ISOLATION AND COMMUNITY IN THE ARTIST'S LIFE
[These are the notes from my talk at the Notre Dame "Epiphanies of Beauty Conference." I gave the talk today and people seemed to like it. Sorry if it's hard to follow in it's spottiness - just imagine me doing the Sicilian hand-waving and filling in all the holes.]
I. Intro….Thanks for invitng me to be part of this wonderful event. I am not a theologian or a philosopher. I have recently had a short-lived career as a doctoral student. But after just two courses in which we wrangled over earth-shattering topics like “Towards a Practical Theology: Rebuilding a Hermeneutic of Christopraxis” and “Rethinking the Sermon on the Mount as Divine Triadic Transforming Initiatives,” I decided, that I would probably die while scaling the ivory tower, and I should be humbly content to stay in Hollywood and influence the billions of people who make up the ravenous global audience.
I am an artist - a writer and dramatist, and I am the ring-master of a new community of filmmakers in the entertainment industry. We started out in 1999 to try and get better scripts on the desks of Hollywood executives. We created a pedagogical model to address this problem. We find ourselves now, focused on building a nurturing community for our writers, and then standing around the perimeter, rubbing our hands together and hoping that something amazing will happen when we aren’t looking. The classroom phase of the program is basically just the doorway, rite of initiation.
It’s that “when we aren’t looking” that I want to talk about today. The time of isolation that is the prerequisite to every work of art. It is the biggest cross of the artist, even surpassing in weight the cross of their own weirdness.. Mainly because a lot of their weirdness proceeds from the solitude that they have to make their home so often.
I don’t have time today to dwell too much on the necessary relationship between isolation and creativity. You’re just going to have to take my word about it as a practitioner and one who wrangles practitioners.
I will talk about the following:
A) Two Senses of Isolation, one positive and one negative, and how artists tend to experience them backwards.
B) The relationship – I’m going to call it a marriage - between the artist and their art, and the way it ravages them to salvation, and possibly some of us on the outside too.
C) Why Classrooms Will Not Produce The “New Renaissance”
D) What Kind of Community We Need to Create So That We Might See Some Beautiful Art Again At Some Point. (And When I say Beautiful I mean…)
II. Isolation as the Artist’s Cross
It is a paradox. Art is a striving to connect. To make art, one must disconnect and retreat into isolation. An artist will never get past the struggle with isolation. In so far as they do war against themselves – their fear and sloth, they will be able to enter productively into isolation. Most of the time, they will come away with little to show. They can be inspired with an idea in myriad ways, but in the end, they will have to sit and recombine and knead that idea, working it and letting it work them, until it is ready to be born.
[CLIP FROM POLLOCK]
a) Negative Isolation as the Artist Fringing Himself on the Outskirts of Society
I am not an art historian, and I don’t know what led to this situation, but the truth is, it has become a virtue for an artist to be cut off from “the village” to dwell in a kind of haughty isolation. The story of the 20th Century artist has been a tortured tension between the glorification of isolation, and the passion for commercialization and celebrity.
I asked a writer a couple years ago, where he thought ethics for a fiction writer consisted of, and he said, “In being faithful to the voice inside me.” So I said, “Yes, but what if you are sick, and have an infection that could harm other people.” And he kind of unblinkingly parroted back at me, “The role of the artist is to be faithful to his own vision.”
So, putting the best spin on it, artists today tend to think of isolation as the only protection for their distinct voice. And it is true that that voice needs to survive. I would argue that for the real artists (that is, the one who is driven to create) his or her very survival is tied to the preservation of their unique voice.
So says Lord Byron in his poem Childe Harold,
‘Tis to create, and in creating live
A being more intense, that we endow with form our fancy,
Gaining as we give
The life we image, even as I do now.
What am I? Nothing;
But not so art thou, Soul of my thought!
With whom I traverse earth, Invisible but gazing
As I glow, Mix’d with thy spirit; blending with thy birth,
And feeling still with thee in my crush’d feelings dearth.
