Art, utility and bohemianism: The challenge for the modern artist

The biggest challenge for a writer and an artist these days is persistence. The sad truth of the matter is that as artists we are engaged in activities that don’t have immediate value in the market of exchange.

The artist is engaged in the celebration of life, not necessarily its enhancement, and his or her work is only valued in as much as it is a relief, a tonic to the business and pressure of the marketplace.

This means not only that our work cannot be valued in the same way as typical commercial products, but also that our work culture is different.

The first thing to remember in this battle is that there is actually a divide, between the values of beauty and the market. For sure they overlap, and they have been successfully combined at rare moments in civilisation. The Renaissance being one of them. And there remain pockets in contemporary life where examples of this overlap are very prominent.

Some of the older university colleges maintain a culture based on beauty and contemplation, while still offering value to the marketplace, for example. Some art galleries maintain a commitment to beauty for its own sake, and are a celebration of older, more permanent values, while they still function in the world as commercially viable enterprises.

These are rare examples, however, and in each of them the battle to preserve non-commercial values is ongoing. The beautiful for its own sake is always being infringed upon, and you can see that most starkly in places like London, where heritage buildings are never left alone by local councils. There is always some kind of tinkering and modification going on in the name of “accessibility” and “community education”.

It’s almost as if the price we have to pay for not demolishing old buildings (just for the crime of being old) is to allow the philistines to have their say, to leave their scars upon the heritage of beauty. It’s only way to placate the monster of modernity.

So how does the individual live in this world? How do we preserve those parts of ourselves that are of no utility, but of the deepest significance?

It’s very hard, because science and technology have reached a stage if unprecedented arrogance, and they have convinced the world that there is no underlying value other than utility.

However, the reality of being human doesn’t match up to their supercilious simplicities. The very fact that churches will be packed to the rafters this weekend is one example of this hidden, inexplicable dimension of human reality.

Another example is the tourist industry. Why do people flock to historic sites, to the Vatican, to London’s galleries, to the old monasteries of Scotland, if utility is the only permanent value worth integrating into culture and education?

Another slightly more ironic example is the fact that once people have enough money, having committed to the market their time and labour, they flock to older parts of cities, to more ornate houses built pre-modernism. The problem of gentrification in places like Brooklyn, San Francisco, or Shoreditch, speaks directly to this problem. Utility does not seem to be enough to those aspiring to climb the hierarchy of the market.

The best sign of status in the marketplace, seems to be the ability to exhibit non-market-based or utilitarian values. This could just be a kind of aristocratic self-indulgence. Or it could be proof of the fact that people demand more from their life than utility. Perhaps beauty and civilisation are of inherently higher value than the market?

None of this helps the artist, or the creator of those buildings, and thinkers of ideas, that become the sought-after artefacts of status. The artist as individual is stuck trying to prove his or her worth to the world of the market.

Not only that, but a modern artist understands that the true holy grail of their craft is to affect the market in a non-market way, to re-establish the values of beauty, contemplation and civilisation as a kind of guerilla assault on the marketplace.

For those who simply want to confine themselves to the cloisters, to puzzle away on useless problems, or who are content to sit in the quietude of creative privacy, it is enough to put up a barrier between the beautiful and the market.

For the artist, who sees herself as part of a tradition, who feels anxious about preserving the heritage of the culture, life is not so easy. You have to live in the market, but not of it.

This living in, but not of, the marketplace was what was once called bohemianism. Bohemians were neither bourgeois (though often they came from the middle classes, which is different), nor are they working class dissenters of the trade union, Marxist type.

The bohemian does not conform to, nor demolish, the marketplace. The first true bohemian could be said to be Socrates – a man who devoted the same energies most of us devote to survival, to ideas and the search for truth.

Jesus Christ, too, was a bohemian. Oscar Wilde called him the first Romantic, for calling on people to live “flower-like lives”. The whole Sermon on the Mount is a call to abandon the demands of the marketplace, and to live with “no thought for the morrow”. That is, not to get caught up in the busyness of trade and ambition, but to live for the enrichment of the spirit, to nourish the highest aspects of ourselves.

