The following essay deals with my opinion that art is created not merely by use of practiced techniques, but rather by blending these with the passions, worldview and personality of the individual. After all, it is the honest expression of one's self which truly defines art in any form.
YOU MAY THINK I'M CRAZY -- BUT THATíS JUST IT...
In Hamlet Queen Gertrude implores the verbose Polonius to speak "more matter with less art". While this advice proved sage at the time, 400 years later it seems Shakespeare might cringe upon realizing just how misapplied this phrase has since become. And surely he would join me in declaring that this is "not to be".
Having said that, I suppose I should explain what has prompted my not-so-sudden disillusionment with the business of art as implied by the above statement. Quite simply, ever since I first discovered some years ago that my professional aspirations are all of an artistic bent, I have been gradually introduced to the realization that not all artistic endeavors are motivated by truly artistic concerns...and that not all individuals engaged in artistic endeavors are truly artists.
For example, as a teenager my favorite novel was the long beloved southern epic, Gone With the Wind. I read it from cover to cover again and again and dreamed of one day writing such a wonderful book myself, secretly even pondering the beginnings of its sequel, which would of course subsequently become my own epic masterpiece.
Naturally I was therefore both elated and mildly distressed when a few years ago a sequel emerged to presumably become someone elseís claim to fame. And, of course, I rushed out as soon as the book became available to buy it and find out just how truly inferior the authorís ability would surely prove next to my own.
What I found between its pages, however, was not merely disappointing, but to such a devoted fan as I had long since become, deeply maddening as well. For not only did it drastically differ from my own imagined view of what might have followed that famous phrase "tomorrow is another day" -- a circumstance I realize (albeit sadly) did not matter tremendously to the world at large -- more importantly it proved shockingly evident to even such an inexperienced writer as myself that the level of literary quality one would expect from such a highly anticipated work was sorely lacking. And while this may not represent an earthshatteringly important discovery to those less devoted than I to Gone With the Wind, it nonetheless represented an earthshattering discovery for me as a young writer in that it forced me to consider the possibility that factors other than artistic merit and integrity (such as copyrights owned by Margaret Mitchellís relatives and which were about to expire) might be at work behind much of the "art" being constantly created and, more significantly, sold.
Naturally, as time passed, I became more fully aware that this unhappy and often misunderstood co-existence of art and commerce was indeed a fact of life. And one need only look to todayís popular music scene and the profusion of slickly produced "boy bands" singing generic lyrics while striking generic poses which translate into the sale of literally millions of albums to see that it still is.
Somehow though, until very recently, it had never occurred to me that the shamelessly non-artistic individuals on the commercial side of this equation might attempt to pass themselves off as anything more. After all, having achieved their mercenary goals and enjoyed a great measure of what they term success, I had assumed that these individuals would remain content to continue on their way while allowing the less "successful" true artists to continue likewise on theirs.
What has finally shattered this heretofore comforting illusion -- and which has once more illustrated why our teachers warn us never to assume anything -- is that I now realize that some of those non-artists (who might be more accurately labeled con-artists) have managed to blur the line between these two groups until it has proved indistinguishable even to some supposed experts.
But let me clarify.
Recently, the administrators of a writing course I am taking sent me as required reading a book by the less-than-famous, yet two-time Pulitzer Prize winning, Jon Franklin entitled Writing for Story. And although I must admit that the two-time Pulitzer Prize winning part prompted me to delve into the text eagerly thirsting to drink from his obvious fount of knowledge, I became skeptical only two pages into the Preface where I read of Mr. Franklinís dismay as a young man in finding that all writing books he encountered "made a point of saying that while writing was a craft, it was also an art -- and ultimately either one had it (whatever "it" was) or one didnít. The clear understanding was that if you didnít understand what they were driving at, you didnít have it. By that measure I sure didnít"
Indeed he didnít. And having now completed his book, I am convinced he still doesnít. But in finding himself unable to join those who do, he seems to have comforted himself by deciding to try beating them instead. For never have I read a more pointed attempt to drive home heretical teachings than Mr. Franklinís book.
