As an artist who hasn't exactly made it 'big' (think considerably less than big), I was recently questioning my future and wondering whether I should be devoting my energy to something else. As the economy continues to flounder and as our esteemed leaders continue to make things worse, people are tightening their belts and luxuries such as the arts are obviously the first things to be abstained from.
Always one to question just about everything, I found myself wondering whether art really matters. Is it really important? Is it worth pursuing? Or is it just a self-indulgence that has no real value to our lives? (When considering this question, I was reflecting not merely on visual art, but also music, prose and poetry, sculpture, film-making, etc)
I instinctively feel that art has importance. But there are two kinds of art, I think. There's art that's created simply to make money and is tailored to a specific market or audience and which usually adheres to a specific formula while perhaps simultaneously attempting to pass itself off as something 'different'. This might sound exceptionally snobbish, but to me, that isn't art, it's merely product. Most of the music industry is product and in our X-Factor era that's a fact that's hard to dispute. I feel the same about a great deal of the publishing and film industry. It's driven by profit and the desire to sell; any claims of wanting to find genuine artistic innovation are usually just lip-service.
Product generally has mass-market appeal and is largely consumed as entertainment. Nothing wrong with entertainment, I like to be entertained as much as the next guy (although maybe perhaps not QUITE so much), but entertainment rarely transcends its function. There are certainly lots of instances where it does, where films, music and books actually do take risks and wholly deserve to be called 'art', but in the vast marketplace it's still the exception rather than the rule. I’m not decrying this, simply pointing out a fact. People need to make money and they do that by selling products to as many people as will buy it. It’s the way the world works.
With regard to the visual arts, it's a little harder to find the distinction between art and product. It's a grey area. Artists need to eat like everyone else, so they usually need to have some kind of target market in mind when they create. The quality and importance of the work is entirely subjective and that’s probably the way it should be.
I was at an exhibition just last week and it reinforced my feeling that in order for art to be taken seriously as 'art' it helps if it's grim and bleak. In order to be a 'cool' artist the general criteria seems to be that your work has to be edgy, dark and a little depressing or -- even better -- repulsive! Now this could all just be in my head, and I don't even take my own thoughts and opinions that seriously any more, so I urge you not to, either. But it's possible that even some of the most fiercely independent and 'out there' artists are still just creating stuff that they consciously or unconsciously think fits a formula of ‘cool’ and ticks the right boxes.
Myself, I really don't care what's cool or not. Generally I'm drawn to create things that inspire people rather than nauseate and repulse them. I mean, life is difficult enough, why should art confound that by making us ever more miserable? But that said, when I view someone's work, even if I don't like it, I still usually respect it as a creative endeavour, as an expression of the artist and an artistic statement -- whether or not I agree with that statement.
So why is art important then?
It's not important simply for making statements. Anyone can make a statement and like anything that's mind-generated, it ultimately doesn't mean that much. A lot of the time it's straight from the ego, and there's already enough of the human ego stamped over this world of ours. Art in service of the ego may still be art, but it's not, in my view, important art.
I believe art is important when it has a transcendent quality; when it points us beyond the surface-level miasma of humdrum human existence -- what Buddhists refer to as samsara -- and hints of the possibility of something greater, something beyond. I believe art, in its highest expression, serves to remind us who we are. Through images, stories, narratives and sound, it reflects back to us what we truly are. There's a place for examining the surface-level world of maya, but we don't really need art for that, we simply need to look around us or turn on the six o'clock news.
But it's possible for art to take us deeper into ourselves, inviting us ask questions about ourselves and life itself. Who are we? Where did this consciousness come from and where is it going? What is the world? Where did it come from and where is it going? Is it everything we've always assumed it to be, or is it possible we've somehow misperceived the universe, ourselves and our relation to it?
I've come to learn that the answer is never in the answers. It's in the questions.
At best, I believe, art can make us reflect upon these questions; questions that serve to bring us back to ourselves. Just about everything else in the world is pulling our attention outward and distracting us from OUR SELVES (which is actually the very thing we're truly seeking in life -- direct, conscious awareness of our own being).
Some time ago I was sent one of those email questionnaire things and one of the questions was "do you prefer art or technology?" and I was amazed at the number of people (practically everyone) that said technology. I probably shouldn't have been, for nowadays technology is almost like a drug or religion for many people. There’s nothing wrong with that in itself, but what can technology do but distract us from ourselves? It's never going to compel us to venture inward and perhaps, in time, stumble upon the in-built but long-dormant self-realisation mechanism -- which is the only legitimate end to the cycle of suffering that drives us to seek out distractions in the first place.
I still feel compelled to create art, to write and create music because I feel something within me wants to be born into the world. I don't think it's in service of the ego or just to express emotions or viewpoints (although the latter point I suppose you could debate). If there's any purpose at all behind what I do, it's because there's some element -- and it's not really on a conscious level -- that would like to use this channel to spark something in others. A spark of inspiration, of remembering, of insight? Or just an opening that might prompt further questions? I'm not entirely sure. I don't feel it's entirely 'me' that's controlling the process. It just is. It's unfolding as it wants to.
I first had an inkling as to this when I began my first novel, a number of years ago. I thought - "yeah, my novel is going to change the world and make people happier and more enlightened." I think my ego crept in, in the nicest and kindest possible way. Now, I have no such expectations. I don't know if what I make will sell or interest anyone, much less whether it will enlighten them. That's really not my business and I no longer have any investment in the outcome. I just do what I feel compelled to do, because I have to and because a little part of me would wither away if I didn't. A rose doesn't bloom in order to make people happy and get some kind of a reaction. It doesn't hold itself back, either. It just does what it does, because...!
So that's basically why I feel art is important. There are many artists (not necessarily mainstream ones or ones with great followings and publicity) whose work serves as kind of opening into something greater. It can serve as a catalyst that makes people stop, reflect and open themselves to new possibilities and new ways of seeing life. It can pierce the dream bubble and spark something quite wonderful, enabling the viewer/experiencer to blossom themselves. Maybe they'll then bring that same essence into the world where it will have a similar effect on others, whether it's in the form of art, behaviour, actions or simply BEING.
No motives though. It just happens -- or it doesn't. And it has an effect on others and the world -- or it doesn't. Art is alive and when it comes from a place beyond the ego and beyond consumer concerns and market pressures, it has the ability to change us and to change the world. Not change us in the sense of making us something other than we are, but simply removing the clouds of illusion that currently obstruct so many of us from being what we are. Art then can be a great wake-up call, which will resonate for those that are ready for it and go straight over the heads of those that aren't.
For now, if I'm able, I'll continue to respond to the creative impulses that compel me to create art in different forms, knowing that the impulse to create is there for a reason, that I'm not truly in control of it and that the reasons and outcome are way beyond my control. Some artists fall into the trap of ego, mistakenly believing it's them that is responsible for their creations. But for me, it's the humblest job in the world. I don't own creativity, I can't control it and I'm fully aware that it's not really me that does anything (and frankly I don’t even consider myself particularly talented).
It just happens and I’m very cool with that, because it feels good. I'm really very clear on that point -- and it's a strangely liberating realisation!