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Creativity for Life
Practical Advice on the Artist's Personality and Career from America's Foremost Creativity Coach
By Eric Maisel
New World LibraryCopyright © 2007 Eric Maisel
All rights reserved.
Creativity and Talent
Songs are all written as part of a symphony.
— BOB DYLAN
You are a creative or performing artist. You love to sing, dance, make images. You cherish the written word. Acting thrills you. Your pulse races when you drum. Your darkroom is a magical laboratory. But will you be able to spend the rest of your life pursuing your passion in the face of the many significant challenges that confront you? Can you carve out a career in art, achieve the level of success you dream of, secure some measure of comfort, and find time both for art-making and for living? Can you survive the artist's life?
We are talking about nothing less than survival here, for few creative and performing artists in contemporary Western society can even earn a living from their art. Disturbing figures about visual artists, poets, short story writers, playwrights, novelists, independent filmmakers, pop singers, potters, jazz musicians, rock musicians, classical composers, art photographers — for all groups of creative and performing artists — could be quoted. According to a Rockefeller Panel report commissioned to take an in-depth look at the financial realities of the performer's life,
the miserable income of the majority of performing artists reflects both a shortage of jobs and the brief duration of employment that is available. In all except the small handful of our major and metropolitan orchestras, musicians earn an average of only a few hundred dollars a year from their professional labors. During an average week in the winter season, only about one-fifth of the active members of Actors' Equity Association, the theatrical performers union, are employed in the profession. Of the actors who do find jobs, well over half are employed for only ten weeks — less than one-fifth of the year. For most opera companies the season lasts only a few weeks. The livelihood of the dancer is perhaps the most meager of all.
This is not a pretty picture. Why would a smart, ambitious, talented person choose such a life? Why have you chosen to struggle with cattle-call auditions, rejected fiction, indifferent gallery owners, a lack of recognition, and the other challenges that artists face?
The answers are severalfold. First, your need to express yourself and to manifest your creativity springs from very deep sources. Like a devout believer, you are profoundly moved by art. Your connection to art is reverent, intellectually alive, viscerally deep. You experience rasa, the Sanskrit word for the mood or sentiment evoked by a work of art. In you, what Alfred North Whitehead called the "impulse to originate" is stirred. You want to present to the world what the Navajo call hozh'g: the beauty of life, as seen and created by a person.
You value art and are hopeful about the contributions you can make in art. These needs and values translate into a sense of mission, even something like a religious fervor. You consider the task sacred and the calling noble, and you are willing to make sacrifices and even martyr yourself for art. Emily Carr, the Canadian painter, explained: "Once I heard it stated and now I believe it to be true that there is no true art without religion. The artist himself may not think he is religious but if he is sincere his sincerity in itself is religion."
British poet Stephen Spender wrote: "It is evident that a faith in their vocation, mystical in intensity, sustains poets. From my experience I can clarify the nature of this faith. When I was nine we went to the Lake District, and there my parents read me some of the poems of Wordsworth. My sense of the sacredness of the task of poetry began then, and I have always felt that the poet's was a sacred vocation, like a saint's."
You feel that you have a special, vital role to play in society. From a considered vantage point outside society, you observe, witness, and judge. As the German Expressionist painter Georg Baselitz put it, "The artist is not responsible to anyone. His social role is asocial."
You also feel the simple joy of applying paint to canvas, of making music, of playing a part with other actors. You discover that you are good at it — good with words, good on your feet, good with your voice or your fingers, good at images. Art makes you feel alive. You find that the process of art-making — be it the quietly absorbed practicing, the rollicking rehearsing, the intense poetry writing, or the tempestuous encounter with a blank canvas — buffers you against the ordinariness of the world. "Painting is a way of forgetting oneself," said visual artist Joan Mitchell. Sculptor Louise Nevelson confided, "In my studio I'm as happy as a cow in her stall."
You may also choose the artist's life because you are using art as a tool to help heal childhood wounds or as a means of expressing the pain in your life. Painter Barbara Smith said, "The intent of my work is to break out of a dark place." Nancy Spero, also a painter, offered the following self-description: "I am the angry person sticking out her tongue." The painter Harmony Hammond explained, "I want my work to demand your attention because I can get it no other way."
You may also perceive a career in art as a way to gain recognition, to stand out, to become known as a special and talented person. No doubt you feel you have valuable, innovative, beautiful work to do. Quite possibly you're hoping for fame and fortune. You may harbor the hope that people will one day applaud your achievements and call you great.
Last, you pursue the artist's life because you believe you could be the exception who proves the rule when it comes to money and success. Perhaps like the French painter Chaim Soutine, you'll be discovered by a passing dentist, or like Jean Harlow you'll be discovered sipping soda in a drugstore. You see your novel making a mark and being hailed as a work of genius. You imagine yourself becoming a star and going from rags to riches overnight. The possibility that success may strike quickly and out of the blue sustains you.
You begin your journey as an artist out of sacred motives, with dreams and high hopes, and also, perhaps, you embark from a place of painful turmoil or other inner necessity. From these powerful drives comes your conscious decision to pursue a life in art, your resolve to call yourself an artist, whatever the consequences. You nod in agreement with painter John Baldessari, who said, "Art is about bloody-mindedness. It's not about living the good life. In the end, it's just you and the art."
You identify yourself as an artist. But just how good an artist are you? How good can you become? Are you confident that you have the necessary skills and abilities to master your medium? Do your paintings capture your passion and your ideas? Are you a virtuoso actor or pianist? Can you create characters and handle plot to your liking? Are you creative and talented enough to accomplish the artistic tasks you've set yourself?
Indeed, creativity and talent are the first challenges we need to examine. To feel good about yourself as an artist, you need to manifest your creativity and make appropriate use of your talents. These are hard tasks to accomplish in their own right, made even harder by the fact that creativity and talent are both such puzzling terms. Let's examine them in some detail.
CREATIVITY AND THE ARTIST
It would be vain to try to put into words that immeasurable sense of bliss which comes over me directly [when] a new idea awakens in me and begins to assume a definite form. I forget everything and behave like a madman.
— PYOTR ILICH TCHAIKOVSKY
Over the centuries, artistic creativity has been related to divine inspiration, madness, sheer genius, unnameable life forces, and cosmic powers. In modern times it has been linked to unconscious processes, the working out and sublimating of sexual instincts, attempts at wish fulfillment, and incipient neurosis. It has also been linked to the natural associational tendencies of a special mind, to the self- realizing and self-actualizing efforts of some individuals, and to the accidental presence of a certain collection of personality traits.
The psychiatrist Lawrence Hatterer described the Freudian view in The Artist and Society: "The dominant theory of the creative person and act stems from Freud's concept of sublimation. Freud hypothesized that the creative act is rooted in transformed sexual energy, in the diversion of these energies to higher, more socially acceptable aims. Creativity, he felt, arose out of the artist's unconscious need to rid himself of mental tension."
The Freudian view is provocative, and so are the humanistic positions regarding self-realization and self-actualization championed by psychologists Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow. Trait theory also has something important to tell us about creativity, as do the existential theories of Rollo May, Victor Frankl, and others.
In my view, the most useful definition of creativity is the following: people are artistically creative when they love what they are doing, know what they are doing, and actively engage in art-making. The three elements of creativity are thus loving, knowing, and doing; or heart, mind, and hands; or, as Zen Buddhist teaching has it, great faith, great question, and great courage.
Creativity is no more mysterious than that. This hardly means, however, that manifesting one's creativity is easy. Artists, in order to be creative, are challenged to love enough, to know enough, and to do enough, and these tasks are as real and challenging as any human endeavor can be.
Love is the spirit that motivates the artist's journey. The love may be sublime, raw, obsessive, passionate, awful, or thrilling, but whatever its quality, it's a powerful motive in the artist's life. The actor Derek Jacobi distinguished this special, deeply rooted drive from mere desire: "You have to have an absolute obsession and compulsion to act, not just desire; it's just not enough to have talent and want to express it; it's not enough. It's got to be more deeply rooted, more abrasive. The fire in the belly has got to be there. If there's no fire, you can't do it."
What is it that the artist loves? It is first and foremost the sheer power of whichever medium has attracted her. This is why she is a painter or a novelist or an archaeologist: an art form (in the broad sense) has gotten under her skin. It may be the power of the book that gripped her, the power of dance, the power of music, the power of the image, the power of the play, the mystery of ancient cultures, the very secrets of the universe.