After taunting his readers for 187 pages about the alleged "Secret" to writing what he calls "creative" nonfiction -- in other words the artistic "it" he claims never to have discovered -- at last he reveals that "there is no secret beyond knowledge and experience; writing is no different than... performing surgery, flying an airplane or climbing a mountain. It is a human endeavor and the skilled professional...is one who has mastered the techniques and then accumulated the experience necessary to know when and to what purpose each technique is to be used."
"Stories are nothing," he continues. "The process is everything."
Hmm... To a technical writer, maybe. Not to an artist.
Still, even these denials or misunderstandings of "it" might be dismissed as merely harmless fodder for debate were it not for the comments set forth in the bookís final chapter entitled "The Nature of Art and Artists". Here an imaginary young artist and would-be writer is presented, and his tortuous path followed, pitting what Mr. Franklin calls "art" against technique. Ignoring completely the potentially peaceable union of these two, he revels in the moment his young artist surrenders his ignorance, which Mr. Franklin (apparently as a result of his own ignorance) refers to as "artistic purity".
Note the joy with which he relates the transformation.
"Heís growing up, you see, and his manuscripts keep coming back. He doesnít know what to do and he must do something or heís going to end up washing cars for the rest of his life. So he takes one tiny pragmatic step away from artistic purity. Artistic purity, though, is like virginity. One step is all it takes."
Is it possible to miss the glee in this hopelessly misguided conclusion? Indeed, his triumph seems so complete it conjures images of Satan at the moment he claims the soul of Marloweís Dr. Faustus -- a surrender, ironically, as needless as that of genuine artistic purity.
I realize, of course, that to many seasoned professionals and Jon Franklin adherents in the industry, I am that ignorant young writer, and that my perspective may seem as misguided to them as his does to me. I therefore offer a brief explanation of my gene pool in my defense.
My father was an engineer. He held advanced degrees and was argued among his colleagues to be a genius. As a result, he shared his expertise in his chosen field not only through dedicated service to his company, but also by writing articles for various magazines targeted to his fellow engineers.
About a month ago I came across one of his articles while visiting my mother. It was obvious that the clip was well-written, concise -- a masterpiece -- one that would surely make even Jon Franklin proud. But it was not art. And my father was not an artist.
You may ask how I can make this assertion so confidently -- especially since he died when I was fifteen, leaving vast expanses of his personality to remain everlasting mysteries to me. But two things I remember about my dad with crystal clarity. One is his brilliant intellect; the second is his utter lack of appreciation for art.
My older brother and I took piano lessons as kids. And like most young music students we practiced daily in preparation for lessons with our instructor. But we didnít practice when Dad was home. For we knew that if we sat down at the piano within range of his maddeningly excellent hearing, we wouldnít be sitting down (at least comfortably) anywhere else for quite some time.
That pretty much sums up my dadís appreciation for all forms of art. But not for artists...
Apparently itís true that often opposites attract. For my mother, unlike my dad, is an artist to the core. In her youth, she designed and sewed most of her own clothes, and went on to do the same for me and my brother as kids. Even her cooking proved creative, and since she served as what was then called "room mother" at our elementary school, our classmates quickly came to appreciate her artistry in cupcake decoration and the perfection of her cream puffs.
Of course, as we grew up, the attention of my big brotherís friends turned from cupcakes to other forms of art -- emphasis on form -- and they came to appreciate my mother for reasons other than her talent...namely her slender figure, youthful appearance and long dark hair. Either way, she still represented art to all of us.
But my motherís real "calling" as an artist, the place where the artistic "it" Mr. Franklin speaks of reared its head most prominently was as an oil painter. And it is to watching the earliest beginnings of this discovery that my certainty that artistic purity and technical development may peacefully coexist can really be traced. For it was not until I was about nine that my mother first decided to explore this area of her talent, and immediately upon making this fateful decision, she made another -- to enroll in an art class.
