As an undiscovered artist, (I loitered on that for sometime before commiting to self-referencing as such), I sometimes/often get hit up by friends with some variant of the following with regards to my work: Yeah, but when’re you gonna DO something with it? Knowing their hearts are in the right place, I never openly bristle. Truth be told, it actually provides my starved ego with a healthy – if oblique bit of flattery to gnaw on. It helps to be reminded that I am capable of doing anything worth doing *something* with. So, thank you, (goddammit).
But then there’s the unpleasant lingering aftertaste of the question, for it seems to intimate underachievement. This makes me cranky, as I’ve remained robustly productive on all creative fronts, from three complete manuscripts — all three covers for which I designed the graphics — to the miles of pen & ink illustrations laying around and my paintings and even my music. To be fair, I guess that’s just the *it* part of the equation. As for the *something* part, it’s not always clear to me what this is supposed to represent; celebrity and wealth? Or maybe just cult status and a solidly above median annual income? What is this vague *something* folks seem to think I’ve been remiss in obsessing on all these years? It’s not like I’m not hungry; it’s not like my nervous tissues aren’t still awash in piss ‘n’ vinegar; it’s not as if I lost my ego somewhere in the bed linens. So, what’s wrong with me? Where’s that brass ring, already?
Obligatory background: As a kid, my father openly and regularly reviled my creative side. We’re talking from maybe 7 or 8 all the way up until I moved out, just before my 18th birthday. Besides the daily acid baths, he made scarce any kind of paper, pens or pencils in the house, including the fuck-it bucket full of derelict crayons and the office stationery he’d swiped from the supply closet at work. Cruel interdiction was followed by strategic raids on my bedroom in order to uncover any pieces of artwork I’d ferreted away; whatever he’d find he’d subsequently burn in the fireplace alongside his canceled checks.
It’s maybe not surprising to any slob with even a vague concept of what passion is that my old man’s hostility toward anything remotely sophisticated or artistic in nature only intensified my pursuit of said. When I finally got free of that environment, I felt so intoxicated by my new freedoms that I’d literally let out a howl now & then. I was mystified by friends who frittered away their basic liberties on stuff like beer or pot or video games. For me, being able to sit up until 4AM working on an idea out in the open…at the kitchen table…with the lights on! Just the idea that I could leave a project out when I went to bed and discover it still sitting there in the morning was better than any chemical buzz or fantasy for me. I was free to produce, and that freedom was at once humbling and euphoric. I stayed high on those fumes for a long time.
However, heaven, like all things, comes in monthly installments. My creative bent once again grew fallow, only this time in favor of full-time employment for to afford my half of the rent and the modest sundries pursuant to a decent standard of living. Enter the vicious cycle/consumer trap/rat race, etc. It took only a few years time before the fourteen hour shifts left me feeling so exsanguinated and cynical that I feared I’d reached a premature cul-de-sac in life. I can readily detect that sense of defeat in the photographs of me from those days, and even the few drawings I managed to knock out back then, which appear heavy and frenetic, like they might be the last things I’d ever do. Instead of allowing the electricity to flow through my traces the way I had been blueprinted, I was jury rigging my circuits in order just to survive in a world that I didn’t always feel inspired nor equipped to live in. Indeed, my ideal workplace resembled something more like a vast hangar where I toiled away the days while someone slipped basic nourishment under the front door in the form of protein, water and pussy. Whenever I’d see a film or something where some spaced-out gimper was going at a canvas on the bucolic grounds of some expansive sanitarium, I’d think to myself — that lucky fuck! Am I really supposed to feel bad for him?! Recently, when I watched Franco Nero’s character at the end of A Quiet Place in the Country, I felt a little of that same old envy.
Fortunately for me, around this same time, e-commerce was in its incipience, and I discovered I was able to scrape just enough bread together dealing in various trash/treasure each month to cover my end of the bills. I never realized consistently huge returns, but that was also never my goal; the goal was to be able to make exactly enough to maintain that thin buffer between myself and certain dispossession, so that I could stop clocking in and start developing some of the ideas I’d been woodshedding. This is around the time I started the first draft of my first novel-length fiction manuscript, Soundtrack to a Dull Moment in Nowheresville, a boy-meets-girl/boy-loses-girl yarn spun from the scraps of paper and napkins I’d been amassing with little ideas scribbled down on them whenever work was slow. As I toiled eight hours each night at my book, I began noticing changes in myself: I started to shed certain nervous habits without even trying, like biting my nails, which I had done since boyhood; feelings of diffidence and anxiety which had plagued me throughout my teens and early twenties gradually gave way to a sense of fastness and cool. For the first time in my life, I found myself thinking, “so this is the terrain this chassis was designed for.” That was enough for me. I just wanted to sustain that for as long as possible.
Which brings me back to that original question: when am I gonna do something with it? Never-mind just feeling alright — where is my validation? My audience? What if no-one out there will ever give a shit? Over the years, I’ve had to force myself not to think in these terms in order to grow and to produce, because the compliance imposed by even the vaguest expectations — be they my own or those of an audience (real, imagined or hoped-for) is truly binding; and that is death to an artist. I strive to create for the sake of creating something I think is beautiful and no other reason. As far as I’m concerned, any material considerations outside of that feat are glorified clerical matters. Don’t get me wrong — money isn’t funny; but all the tenacity and hustling and networking and internet exposure in the world still can’t guarantee market relevance or saleability. If I become consumed with that end of things, again, I’m dead.
There was a (possibly mythical) musical contributor behind the mysterious and inscrutable art ensemble known as The Residents by the nom de guerre of N. Senada. He had a creative philosophy he called his Theory of Obscurity, according to which, an artist can only produce pure content when completely sealed off from outside expectations and influences. I’ve loosely adhered to this philosophy even before being aware of it. Expanding on this premise is psychoanalyst Adam Phillips in this clip from his ridiculously excellent BBC program on Art and Insanity. It is very very much worth watching in its entirety, but the eureka moment for me was in the fifth and final segment, between minute 8:21 and 10:25, when Dr. Phillips elucidates his final analysis on the artist’s quandary.
Finally, of course, nature abhors a vacuum. My ultimate hope is to contribute something with my work. If any of my sloppy magic is at all useable by another human being — if anything I can do reaches someone and helps them to want to get out of bed and keep on going past breakfast, then I have to do whatever I can to make that magic as readily available as I possibly can. After all, where would I be without all the colors and shapes and sounds my heroes supplied me?