Sunday, June 13, 2010

RëbellíØn! Art and free will are overrated

"All work is honorable yet art is just a job. Let me spend my paycheck on a beer. No heroes, no leaders, no artists, no gods." -- New Bomb Turks

Whats honorable about art? The best artists had natural talent. They had the gift bestowed upon them, likely by nothing more than pure coincidence. In some cases, they were made or enhanced by environmental factors. When a person's guiding force is nurture and not nature, this in layman's terms translates to "My Dad was an oppressive priest who beat me on a daily basis." Who gives a shit about great art at the cost of great suffering?

Take the ever-depressed Ingmar Bergman. He created dozens of profound films and was perpetually sad, self-loathing and full of angst. He wrote at a later age that he couldn't watch his old films because they depressed him. Was this to his benefit or would he be better suited forfeiting his deepest impulses and settling for a life of mediocrity after fame and fortune. Or maybe creating his body of work was the best route to joy and therapy. Regardless, it's not much more if at all better work than the people who catered to his cast and crew. Here is most of the introduction to his Four Screenplays book:
"I prefer to describe what I would like my aim to be. There is an old story of how the cathedral of Chartres was struck by lightning and burned to the ground. Then thousands of people came from all points of the compass, like a giant procession of ants, and together they began to rebuild the cathedral on its old site. They worked until the building was completed — master builders, artists, labourers, clowns, noblemen, priests, burghers. But they all remained anonymous, and no one knows to this day who built the cathedral of Chartres.

...In former days the artist remained unknown and his work was to the glory of God. He lived and died without being more or less important than other artisans; 'eternal values,' 'immortality' and 'masterpiece' were terms not applicable in his case. The ability to create was a gift. In such a world flourished invulnerable assurance and natural humility. Today the individual has become the highest form and the greatest bane of artistic creation.

The smallest wound or pain of the ego is examined under a microscope as if it were of eternal importance. The artist considers his isolation, his subjectivity, his individualism almost holy. Thus we finally gather in one large pen, where we stand and bleat about our loneliness without listening to each other and without realizing that we are smothering each other to death. The individualists stare into each other's eyes and yet deny the existence of each other.

We walk in circles, so limited by our own anxieties that we can no longer distinguish between true and false, between the gangster's whim and the purest ideal. Thus if I am asked what I would like the general purpose of my films to be, I would reply that I want to be one of the artists in the cathedral on the great plain. I want to make a dragon's head, an angel, a devil — or perhaps a saint — out of stone. It does not matter which; it is the sense of satisfaction that counts.

Regardless of whether I believe or not, whether I am a Christian or not, I would play my part in the collective building of the cathedral."

Here Bergman speaks of art in a more innate, utilitarian sort of way. He shuns a shallow individualistic approach and instead champions a more selfless, social approach. What I like about his words is the point that an individualistic approach often fails under the weight of the artists selfishness and indulgence. Individuality may be the ego getting in the way of reality. It indicates a need to break free of the mold, or at least hold the illusion you're free.

When you see a rock star performing on stage you notice what separates him or her from the average person. From a distant view, people appear as faceless, and their actions blend together into cliches and sometimes it seems they're made of cardboard. To me, this is a simplistic way of looking at things, subconsciously used as a tool to make environments and social interaction easier. Yet, when I see that rock star on stage contorting into dramatic positions and poses, I still see a puppet, only his strings are a bit more loose.

"I believe in free will because I have no choice." -- Christopher Hitchens

The man on stage is still an ape. The wildest performer still is bound to certain beliefs beyond their control, and likely beyond their comprehension. Do we have control? Philosopher Dan Dennett says we don't, but also implies that free will is not necessary for our enjoyment of life. He calls the desire for free will an "existential conceit." This guy's to be taken seriously. He does say the word existential a lot and has a beard, after all. I don't know if I agree with this ideology but it's an interesting take. If his lectures weren't so boring, I may have learned to better understand my own beliefs.

We are guided and helpless to change in some ways, and the idea of free will might be as simple as the puppet's ability to tug on its strings. I've often thought of metaphors with regards to art and motives. If an ant has a magnifying glass to its back, it's motivated to avoid the heat. If a horse is being whipped, it's driven to run. If you dangle a carrot before a donkey, it will stupidly move forward. If a person has a tortured soul, he may be inclined to relieve his woes through art. There's nothing to glorify in this. It's clockwork.

There's a silly desire in me to create something profound, but then the thought bears down, the one of being whipped into submission by entirely unremarkable environmental factors. After this, come thoughts of the futility and then apathy. I'd rather not be profound at the cost of anguish. I don't want to be Michael Angelo. Shit, I'd rather be Nick Cannon living on the wealth my phoniness afforded me while riding a snowmobile full throttle to my winter abode.

