The Myth Of The Artist, And The Worth Of An Artist

Artists. What are they?

I was telling Lime the other night that one thing that’s difficult about being a poet-in-waiting (meaning, an aspiring poet, as I wouldn’t consider myself a full-fledged one) is believing that your work matters. To some degree, no matter how much joy and beauty and wisdom and even awakening you bring to people, it’s a difficult task to keep faith with your job. Will the lines you write in this poem change the world? Will they be good for other people, will they do anything useful at all, even in the hearts of the people who read them?

I recalled the bells that hang around the temples you see in Korea. On these bells, there are usually little metal fish decals hanging from the clappers of the bells. Lime told me that the reason the fish image is used is because fish always have their eyes open, even in their sleep. The fish image is supposed to be a call to awakening; every time you hear the bell clang in the wind, you’re nudged gently by a wake-up call to enlightenment. Well, poets are kind of like that, and as I told her, it’s hard to be a fish-bell.

One solution is for the artist to become iconoclastic, or, to use a word I just used a few moments ago in conversation, hoity-toity. Artists sometimes infuse to their work, vision, and methodology with a kind of investment of ego, almost as if any criticism of their work is also a criticism of themselves, their mastery or control or artistry.

What the hell is artistry? What the hell kind of mastery do artists have? And do they have it by exerting it over their methods and contents?

When I write, I don’t seek mastery over my medium, or my content. My content, it seems to me, is quite alive of its own accord. It’s a strange feeling, of course, because my words, my feelings and ideas, the contents and discontents of the worlds I imagine and the moments and strange unnamed emotions I try to capture in my poems and stories, are something I could never control, and should never try to control. If I get arrogant about them, I lose access to them. Everything worth saying, to me, is only accessible if I am a little humble, a little trusting, and quietly open to it. And I find, if I am quiet and open and patient, then when I need to say comes very clearly to me; my clarity depends upon my own uncertainty and how gently I approach… well, I was going to say, “how gently I approach what I want to write about,” but it’s not really how it works. Rather, I feel almost as if there are things that want to be written about, and they come to me, all hazy and shadowed, and I help them come a little more clear, or at least I give them a doorwat so they can pass out into the world outside myself.

I find my favorite artists are like this. While I have a very deep appreciation of Miles Davis’ music, it’s Coltrane’s that moves me, soft and prayerful and gentle-souled Coltrane, who went loud and furious and wild-eyes when the music demanded it, but who knew nonetheless how to quietly listen and to play what was within him.

Maybe it’s just as reasonable for artists to live with an “artiste” mindset. I suppose it is possible to create stunning, beautiful artwork from behind a veil of “I’m right!” and “This is my methodology!” Hell, maybe I do that more than I think, though I’m not sure. Maybe in music I do, though being in this band I’m in forced me to just accept that songs will not get played the way I write them at the piano (and that’s fine… I’m not really a rock songwriter, after all). But actually, thinking about it, my older idiosyncracy about wanting my songs played exactly the way I wrote them probably is rooted in two things: firstly, my training as a “composer”, where that kind of control is just assumed andnormal, and secondly, my nervousness at trying to work in an unfamiliar genre. I wasn’t in complete control of my materials, of the contents and message and how they fit together… and when it got criticized, I got very defensive, and even hurt. Experimenting is hard enough, experimenting in public is harder, and experimenting in public in an unfamiliar genre is will-shattering. So to me, sometimes an artiste’s hoity-toity attitude denotes a lack of control, some fear or embarrassment or nervousness or uncertainty. And in a world where honest attempts to say something meaningful are often stomped on, I can understand how someone might get a little defensive.

However, In my writing, I can’t think of anything I’m not willing to at least try; I’m not very idiosyncratic, I am willing to draft (verse, at least) either by hand or at the keyboard; I am willing to play with markov-chain generators and translator programs and so on, to see what I come up with. My methodology, though, demands only one thing of me, which is honesty.

Perhaps, though, this is mistaken. I know people who restrict their writing to one genre, one kind of production, and focus their energies on creating a space for themselves in the genre. Who ever heard of an SF-novelist/poet? Still, the stories in my mind fall into the SF mode, mostly anyway, and poems bubble up from the murk of my mind as well. What am I to do?

Perhaps I need to think of a good penname. But for which, the SF or the poems? Hm.

As for what good poems do the world, why I ought not to put lit aside for a while and pursue ecological studies or biology and dedicate myself to the grand struggle of the 21st-century—bringing us out of the biological dark ages, reigning in business and forcing the world to preserve what’s left of complex ecologies—I am still thinking. I think the world would fall apart without its poets, but is that figurative falling-apart as important as the literal one that seems to be going on now? But then, poets and storytellers are often teachers, in their writings and in their working lives as well. And teaching can be a noble profession as well. Hmmmm.

So much to figure out, still.

2 thoughts on “The Myth Of The Artist, And The Worth Of An Artist

  1. Gord,

    As usual, your words rivet and hold me to the very spot. I’ve ironing to do for the office, breakfast to prepare, yet here I remain, transfixed by something difficult to explain. You once wrote “Patience is like all virtues, difficult yet delicious when one learns it. And I realize life cannot forever be led like poems… but that a life worth leading is one whose poems are honest and true.” You have such a beautiful and unique way of perceiving things, breathing poetry as the rest of us do air.

    I understand about the need to create; to birth that which ferments within. One thing that always turned me off bloggers was the self-important haze through which many seemed to view things. I’ve never felt that from you.

    Does your work matter? Let me hazard an answer in the affirmative. Your beautiful poetry and prose inspire me to explore avenues of creativity, much as a child with a new box of crayons and sketchbook might feel after spending the afternoon with the likes of Van Gogh and Monet. In another life, I painted and drew like mad. Now words are my lifeblood. I can only pray to always be as sincere in my pursuits as those who have inspired me.

    You’d not know it, but you do have an effect. Thanks to your words, I’ve seriously been contemplating what it would take for me to live a life truer to the person I’m meant to be, as opposed to the result of all my circumstances.

    Draw from everything in your work. Let it seek many forms of expression. You are already in a place many only dream of, Mr. Sellar. Oh, and your name is perfectly suited to this aspect of your life. BTW, you aren’t the only one with such an admiration of Coltrane.

    Kamsahamnida, Gord. For making me look at butterflies with a new appreciation, and reminding me of something I’ve always known. Namely, that there is beauty in everything around us. It’s merely to be seen and felt.


  2. Artists. What are they?

    Goooood eatin’, that’s what they are.

    Although some of ’em can be a trifle gamy. Just remember to use a good marinade that’s not too spicy.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *