“Find what you love, and let it kill you”,
– Charles Bukowski, famed for his excellent life advice.
The only way to make any kind of real art, apparently, is to suffer for it, utterly and completely. This is how a real artist lives, or so I’ve been taught. The Artist as a black hole of despair, spinning art out of a state of destruction and passion and reckless abandon. A self hating creative, driven by an unquenchable need to make masterpieces and then burn out, like a dying star.
It’s a sexy concept, I’ll admit. It sells. There are thousands of books to be written about Van Gogh’s ear, Marilyn Monroe’s death and Billie Holiday’s heroin addiction. There are t-shirts to be worn by gamine, slinky starlets portraying Kurt Cobain, Jim Morrison and Amy Winehouse, members of the famed 27 club. It’s an attractive idea to buy into, as myths generally are.
But that’s exactly what it is. A myth. A concept we’ve invented to turn people who create into demigods, supernatural beings who soar far, far out of reach from the rest of us on the ground. As a result, the idea of one of us lowly ones making art, or even attempting to, seems absurd and impossible to grasp.
How could I possibly write, or act, or dance? If I’ve come from a nice home, with supportive, loving parents, and a relatively comfortable start in life, where do I begin? Do I have permission to make art? Or will everything I make be too pleasant and insipid? According to the trope I have no great depths to plumb, no searing pain I can mine for inspiration, not even a touch of childhood trauma. How dare I even begin to think that I have anything great worth saying?
So if I’m being told I need to find my voice, what’s my template? I could go back to the myth, try to emulate what I’ve learned. I could move out, maybe into a squat, or a rundown apartment block (New York-style fire escape optional). Take up smoking, and drinking, and drug use, all three if I wanted to really expand my creative sense of being. Make friendships and have relationships with people who trigger all of my neuroses, but make for great tall tales and drama, to be referenced later in writing. Stay out all night and turn up to rehearsals drunk or hungover, but believe I can express myself beautifully despite myself. Begin to spiral out of control, but maybe feel strangely glamorous about the chaos that is being created. Hit rock bottom and lament it all to who anyone who will listen.
This sounds…what? Exotic? Thrilling? Bohemian?
That’s essentially the narrative we are fed about all the greats. Lives filled with fabulous highs, followed by devastating lows. Life lived in nothing but big beats. But what about all the little gaps in between? The mundane hours that led to the actual celebrated work being made? What about the actual lives that they really lead?
There is rarely any discussion on the minutiae of daily life as an artist or dancer or writer.
About the empty blank page, or the first line in a script to be read out loud. The tiny, terrifying steps it takes to begin, re-shape, and then present any type of creation to a casually dismissive world. But in each of those tiny steps is where the joy lives – that strangely challenging joy that convinces us to search for the next unexpected change in pitch, to sit for hours waiting for the right word to arrive, to repeat a page of lines out loud over and over and over again until something about it all clicks and then flows. It’s nothing more than a split second of recognition, “oh THAT’S what it is”, but it’s that moment that gives you the momentum to push forward, onwards, further into discovery.
The next morning the drive has to be summoned up again, and again the morning after and the morning after. Some days it comes easier, some days it doesn’t come at all. Those days are where that famed torture lurks. But it’s the decision to keep searching, not the suffering, is what makes an artist. It’s not as seductive as a concept, the artist as hard -worker. It’s more approachable, more do-able, than the artist as inspired genius. In this day and age, with everything we want arriving instantly, the artist as craftsman seems dull, and lacking in spark.
But making art can be dull. Unbelievably boring. Beyond frustrating. Why is that so odd to admit? Learning off reams of difficult dialogue from a script is painful. Once you have them down, you have the freedom to play, but you can do nothing without sitting down and repeating each single word, each separate line, over and over and over, until you dream the damn things. Same in music, in design, in sculpture. Hours are invested in unseen, unsexy work.
And we live in denial of these hours. We claim we never prepped the scene, we didn’t research the topic, we didn’t re-design the poster fifteen times last night.
In fact, we didn’t do any work at all on anything and just plucked this perfectly crafted concept right out of thin air, as an artist always does.But these are the hours that should be celebrated. Human hours invested in work that might never receive any public reward. They are the building blocks anything celebrated is created from. They are where the real reward lies. An award is exciting to receive, but once you’ve won, what then? That’s it? You’ve “made it” as an artist? Of course not. It’s straight back to the endless hours and the slog, the never-ending search for the next indefinable thing worth pinning down.
Let’s have that as our template instead. Artist as searcher, artist as worker, with an ethos and stubbornness to defy any demigod. To quote Jackson Pollock, “When I say artist I mean the one who is building things … some with a brush – some with a shovel – some choose a pen.”