I could list various artists' expressions of this deep love and passion endlessly. Visual artist Diane Burko said, "I love putting paint on canvas, I love pouring it and watching new colors happen in my margarine containers." The painter Hans Hofmann claimed that "as an artist, you love everything of quality that came before you." Pianist Jorge Bolet said, "My gods were [Josef Casimir] Hofmann and [Sergey Vasilyevich] Rachmaninoff. Every time I heard Rachmaninoff play, I said to myself, 'That is what I want to sound like.'" Artist François Gauzi wrote of Vincent van Gogh, "When discussing 'art,' if one disagreed with him and pushed him to the limit, he would flare up in a disturbing way. Color drove him mad. [Eugène] Delacroix was god, and when he spoke of this painter, his lips would quiver with emotion."
Your love is also a love of the great masters, a love of the human being who had it in her to write the novel that transfixed you or who flew across the stage to the strains of music. It is a love of Mozart's music and a love of the man, too — not a love of his personality, necessarily, but of his ability to express human potential.
The artist who does not love ardently may fall far short of his creative potential. He may not have enough "lubricating juice," as Virginia Woolf called it. He may move from piano lessons and small recitals to a good conservatory to a concert tour, mastering his technique and honing his skills along the way, but if he remains out of love with music, his is a career, not a love affair.
We see again and again in the lives of special artists a profound youthful infatuation with their medium, with everything and anything connected with it — the good, the bad, and the indifferent. If books have mesmerized them, they will read everything; if paintings have, they will frequent every gallery, running to every visiting show. They may have no idea that they are about to devote their lives to those media; they simply feel in love. The actor Len Cariou described his relationship to movies: "I didn't have any thoughts about being an actor. I always was an actor. I'd go to films every Saturday. I had an insatiable appetite for films. You could see four films and a serial for half a buck. In 1959 when I read an ad in the local paper, 'Young actors wanted for summer stock,' all of a sudden I knew; there was a crunch in my head."
In the beginning, the artist may love indiscriminately, in a regular wash of infatuation. Many critics observe, for instance, that as a youth Van Gogh consistently admired and respected the work of a host of minor artists; he praised better and worse artists in the same breath. When Van Gogh was twenty, for example, he wrote to his younger brother, Theo, from London: "There are clever painters here, among others Millais, who has painted the 'Huguenot.' His things are beautiful. Then there is Boughton, and among the old painters, Constable, a landscape painter who lived about thirty years ago; he is splendid, his work reminds me of Diaz and Daubigny; and there are Reynolds and Gainsborough, who have especially painted very beautiful ladies' portraits; and Turner. I see you have a great love of art; that is a good thing, lad. Admire as much as you can; most people do not admire enough."
Critics have felt that such passages point to a noncritical streak in Van Gogh's nature. But to call this a lack of critical ability is to misunderstand the early infatuation of the artist. If we recognize that the artist is embarking on a love affair, into which one day he will throw his whole being, then these moments become not only understandable but also absolutely predictable. They have about them the feeling of puppy love, as the young person suspends his discriminating abilities in the pursuit of passion.
The artist therefore inflates the painting, the book, the piece of music in question because it has moved him. He calls it great because it has struck a great chord in him. If we remember the books or paintings or pieces of music that we loved as children and young adults, if we remember how we were moved by them in the moment, we may feel loathe to look back and recognize that a certain book was poorly written, that a particular painting was sentimental. In the moment we experienced that book or that painting, we were surely in love.
Chopin, experiencing Paris for the first time at twenty- one, wrote this to a friend: "I doubt whether anything so magnificent as Robert le diable, the new five-act opera by Meyerbeer, has ever before been done in the theater. It is the masterpiece of the modern school. There are devils, immense choruses singing through tubes, and souls rising from the tomb. The most extraordinary thing of all is the organ, the sound of which, coming from the stage, delights and astonishes one and almost drowns the orchestra."
The artist is transported by her medium, delighted and astonished. That her medium is able to speak to her in this way is a special affirmation in the realm of the spirit.
The young artist gobbles up everything she can in her medium because she has a need to know. Much of her knowing comes from this early period. The young singer listens to all of Billie Holiday's records and begins to learn the blues. The young writer reads all the works of Shakespeare and learns how language and drama operate. Throughout her life as well, the artist is driven to know enough, to take in everything she needs to take in, even if, in the language of Zen, she must forget much of what she knows in order to work.
Excerpted from Creativity for Life by Eric Maisel. Copyright © 2007 Eric Maisel. Excerpted by permission of New World Library.
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