Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Devil In Disguise

We were discussing artists whose work we admire, but whose personal lives stray from any “normal” moral compass. Sometimes it’s difficult to separate a person’s work from the person. We’re loathe to think we may be admiring the devil in disguise. The question was brought up, no one can create divorced from their individual lives, their experience - can they? The answer is no. Maybe one can choose not to create, but one can’t create without familiarity with the subject, or the mood and feeling inherent. The advice given most often to young writers is, “write what you know.” Actors draw from personal experience in order to emote on cue.

We art what we are. Art truly does imitate life, and in some cases, that life can be rather bizarre or harsh. After all, where would the art world be if all of our experiences were puppies, flowers and cookies? I’ll tell you. It would be as bland as vanilla pudding. Would Beethoven have been able to create the doomed, thundering feeling in his Fifth Symphony without his tribulations? Doubtful. Could Van Gogh have painted Starry Night without the cry of his tormented soul? No. Would Dickens have penned Oliver Twist without his own tortured childhood to draw from? I think not.

But it's a sad man my friend
who's livin' in his own skin
And can't stand the company
~Better Days, Bruce Springsteen

All that being said, I also know that one can’t look at an artist’s body of work and presume to know the artist. Art may be where we pour out our deepest emotions, fears and dreams, but it is not necessarily how we live. When I was in my teens, all of my poems were dark and morbid. I recall writing a ghastly piece about a girl who stabs her father with a pitchfork. Would I have acted on that? Of course not. Never. But my mother saw the poem and made an issue out of it - I can understand why it frightened her. So I quit writing. When I tried to play other than classical music on the piano, I was accused of “banging” on it, of being too aggressive. So I quit trying to explore music. When I thought about some of the things in my head that I wanted to be able to draw or paint, I was the one who was frightened. Having some of those images swirling in my head was akin to a waking nightmare or a bout of insanity. I ran from that. I wasn’t about to create something that would affirm that I’m nuts!

Well my soul checked out missing as I sat listening
To the hours and minutes tickin' away
Yeah just sittin' around waitin' for my life to begin
While it was all just slippin' away
~Better Days, Bruce Springsteen

Then one day I read a wonderful quote by Neil Gaiman, “The art isn’t the artist; the poem isn’t the poet; trust the tale, not the teller.” It freed me, and I realized what a contravention it was for me to hold back on any creative outlet. I’ve had a rich life and a variety of experiences - all the good, bad, ugly and beautiful. Not using those experiences when I’ve also been given a modicum of talent would be like sitting in the middle of a ripe orchard and complaining that there’s nothing to eat. No, I can’t divorce my art from my life. I wouldn’t want to. I’m who I am, but my art is so much more than the sum total of what I am.

In fishing it’s called catch and release. You hook the fish, reel it in, take a good look at it, and send it back into the world. We artists are only separate from the rest of the world in that we’re willing to take a deeper look at things before sending them back into the world. As slippery as a squirming bass, we can’t hang on to them if we try.

I'm tired of waitin' for tomorrow to come
Or that train to come roarin' 'round the bend...
...Tonight this fool's halfway to heaven
And just a mile outta hell
And I feel like I'm comin' home

~Better Days, Bruce Springsteen

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