Demystify your art making, at least for the sake of getting it done. Whether your art be painting, drawing, sculpting, writing, singing, acting, dress making, crochet, needlepoint, woodwork, bread baking, stenciling, scrapbooking, cello playing, guitar strumming, furniture restoration, hair cutting, stand-up comedy, or collage.
I will create something like a parable, except my protagonist is a true historical figure, and the moral may be murky, if existent at all. But the thing is, the accepted cultural narrative, i.e., art history as we know it, depends on an outcome other than what this “parable” offers. Nonetheless, here’s a brief, alternative, anti-art history:
Suppose the painter Paul Cezanne (pronounced say-‘zon, or says-‘awnh, if you’re being snooty), having returned to the French countryside after a stint in Paris, decided to pursue other things besides painting. In Paris, he’d hung out with important painters and gained valuable artistic insights, but feeling himself more a rustic, he followed his heart back to the provincial environs of his youth. He told himself he’d paint mountains and forests, rock quarries and the Mediterranean Sea. His intentions were good. But when he got there, a procrastination set in–one from which he’d never fully recover.
It started as anxiety: a lurking fear that he’d fail to achieve what those great Parisian painters had achieved. What’s left for me to discover, he often wondered. He knew he should weather this anxiety and get to work anyway, but being of a passive temperament, he often let it get the best of him. And in those days, there were no anti-anxiety meds to ease the mind. A prescription for Lexapro might’ve made all the difference. Instead, he sipped coffee all day, willfully blinding himself to the exacerbatory effects of caffeine on his anxiety. By late afternoon, he’d be a jittery wreck, unable to paint, unable to do anything thing but laze about Pontoise, growing bitterer by the hour, mean-mugging the villagers who hadn’t grasped the great destiny that was meant to be his. How could they? But he afforded them no grace. He’d escape to the woods, taking long walks on old wagon roads, cursing life for not delivering on its promise of artistic renown, carrying his sketchbook but drawing nothing. I’ll figure things out eventually, he’d think.
Soon, however, he afforded himself no grace, either. He became quite the wallower in self-pity. What had gone wrong? He was supposed to be the father of some great art movement, but he was merely the son of a banker, living off a great inheritance, producing no art. His palette grew dusty, his brushes stained and stiff with inactivity. In the village, he wasn’t even known to be an artist anymore. All he was was the son of Monsieur Cezanne, the deceased banker. At one point, local officials wanted him to run for office, thinking he was somehow qualified because his father had been a prominent citizen back in Aix. But Paul knew he wasn’t the public service type, so he graciously denied their request, though they plied him with brandy and rare tobacco. To be honest, he did consider it; it would be a level of prominence, after all. They were standing around him in the courthouse basement, the brandy working its intoxication, the conversation flowing, and he thought maybe, just maybe. But the next morning, in the grip of a pulsing headache, he remembered he was supposed to be an artist, and he was just foolish enough to believe it might still happen. He stood by his original decision not to run for office.
This parable is starting to run thin. Here’s the point: if the real Paul Cezanne had had any kind of sense of the greatness that was to come, he might’ve gotten nothing done. If he’d thought he might one day be referred to as the Father of Modern Art, then there may have never been a series of paintings of Mont Sainte-Victoire, or of his influential bather scenes. Card players, Madame Cezanne, still-lifes–so many monumental works we wouldn’t have. He would’ve sabotaged his own greatness. That mantle–Father of Modern Art (who could live under that expectation?!)–would’ve gone to someone else.
The point behind the point: demystify your art making. Demystify your writing. Demystify your singing. Demystify your acting. Demystify your whatever. Do it all for the joy of doing it, or for your obsession with it. Any reason is better than doing it because you think it will one day lead to greatness. If you do it because you think it will one day lead to greatness, then not only will you probably fall short, but you’ll be letting down our species by wielding such a shallow motive.
Maybe greatness is the wrong word, because art deserves the pursuit of greatness. Striving to make great art is worthwhile, but striving to have art be proof of your own greatness–that’s the shallow part, the seedy part. I’m confident in saying that the real Cezanne pursued greatness in art, but not greatness through art. I suspect he didn’t care about personal fame at all.