It quickly became evident that my mother possessed something special as a painter, yet she never relied solely on her gift for perfecting her creations. Instead, she heeded her instructorís advice, purchased umpteen books explaining various styles and techniques and amassed a larger array of brushes, palette knives and other types of artistic weaponry than Iíd ever known existed. And, of course, she plied her craft.
But no matter how much she gained in technical merit, my mother never lost the pure sense of passion and simple need for self-expression that had sent her on this journey in the first place. In fact, she remained so closely tied to each one of her paintings that I often felt in witnessing her struggle to part with them to thrilled purchasers that she might well have parted with me -- or at least my brother -- with equal ease.
And although I admit I found this a little unsettling at the time, I have at last come to fully appreciate -- and no longer fear -- this feeling.
The point I am making, then, is that art -- be it writing, music, painting, whatever -- is not the same as surgery or tentmaking or flying an airplane -- although in the hands of a true artist I have no doubt these, too, can be elevated well above the mere technical realm. And although, as my mother so clearly illustrates to me, an artist can indeed benefit greatly from -- and, in fact, usually requires -- access to the right tools and knowledge of their use, his or her power comes from something much deeper, more significant, and yet more elemental -- NEED. What Mr. Franklin calls "it" to me represents just that -- a pure, inexplicable need to share our natural passion with those around us -- which is perhaps why "it" is referred to even by "us" in sometimes the most negative sense. For the true artist cannot escape "it" even though at times he or she may think that doing so might provide him or her with the very highest level of satisfaction.
But lest this seem a somewhat alien viewpoint, I offer the words of Michael Shurtleff from his book Audition. A practical how-to guide to aid actors in landing roles, it addresses this issue of inescapable need right up front within the Prologue. And while Mr. Shurtleff is applying what he sees as an obvious truth to the acting profession specifically, I believe it applies equally well to all creative endeavors.
"To go into [the arts]," he writes, "is like asking for admission to an insane asylum. Anyone may apply, but only the certifiably insane are admitted." He goes on to explain that although only about one-percent of the actors he knew at the time of the bookís writing were actually making a living in that profession, its pull for so many of the others remained completely irresistible.
So what does he propose as a solution?
"Settle down and admit youíre crazy.. When you find out what [the arts are] like and what the odds are, and you still persist, the proof of your own insanity is inescapable. Accept it. Most [artists] make themselves unhappy by searching for sanity, by insisting on normalcy; itís a grave mistake. The life of an [artist] is a bit easier to take if you admit youíre bonkers."
I have and indeed it is. At least until individuals like Mr. Franklin come along.
For admitting oneís artistic "condition" doesnít make it go away. And even while working (often seven days a week) at my "day job" I have never managed to escape for very long from "it". Thus, essentially by pecking away in the middle of the night simply because "it" kept me awake until Iíd satisfied the need to write at least the next few pages, in recent years Iíve completed a full-length screenplay, a host of poems, stage plays, songs, short stories and, yes, even this essay -- which pretty much explains my annoyance with those who comfortably write by day claiming to be creative without "it" -- and apply their well-honed technical skills to the derision of us who do have "it" and simply canít escape "its clutches.
And so at last I appeal to any would-be creative writers or other "artists" out there who donít have "it" to ignore Mr. Franklin and heed instead the advice of Mary Lyn Henry and Lynne Rogers (from their book How to be a Working Actor), "If there are other things you can see yourself doing that will bring you just as much happiness, offer a higher ratio of success, and demand less application, then by all means involve yourself in these activities."
And if there arenít, then please, please write for engineering magazines -- or perhaps go join a "boy band". For if you havenít got "it", at least you do have something else -- a choice...
Not to mention one truly unfair advantage...sleep.