The result of artists in isolation has been devastating – first and foremost to the artist, who have been left to carry the burden of creativity without the support of a loving community, not to mention sanctifying grace. But it has also meant that the rest of us have suffered the loss of what the Pope calls the artist’s ‘prophetic voice.’ More about what else we’ve lost further on.
So, here’s why I find the Pope’s Letter to Artists so wonderful. It opens with a call “To renew that fruitful dialogue that used to exist between the Church and the arts.” What is Dialogue, but a calling out of isolation?
I guess the point of this conference is to get at what the Church and artists have to say to one another –
III. The Isolation That Is Holy
Several years ago, I went to a dentist and before he put my fingers in my mouth I asked him, “Do you like being a dentist?”…… I hear the same kind of thing from my writers. They are always telling me, “I hate writing. I get so lonely!!!” “Nobody told me I was going to have to be alone so much. You know, by myself!!”
The funny thing, that artists experience loneliness is not a sign that they are doing art wrong. Any more than a dentist getting saliva splattered on his face. A lonely artist is not doing it wrong, he is just doing it. It’s amusing that artists tend to experience the unhealthy isolation as a positive thing, because it is connected to their sense of themselves as islandic, while they experience the healthy isolation as negative – because it is related to humility. The point is, we need to offer artists a kind of community that can support them in their healthy isolation.
In his Letter to Artists, The Pope speaks with compassion about the artist’s need to subject himself to “the demands of beauty.” The principle demand is the price of excellence – the wages of the craft itself – and this is something that can only be achieved in isolation.
The relationship between the artist and his art becomes as defining as a marriage. The artist has to be wedded to his craft, and make every sacrifice for that other. My mother used to say about a successful marriage, ‘There is no such thing as quality time together. There is only time.” And this is true of the artist, there can be no substitute for “the scales.”
“It is easy to forget that the man who writes a good love sonnet needs not only to be enamored of a woman, but also to be enamored of the Sonnet.” C.S. Lewis
We tell our students, “You might be a good writer when you have completed your 1000th page. This is roughly equivalent to eight screenplays, or else one screenplay rewritten eight times. Then, you can stand back and know that you have some basic proficiency with the limits and possibilities of the art form. For a painter, you know what yellow can do on a pallet. For a singer, your body knows how to prepare for and make the transition from a high G to a B flat.
If you don’t write 1000, the most you might have is flashed of goodness. But it will be an incomplete, project that people will refer to as having loads of potential. But it won’t be worth anything in itself.
This being closeted alone with your craft makes for a weird relationship between the artist and their art form. To those of us on the outside, it’s just damn queer. But it will help to think of it as a kind of marriage. Here’s a sequence of clips from Hilary and Jackie…
[CLIP FROM HILARY AND JACKIE]
In order to bring forth new epiphanies of beauty, and artist has to go off by himself, and stare, and brood, ponder. He has to willingly let himself be kneaded by the sufferings and humiliations of life, and stay in that place, until he loses a measure of control and it bubbles up out of him in a process called creativity.
Sitting alone with yourself is truly frightening – even if the scariest thing about it may be just how desperately boring it can be. Emily Dickinson expressed it thus:
The Loneliness One dare not sound –
And would as soon surmise as in its Grave go plumbing to ascertain its size.
The Loneliness whose worst alarm is lest itself should see –
And perish from before itself for just a scrutiny.
The Horror not to be surveyed –
But skirted in the Dark –
With consciousness suspended –
And Being under lock.
I fear me this –
Is Loneliness the maker of the soul?
It’s Caverns and its corridors Illuminate? Or seal?
What is the principle fear of isolation? The Pope references a “suffering of insufficiency.” That is, even after having spent yourself completely, you will have to stand back from your work and say not “It is good,” but probably, “It is better than most people could do….but it is still not really good.” So, the artist has to live inescapably with the certainty of his own limits. The most compelling temptation for us all is the vision of the life without limits: “You shall be like gods.” The artist is aware at every creative moment of his limits.
