The Point of Excellence?
“When works of art become commodities and nothing else, when every endeavor becomes “creative” and everybody “a creative,” then art sinks back to craft and artists back to artisans—a word that, in its adjectival form, at least, is newly popular again. Artisanal pickles, artisanal poems: what’s the difference, after all? So “art” itself may disappear: art as Art, that old high thing. Which—unless, like me, you think we need a vessel for our inner life—is nothing much to mourn.” (William Deresiewicz.)
This week I’ve been thinking a lot about the fact that I wrote poetry before Facebook, before the internet. What drove me? I’d never actually met a writer. I had no concept of what the future could be. No ambitions for fame, or a textbook footnote.
But, at 15, I wasn’t spilling my hormones on the page in automatic writing in an effort to express myself, I was striving to emulate St. Vincent Millay, to express that something that was not unique. I figured that was the point of writing: the attempt to connect to other people by finding, revealing, fashioning through mimesis, this common ground: See? You see this, right? This is true.
Maybe I wrote because I was lonely.
A form of necromancy, since I didn’t let anyone read what I wrote.
At any rate, I mentioned this to a colleague a few days ago: my concept of the artist as someone who is able to present the essence of being human to others; in this way, a visionary and a guide, a kind of midwife to the experience of being more than an individual in the world.
She said she thought that was the one of the most arrogant things she’d ever heard: artists having special talents – “Everyone can be an artist.”
But how is my idea more arrogant that believing that every individual, if she pays close enough attention to her own experience, has something worth sharing with others?
Something that other people should pay her for (time is money, after all)? If all expression is of equal worth, isn’t all expression equally worthless?
How is it that we find ourselves in an economy that assumes it is a viable model to compensate each other for our unbridled (read: undisciplined) self-expression?
Who is the new underclass?
I cringe when I read/hear the term “Creatives”, which implies that, not only is it pompous to strive to be an artist/master, but that some people aren’t creative. Oscar Wilde, who held that no everyone had the ability to appreciate art, would be proud.
Or, in a more generous vein: some people aren’t ambitious enough to harness their creativity and instead, choose to work in factories or other mundane jobs that don’t involve following their dream, or leading a herd to do the same.
Who is washing the toilets at these motivational conventions?
To be very honest, “creatives” in my mind are people skilled at manipulating the market – they can actually (often) bypass excellence and sell their wares; in some cases, they can take the absence of a “ware” and turn it into income. I am not saying they don’t deserve their paychecks. These people have skills.
It seems to me, that on a very basic level, the new measure of the artist with a little A, the “creative”, is the total dominance of the familiar measure of P.T. Barnum’s capitalism. Perceived value. Perceived results of perceived “labor”? Who says we live in an age devoid of the mystical? The momentary feel-good vibe they provide has value. I pay for that, too.
The figure left in the photo: Someone made that. Some pre-Dynastastic Abyssinian.
Someone knew those heavy breasts. Those curves. That hollowed-torso posture. I know those things, too. Recognize them. But I can’t share that knowledge by carving a figure from bone.
That artist/artisan lived, and breathed, and carved, and made a bridge from then to now. She wasn’t the only person living then. There’s no reason to think that she was among the more interesting of the people living then, the most intelligent, the most clever.
But she built the bridge: the object, conduit, magic portal that made this connection. Through some fluke of archaeology, this anonymous bit of humanity endured. Something in it transcends historical and cultural context.
This recognition I experience, is it just another kind of feel-good vibe? Nothing more? Is context vs. transcending context irrelevant/illusionary?
Is this Art? art? What is it worth? (Is it Branded? A Rembrandt? A Rembrandt’s pupil?)
I suppose the British Museum as a specific sum in mind. For insurance purposes.
Meanwhile, I’ve been thinking about my PhD.: my pursuit of excellence. About what a destructive time it was, and how I am still working to heal. How, on some days, I can’t remember why I write. Wondering if all this frustration flows from envy, because I am not one of the “creatives”; if I’m still a necromancer at heart –
Half-in-love with Mr. Wilde.
Because I’m half-in-love with the book on my shelf.
*And, by the way, I am all for artisan pickles. I can’t make those either.