginner and the studied discipline of the master. It is the interplay between these poles that generates true excellence. Neither the undisciplined talent nor the technically skilled but stagnant veteran creates works that resonate and endure over large spans of time.

It is the serendipitous convergence of tremendous effort and spontaneous inspiration that fixates and mirrors the vicissitudes of the human spirit. Western culture tends to revere the spontaneous more than the cultivated, while in the East this value is flipped.

In spending our novice years in a long apprenticeship, prostrating ourselves before and imitating the great masters, we create the substrate in which our own coherent style and the accompanying techniques may arise.

Piccaso, both a great master in his middle and old age, as well as a prodigy in his youth, articulated this notion eloquently.

“It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child.”

Not everyone is destined to paint like a child. But every great artist and craftsman have some novel contribution for the greater culture, and the pursuit, as well as the honing of that gift, is of great importance no matter how meager its impact may appear to be.

 

 

The Art of Genius

Genius is nothing more than the carrying of idle thoughts to their farthest conclusion. How many people, before Darwin, had pondered the origin of species?

Only one person dared to see the inquiry to its absolute end.

How many wondered about the relationship between time, space, and energy?

Only Einstein spent his life running after peculiar notions and questions no one seemed to answer.

Emerson once said,

“In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts; they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty.”

Every human, being a possessor and product of the most complex object in the Universe, the brain, is capable of ingenuity and innovation. What is rarer than curiosity and invention is the force of will and passionate nonconformity that allows the seeds of genius to be grown into great works and discoveries.

How many ideas have passed through your mind, been left unnurtured, only to be presented later on as the product of someone else’s mind, perhaps to great public esteem and profit?

I hesitate to call the required impetus to action confidence because I doubt confidence in his own genius was Einstein’s or anyone else’s primary motivator. I think rather than being full of aggressive gusto or rebellion, most great thinkers simply ignore the doubting voices that might put halt to their explorations.

Leonardo Da Vinci did not resent his detractors or plot their downfall. More likely he was so busy with his own interests and endeavors that few of the doubters even appeared on his periphery.

To be a genius is to pursue with great energy that which interests you most, and arouses in you an industriousness and competency beyond that of your average capability.

It is not a magical voice in the head or the soul, guiding the hand of a select group and leading them constantly to truth and beauty.

The Mind of a Master

As children, our creativity was bounded only by the duration and depth of our attention at any given moment.

As adults, our creativity is bounded not only by the quality of attention but also our specific evaluation of the worth and personal enjoyment interaction with a system might generate.

To put it simply, adults achieve consistent episodes of childlike creativity in those undertakings which they believe to be appropriate for their competencies, and most of all worthy of extended commitment of time. 

The most helpful deficiency of the immature brain is its inability to schedule and manage time. This removes a distractor and allows for profound engagement with systems that would not even be noticed by someone who had a conception of places to be and important things to accomplish.

A child can spend several hours working on chalk drawings because every child has no reason to doubt their own competence in the art, and the worth of their works. They approach the sidewalk with the same confidence and excitement as the professional adult sculptor goes to the clay.  In this way, the minds of the novice child and the adult master are the same.

In attempting to cultivate states of intense creativity, we must first believe in the value of whatever we might make. Otherwise, hours spent at the canvas will seem a waste of time, and thus those hours will not be spent, making mastery impossible.

 

Lift Your Weight

“The most loving parents and relatives commit murder with smiles on their faces. They force us to destroy the person we really are: a subtle kind of murder.”

-Jim Morrison

The same sentiment was expressed by philosopher Jean Paul Sartre in a phrase that has been much repeated and misinterpreted:

“Hell is other people.”

Both quotes resonate with a truth known to all of us. We are social animals, forced everyday to have interactions with the most complex systems currently known; other human beings.

And of course, we ourselves are complicated and often self contradictory actors in the social world, both creators and destroyers of ourself and others. Those around us exert a social pressure that we in turn submit to, transmute, and exert back out. This occurs on the micro level within us, as different thoughts and drives compete for expression through the body, and also at macro levels in social situations as different people compete for dominance and control. The global culture itself is nothing but the final expression of this near infinite set of nested competitive frame works.

But in this jungle, 7 billion strong, full of tyrants, vagrants, billionaires, and prostitutes, who wins?

Who exerts influence, and crafts the environment to their liking?

Who dies still in love with the world, and with the world in love with them?

It isn’t the ruthless.

The Stalins and Hitlers of the world live desperate, paranoid, hopeless lives full of fear and hatred. They are not happy. They are loved only by the pathological. Any look into their personal lives and this truth becomes evident.

It isn’t the greedy.

The nature of greed is in wanting more. If one is greedy, one lacks. If one lives in a state of lack, they are not happy. To call a greedy person happy is to call a leaking bucket full.

But what of the individuals?

The people who, despite their pathologies, fears, traumas, and inconsistencies see in themselves a load bearing capability. They see that they could lift a great weight, and in the lifting make their own lives worth living, and their own pathologies worth enduring.

The people who perceive what is the most difficult, impactful goal they could attempt to attain, and strive towards it, social pressure be damned.

Power games crumble on contact with these sorts. Governments change and cultures evolve. The old games become silly as history looks back and thanks these individuals by way of the favorable narrative.

Hell is other people. Perhaps hell is the entire world, both internal and external.

But heaven is the higher ideal.

Heaven is the muscle by which we may lift the weight nature has assigned us.

Find your weight. Discover your difficulty.

Fight your most terrible fight, for yourself and the rest of us.

Justify your existence, and discover the world is a simple place.