The Courage Not to Matter
Ask me what my aspiration is.
I want to disappear. In a manner of speaking.
Stay with me for a moment. This morning, I opened my front door and walked out into the dawn light. Another day, another gift of soft air, a single cardinal’s whistle and chirr, a stillness so still that it seems holy. I could spend the rest of my life exploring just this moment. How long would it take to run my finger over the edge of every leaflet of every frond of just this one fern, and to count every spore on the underside of all those leaflets?
I read recently that I am home to about 100 trillion bacterial cells. That’s an entire ecosystem inside me. The world beyond me must be at least as complex, right? How little of it we witness even in a long lifetime.
Anyway, every morning I retrieve from my walkway a newspaper. Today, I read there that I can soon watch a television show called “Dating Naked.”
Don’t get me wrong. Watching (between idiotic commercials) naked people (of an unknown but presumably reasonable degree of attractiveness) make insipid (but did anyone really expect them to discuss Heidegger or Proust?) conversation as they struggle to maintain the pointless pretense that they are alone (we’re used to this conceit by now), and not in fact surrounded by a TV crew, even that sounds more diverting than counting fern spores.
So I’m not here to hold myself out as a poor man’s Annie Dillard.
No, it’s something else.
All I really aim to do with this post is recognize, and encourage you to recognize, how courageous it is when a person decides to become an artist. Imagine the thought process. “You know, I think I’ll spend the rest of my life making art. Poverty, obscurity, the agony of trying and often failing to create something worthwhile: sounds wonderful!”
I have been fascinated with the making of art for as long as I can remember. Maybe it was that trip when I was a toddler to Milledgeville, Georgia, where my mother was visiting her friend, the writer Flannery O’Connor. Maybe it was something in the air at the O’Connor farm, Andalusia, the effect of seeing one of her peacocks display its own beauty:
O’Connor once wrote that “[a]rt never responds to the wish to make it democratic; it is not for everybody; it is only for those who are willing to undergo the effort needed to understand it.” (Don’t be offended by what may sound like elitism on her part. She also wrote: “The type of mind that can understand good fiction is not necessarily the educated mind, but it is at all times the kind of mind that is willing to have its sense of mystery deepened by contact with reality, and its sense of reality deepened by contact with mystery.”)
Yes, of course, she was a “successful” artist (see my earlier rant on “success“) in her lifetime and greatly more so after her death. You’re thinking, therefore, “Easy for Flannery O’Connor to say.” But I’m not sure that’s fair. She herself expressed frustration that she was successful for the wrong reasons.
Choosing to become an artist, to get to my point, is an act of self-abnegation. Isn’t that right? No doubt Matthew Barney has the talent and drive to make “Dating Naked” a smash hit. Instead, he chooses to make films that are very, very roughly on the same subjects (the body and eroticism, let’s say, just for the sake of getting on with this) but that comparatively few people have watched from beginning to end and, honestly, that few will ever want to see:
I’m not so naive as to be unaware that almost every artist harbors a secret fantasy that he or she will be the next Georgia O’Keeffe, Bob Dylan, Picasso, or Laurie Anderson. But I can’t believe that when they drag themselves out of bed in the morning and go to their studios, where they spend the day sweating in front of a furnace, or wrapping strands of copper wire around a piece of wood, or building a song note by stubborn note, or just sitting there facing down the despair that comes from seeing how far what you can do falls short of what you are seeing or hearing — I can’t believe that what really keeps them going is the confidence that they are on the verge of being “discovered” and “making it big.”
Matthew Barney spent seven years making his most recent film, River of Fundament. He had to know that this film, which immerses itself in excrement, would have few takers. I could, of course, list other examples of artists dedicating virtually their entire lives to the creation of one work of art, with no reasonable expectation that more than a handful of people might recognize its true worth. Think of the sculptor working year after year on parts of a cathedral that no one could see from the ground. Or think of an illuminated manuscript from the Middle Ages. The artists who created these extraordinary works can hardly have been thinking, “If they would just let me add an image of Adam and Eve copulating in the Garden of Eden …” The daily work itself had the quality of being sacred. It was in the service of something greater, something that was meant to endure.
I like to think that what most artists are trying to do is to get out of the way of the art itself. Like I said, self-abnegation, self-denial. And I find that very inspiring and worth emulating. I think of it every time I find myself glancing at the stats for Traces. Not that I would ever claim that anything here remotely resembles art, mind you. If this is worth doing, though, it is worth doing without it being about me, in the narrow sense, in the way it is for the guy who takes his clothes off on VH1 to get someone, anyone, to validate his existence for him. Am I happy to have you reading this? Of course. But for the sake of anything but me. That’s the hope.