Ideas of altruism and noble endeavors are well-meaning but aren't without a contradictory element. Ultimately everything you're doing is for your own well-being. This kind of thinking could foster cynicism, but it's not that simple. I help you to help myself, but you're doing the same. I help you to help myself which makes it easier for you to help me and then for me to help you and this goes on in an infinite loop. In the sane world, this quote applies: "Without you, there is no me." I believe the awareness of this is the second and last stage of empathy, and stewing over these ideas will leave you more selfless and socially strong. By this, we need each other, and we need help manning our strings.

I agree with Bergman that we're playing our part and the sense of satisfaction we get is what's important. Marlon Brando was being interviewed once and was asked why he decided to do a particular role. He responded, "I hadn't worked in a while, and I was broke." The audience laughed, and this reason's as noble as any other. If I'm artistically inclined, I'd much rather the motive for my work be survival and not sadness. Not to negate whatever source your inspiration may have. But, the notion that art is only born of sorrow is not one I agree with.

"Question everything. But why?"

Rebellion is an enticing act. You go backward and check the result. It's also synonymous with immaturity and foolishness, but necessary if you ascribe to the belief that everything must be questioned. Eventually you rebel against rebellion. You rebel against cliche teenage ideas that imply having children is the devil, anger is a gift, wearing shoes and getting married are stupid. The perceived freedom to rebel is empowering but like the loud musician, your joy may not be freedom but rather rattling the strings.

The most outrageous impulse you can have is predictable. The most outlandish thing you can do has likely been done elsewhere. Even chaos itself is its own rule. This writing isn't unique, it's about the same as anything else. It half feels like it couldn't have been written any other way. Things are as unique and commonplace as flowers or fingerprints, or grass, trees and anomalies. It's all the same but all different. Enjoy shaking the strings anyway you can. There's nothing wrong with being a flower.


  1. I'm actually going to have to disagree with a lot of what is said here... especially, "The best artists had natural talent" :

    There is a stereotype of artists being depressive and moody, shackled by their abilities... that pain and suffering is what creates great art instead of patience and constant studying and practice. Literally the only things you are born being able to do are eating and shitting- art may come easier to some, but it is built up of skills that can be learned and mastered by anyone interested and passionate enough to put the effort in. That's why art schools exist!

  2. an awful thing about art critics is that a great deal of them attempt to critique it objectively, which handicaps the process. they're facing up to an imaginary jury or questioning, "what would most people like?" when it's simpler and makes sense to take the approach that how you react to art is entirely personal. with that in mind, the "best" artists, critically, are often the studied, technical, gifted, prodigies, etc.

    i agree that the quote you listed is shallow. in defense of its use, it's quite difficult to write while analyzing and attempting to do so from different perspectives. instead, i let the words out as easily as possible and bet the general sentiment will express itself in the context of the entire read.

    the real best artists seem to be a mix of both talent and environment. it can be trained, but the desire to study and practice themselves may be motivated by sadness. if you find a lack of joy in music and decide to create your own, that would be an example of discontentment forcing you to contort and create sounds you like.

    it's a tricky subject, and i've many more ideas than answers. here's an intriguing quote i'd like to see challenged:

    "An artist never works under ideal conditions. If they existed, his work wouldn't exist, for the artist doesn't live in a vacuum. Some sort of pressure must exist. The artist exists because the world is not perfect. Art would be useless if the world were perfect, as man wouldn't look for harmony but would simply live in it. Art is born out of an ill-designed world. This is the issue in Andrei Rublev (1966)."

  3. objective critique has been kind of a no-no in the art world since the end of modernism. It's more about relevance. how well a particular piece informs or is informed by other pieces. I don't think any real art critics are eager to give a "thumbs up" or "thumbs down" for, say, a painting. Making a really good work of art, today, is like making the *perfect* comment in a conversation; the comment itself cant be intrinsically bad (unless you're just babbling), just irrelevant or out of place.

    and so I guess "art critics" are just people that are listening in and taking good notes?

  4. anonymous - mainly i consider movie criticism. the fact that citizen kane is so highly regarded would be a sign of this, or older work like birth of a nation or the battleship potemkin. i believe the scale is raised each other and older movies tend to be nudged from importance over time. they're often boring movies and shouldn't be judged on what they were.

    it's only been a century so the criticism that follows it is simple. i've yet to see movies as abstract as some paintings and beckoning an equally radical, subjective response.

    "and so I guess "art critics" are just people that are listening in and taking good notes?"

    this is what it seems like. and articulating their opinion properly to explain their points.