Art saved my life. Photography saved my life. There. I said it. And I’m not overstating it.
Look at this photograph. What is the bee doing?
There is more than one answer to that question. But in essence, the bee is simply being a bee. He’s hanging out on the flower so he can pollinate. He’s doing what a bee does simply because he doesn’t know how to do anything else. But what if you could take a baby bee and raise it with a flock of birds? What do you think would happen? If the bee had human characteristics he might try to fit in and act like a bird. Maybe he would try to eat worms and fly in formation. But he wouldn’t like it or be very good at it. And maybe the other birds would say things like “Why does he keep flying in circles?” or “What’s with the flowers? He’s always trying to eat flowers. Why can’t he eat worms like everyone else? He must be crazy.” And so they would judge the bee and chastise him for being different. He might become a sort of social outcast. Sure, the birds would tolerate him. But he’d never really be part of their crowd. He’d get the “weirdo” label. And the bee, being a bee and not a bird, would be a very unhappy camper. He might think things like “Why can’t I be like the other birds? Why do I want to do those things anyway? Why can’t they just leave me alone and let me fly in circles and pollinate flowers? There must be something wrong with me.”
Of course, that doesn’t happen in the real world. Or does it? Bees are bees and they hang with the other bees. And birds do the same. But we humans! Ahh… That’s another story. What do we have that the birds and the bees don’t have? We have self-awareness and an ego. And we live in a self-organized culture whereas the birds and the bees are simply following their pre-programmed instincts.
We Are What We Are...Until We're Not
In his book, “The Soul’s Code” psychologist James Hillman proposes what he calls “The Acorn Theory”. In short, the theory says that each person already holds all of his potential inside himself at birth. This potential lies dormant until the person answers his life’s calling. Once that happens, the potential blossoms and grows and the innate gifts shine forth. The answering of that life calling can happen in a moment or it may take years. Many of us never answer the call so it never happens at all. The bee realizes its potential at birth. Human beings…not so much.
So what? Well, I’m pretty sure that, like the bee, each of us is born with an innate sense of what we are supposed to become. A destiny, if you will. We are each structured in a certain way, bestowed with certain gifts and a certain way of thinking. Now this goes against much of the prevailing ideas in psychology and sociology. Some think that we are born a blank slate and that we are simply a product of our environment and the influences around us. I think that’s bullpuckey. If that is true then we are not individuals at all. We are victims and we have absolutely no control over who we become. Putting it like that it seems ludicrous doesn’t it? Yet, for all of our talk about freedom and individualism, we live a culture that is designed for us to fit in. Yes I said “designed”. The culture we live in, Market Capitalism, is a human construct. It doesn’t exist anywhere else in nature. In it, most of us have three roles to fill: laborer, consumer, and reproducer. In no way are we expected to answer our inner voice and fulfill our destiny. Some do. Most don’t. If you do, great. Good for you. If not, no one really cares…as long as you play out the three roles expected of you. Sure, you’re free to express yourself…up to a point. As long as you do so within the bounds of what is acceptable. In our society that means as long as you don’t disturb the normal operations of day to day business and the filling of the above three roles.
But what happens if you don’t fit into that mold? What happens if your inner programming means that you don’t function well in the “normal”? What happens if you don’t learn best by sitting in a classroom or if you don't perform at your best by working on an assembly line? Or climbing the corporate ladder over the dead weight of your co-workers? Or grinding the day away in a cubicle? What happens if your retail job is slowly killing your soul and you know it because you can just feel it? Well then, you’re on your own pal, because there is no societal need for you to do anything else.
SOHK-School Of Hard Knocks
All my life all I ever wanted to do was be an artist. I knew it in my bones. Now that sounds like a simple statement. But it took me 50 years to figure that out. What kept me from doing it? Fear. Judgment from others. The pressures of doing what I was supposed to do. Fear of failure. As James Hollis puts it in "The Archetypal Imagination", I guess I was just plain "afraid to move from the confining powers of fate into the invitations of (my) destiny... to stand respectfully before inner truth and dare to live it in the world". You see, being an artist means living an unconventional life. It means following your muse, everything else be damned. It means swimming upstream. Going against the grain. To the rest of the “normal” world that’s nails on a chalkboard. Ok, so I’m overusing the clichés. But clichés are clichés for a reason: they contain more than a grain of truth and we all understand what they mean.