It is a suffering that can make you mad/insane if you fight it, this suffering of insufficiency. The only thing to be done is to embrace it humbly. So that every experience of creativity leads you to realize the distance between yourself, and the Creator.
III. Other Dangers of Isolation
There’s a reason why solitary confinement is among the worst punishments a person can receive.
- Isolation can foster depression. Many artists already have the aptitude for depression. There are myriad studies which have tried to figure out if depression causes artistic creativity – like a person drowning grasping at a line, or if doing art makes you crazy. I think it is a little of both.
- Isolation renders people inadequate in human society. It can make them slobs who will be in their pajamas at 2pm, and whose creative space is somewhere in the middle of the mound of candy rappers and diet Coke cans.
- Isolation can make people intellectually proud. “Thank you God that I am not like other men, but am instead someone who broods and ponders.”
- Isolation can make you think you are alone.
- There are other aspects of the artist’s life which are very isolating: rejection, instability, celebrity
For all these reasons, it has been said, “Instead of coming to the imagination’s rescue, the Church has panicked at its antics.” (Janine Langan, Truth, Justice and the Modern Imagination)hj
IV. Why the Classroom Can’t Produce Great Art
Many reasons that each deserve a separate talk. For example,
- The classroom is basically a consumer environment. People who are all paying tuition cannot be separated out in terms of who has talent and who doesn’t.
- The academy is infected with the fear of absolutes, and so it is considered totalitarianism to say, “This is ugly.”
- And while classrooms should be about encouraging young people, what good is it to validate someone falsely? Teachers tend to have a false sense of what encouraging young people means. We need to bring the deadly serious collegiate sports exclusivity into other areas of academia. Some people just can’t cut it in the arts, and they need to be told that.
Principally, however, the classroom will generally not produce great art because it teaches craft in isolation from life.
It also isn’t a covenant-based community, and the handing on of an art form is very much something that needs to be founded in a covenant relationship.
V. The Studio as the Answer to Artistic Alienation
All of our efforts at Act One, are centered into working with writers until we know that they are serious about pursuing their craft, and we know that they have talent, and we have helped them acquire enough technical mastery, that we can place them with a mentor.
We also blackmail, bribe and extort them to enter into a group of other writers, and then, as soon as they begin to find some success in the industry, we start asking them to mentor the next crop of young writers.
In the studio relationship, the artist gets much more than craft lessons. He gets life lessons. He hears how another person weathered the poverty of the initial years, and how he dealt with being very good, but not the best. (Valerie: “I only need to sing the best song I can sing…”)
Reforming Christian artists guilds and studios, will be a good thing for both the masters and the apprentices…and especially for the Church.
Unlike the classroom, the master can refuse to take a student. He has an interest in not putting disciples out there who would diminish his reputation.
VI. Rules of the Community
The community has a clear covenant.
a) Beauty is the harmonious combination of details and one of the harmonies is in the content or message of the work. It is possible to have a great work of art that is ugly, because it is a lie (like The Hours, or American Beauty). To the same extent, it is possible to have a truthful work of art that is ugly, because it is missing craft.
b) The striving is to live the truth in charity. We have to find a way to validate each other while still being honest about each other’s work. We believe that there are many places in the community and that the ability to appreciate artistic talent, is also a talent from God. He gives this gift in proportion to the gift of talent. (Theo and van Gogh. Sue and Emily: “To Make a Clover, It Takes a Clover, and a Bee, and Reverie))
c) Fidelity to the artist’s vision as a God-given gift: I don’t tell you how to fix your screenplay. I only tell you what isn’t working in it.
d) “Freely you have received. Freely give.”
e) “Be worth teaching. Do your homework (no faking it.).”
f) We owe one another first of all, the witness of a godly life, married to artistic excellence.