My own refusal to follow my calling almost destroyed me. It cost me everything that we are raised to believe is important. It wrecked my marriage. I lost my job, my home, and my family. I went bankrupt. Twice. And I spent 36 years as a drug addled, alcohol soaked, self-pitying bag of bones. On the outside, I had "everything". I had a nice suburban home with a big yard, a pool, a hot tub, and all the other trimmings. I had three cars, a great family, and a successful career (near the arts, of course) pulling down six figures. But I hated my life. I hated myself. And it was all because I didn’t do what I was meant to do. Instead, I spent those 36 years running away, dancing around the edges of my muse. I tried writing, music, painting, and drawing. I went into the media production business and worked as a sound engineer, producer, video editor, and animator. I had all of the appearance of a successful life. But inside, I was a complete wreck because I never had the courage to do what I was meant to do. I wasn’t being a bee.
At the end of it all, when I hit bottom, I literally wanted to die. I laid in the muck at the bottom of that old barrel for quite a while staring death right in the eye. Waiting for it. Wishing for it. Wanting it. Then something happened. There came a moment when I actually had to decide: do I live or or do I die? If I chose to live, I knew the road back would be a brutal battle; every moment filled with the anguish of facing myself, the things I'd done, and the people I'd hurt. If I chose to die all I had to do was let go. Facing that choice head on and weighing it on the scales is a very humbling and sobering thing. I woke up on a bed in a rehab center with literally nothing. I had lost it all except for one thing: my calling. The muse was still there, whispering. I wanted to make art. I had to make art. I needed to make art. It was my only remaining connection to myself. Everything else had been literally stripped away. For the first time in longer than I could remember, I could see the world around me in all its glory and I could hear the voice of my muse clearly. That’s what it took for me to see who I really am.
When I got out of rehab and started to rebuild my life, I felt strangely liberated. I was free of all of the expectations that the world had dropped on me and free of the weight I had thrown on myself. After what I had been through I didn’t really care what anyone else thought about me. I had nothing and no one expected anything from me. Except that I would probably end up back at the bottom, in the muck. But I was awake! So I accepted my calling and began to try to find a way to express myself. To make the work that I had to make. The work that comes from the muse that is with me always. And guess what happened. Look at the work. It speaks for itself.
The Double Bind
I think there are only three things in this life worth exploring: love, beauty, and death. In those things are all that makes life worth living. And making art that comes from your soul requires confronting all three. That’s why I believe that art is life. It helps us see our experience on this planet through a transcendent lens and lets us touch the numinous. It moves the ancient currents inside us, the ones we all have in common. It gives form to things and feelings that we have no words for. Things that soar above human experience. Things that speak to us only through art. We get a whiff of that ethereal splendor and we use crude tools in an attempt to express the inexpressible, We beat on skin drums and clang about on tin bells trying to make glorious music that reaches the ears of heaven. And we fail far more often than we succeed. But we all feel those things, even though we can’t explain them. They are what makes life worth living at all. Without them, life is just a process of working, consuming, and reproducing. We might as well be birds. This is what differentiates us from every other life form on the planet. And some of us serve as conduits to those numinous things for the rest of us. We call those people artists.
However, because we live in the aforementioned culture that needs us to fit in, it is hard for artists to do their work. The artist's job is, by definition, counter-cultural. Artists function as a camera obscura on the world, showing us what we can't see, sometimes what we don't want to see. It is my contention that it is easier to be a doctor or a lawyer than to be an artist. I'm not trying to minimize the difficulty of those noble professions or the great skill required to practice them. What I am trying to do is to legitimize the artistic struggle. I'm asking the world to recognize that the artist is on a solo quest across a barren land. And, unlike the doctor or the lawyer, there is no map that can get him where he needs to go. The only use our culture has for artists is in the service of commerce, to distract or to sell goods and services. Beyond that, we artists are forced to live on the fringes of society. We get called “weird” because we dress funny. We are labeled “dangerous” because we question and poke and prod and thumb our noses at convention. They call us crazy because we make them think and heretics because we challenge what they hold sacred. And so they certainly don’t want to do anything to help us do our work. God forbid. Instead, they tell us to get real jobs. But without us, they might as well be birds. Take away the likes of Mozart, Van Gogh, and Shakespeare and what’s left? What’s left to think about, to aspire to, to raise us to the rapture of the cosmos?
How To Be An Artist -or- Do It Anyway, To Hell With Everything Else
If you have a muse and you are not heeding it, beware! You can try to be a bird. But, my friend, no matter how hard you try, you ain’t no bird. Make no mistake. Making art is hard, bitter work. It’s lonely, the hours suck, and most of the time it’ll scare you half to death. After all, you’ll be putting a piece of your soul out there and everyone else will think you’re a loon. It also means that when the muse calls, you go, everything else be damned. This may consign me to a life of solitude. And that’s scary. Who'd have me? Most people can’t understand my way of life. When my muse is speaking her voice is so loud that I can’t hear anything else. If I’m doing something instead of my work during those times I’m only half there, half aware, half listening. And I’m usually only half awake because when I’m riding the daimon I don’t get much sleep. Other, more “normal” people understandably find that frustrating, even intolerable. Who’d blame them? But if I try to live any other way then I’m no good to myself, much less anyone else. And then there’s the work. The discipline and the peaks and valleys of the creative life can be brutal. How do you think you’ll feel when you spend long, dark hours pouring your very soul into a piece of work, sweating over every detail, only to have the person you show it to say something like, “Oh, that’s nice, but does it come in blue? My couch is blue.” REALLY?
So why am I telling you this? Because if you’re still here, then I suspect you’re at least a little like me. You have a calling. You sense that there’s something inside you that makes you different. You see the world differently than everyone else you know. You want to make art but you’re scared. Scared of what it might cost you. Scared you'll be rejected. Scared you'll fail. So you have a million excuses about why you don’t do it. Bills, family, job, responsibilities, blah, blah, blah. Believe me, I’ve heard them all and used most of them myself. Here’s my advice to you: GET TO WORK. Don’t deny yourself or the world your contribution. The price is just too damn high. There’s no magic formula, no secret workflow or tool, no one last piece of knowledge that’s gonna put you over the top and make you ready. And none of us has the time so don’t even try that one on me. If you’re happiest when you’re throwing on the wheel, sitting at the easel, or with a camera in your hand, then get to it! Whatever your medium is, start the work. That’s the way to begin: just start. And do it every day. Even if it’s just for a few minutes. Don’t worry if you think you’re not good enough. Who cares? None of us ever thinks we’re good enough. You have to be willing to make an awful lot of bad work before you can make anything good. And don’t do it for the approval of others. If that’s your motivation I promise you you’ll be disappointed. You have to be your own cheerleader because there’s sure no shortage of people who will tear you down. Do it for yourself, because you have to, because you need to, because the very doing makes you happy. That’s enough. And here’s the dirty little secret of every artist: none of us has the slightest goddammed idea what we’re doing or where it comes from. If you catch a serious artist in an honest moment that’s what they’ll tell you. If they tell you otherwise, they’re either a liar or a fool.
It’s all about the work. The muse rewards only that. She doesn’t care how much sleep you’ve had, how low your checkbook balance is, or whether you live in a cardboard box. She honors work. If you work, she’ll eventually show up, but not until then. Inspiration is born from work, not the other way around. It’s a basic law of the universe: a body in motion tends to stay in motion and a body at rest tends to remain at rest. So I'll boil it down to a pithy statement for you. Print it out and tape it to your workstation. Tack it to your wall. Write it backwards on your forehead. Here it is:
People who want to be artists wait for inspiration.
Real artists get to work.
Right now, you have to decide if you’re a bird or a bee. Birds do what birds do: they fly together in formation, never straying too far from the flock. They hang out with the other birds and get real jobs and do all the things the flock expects them to do. Bees, on the other hand, go off on their own. They fly in circles making a nuisance of themselves, driving everyone nuts. People run when they come around or swat at them to make them go away. But the bee just ignores everybody and continues about his business. Here’s one thing about the bee that’s important for you to remember. The birds think the bee is crazy for flying in circles. But the bee… the bee is looking for that most beautiful of things: the flower. He wants to pollinate that flower. Then the flower can reproduce and that process makes the rest of the growing things in the world grow. And that, my friend, is the life-giving force of nature. So artist, do your thing. It’ll be the death of you if you don’t. And if you do, you’ll give the rest of the world the pollen that makes all of our lives worth living.