The Marxist Terry Eagleton has said that the commodification of culture has robbed culture of one of its most vital functions – to offer a critique of the marketplace. Eagleton says that culture has in fact become an engine of the marketplace – through public relations, the creative industries, advertising – rather than a counterbalance to it.

This explains why it is so hard to be a bohemian artist in the current economic culture. There is no room for a dissenting way of life manifested in creative values, because consumerism has subsumed dissent into itself.

This is the exact phenomenon we see in the recent outrage over the Kendall Jenner Pepsi advert. The language of critique and dissent is used for the propaganda of commodities. The imagery of resistance is used to induce capitulation.

The most prophetic example of this was the legendary Apple Mac Superbowl advert from 1985, whereby IMB was portrayed as the evil Big Brother state, and Mac users were shown to be the free-spirited individualists, emancipated by their personal computers.

How, then, does the artist live? How do we keep our spirits enraptured to our values, when anything that is said by an artist is subsumed into the marketplace?

The only way to live is to live ironically. That is, to accept the sorry state of affairs for what it is, but to refuse to let the marketplace have the final say.

This will require toughening up a bit. We have to become immune to accusations of delusion, madness and naivete. We have to abandon the need to prove our worth the a world that doesn’t deserve such efforts.

But finally, we have to keep working. There is a certain amount of trust involved. In truth, there has always been such an element of faith in the work of any great artist.

Michelangelo and Shakespeare were both adept at winning patronage in the marketplace of their times. However, their compromises probably came from viewing their work on a historic plane. They were okay doing a dance with the devil, for the long-term gain of imprinting their art on the cultural heritage.

It only seems harder to live as a bohemian, if you accept the view that contemporary, utilitarian values, are the end-of-history, final say of cultural evolution. The ironic shift in perspective necessary for an artist comes from finding emancipation in a private dialogue with history, with spending as much time in the timeless realm of ideas as possible.

This quiet, unobtrusive dissent will actually raise us up to the level of great artists, but it will do so to the scorn and ridicule of the world. We have to abandon the “cool”, we have to shun the group, and we have to resist the moronic need to prove the utility of our daily work.

The joys of obscurity

‘Society,’ wrote Oscar Wilde, ‘often forgives a criminal; it never forgives a dreamer.’ To live the artistic life is to shun what is sensible, for the promise of what is possible. When you reject people’s ideals of success, they resent you. They take it personally. They love to celebrate artists by making them rich, turning them into one of them. being an unknown bohemian, however, is not just scorned, it is actively hated. It’s a threat.

Artists have always risked poverty and uncertainty to pursue their work. Today, in the age of democratised distribution, the artist risks something more terrifying and ignoble than poverty: obscurity.

Most artists are driven by some need to communicate, whether it is to an immediate circle, as with John Donne and his celebrated love poems, or to stadiums of global fans, as with the songs of Bruce Springsteen.

The demand for creative work, entertainment and new ideas has been undoubtedly helped by the internet. The need for beauty, as much as the ability to distribute it, is a welcome feature of our world’s global connectedness.

However, as much as this demand is ever increasing, there remains a widening gap between the supply and the demand. In short, supply is far greater than demand. And even if demand were to increase with every advance in technology, that demand would, as always, converge on established artists, or on new work filtered through friends, favourite websites and the imperishable voices of criticism.

The democratisation of internet means it is easier than it ever has been to become unknown. As a result, on top of the prohibitive odds artists have always faced in poverty and uncertainty, the almost guaranteed prospect of obscurity means choosing this life is not just impractical, it’s almost ridiculous. The idea that you can expect to make a living, never mind become rich, from living a creative life, is, at least on paper, fantastical.

Thankfully, ‘the odds’ have never persuaded the dedicated artist about anything, and today’s overwhelming odds are unlikely to convince a true creative soul that they should become an accountant instead. But the brutal facts about the unlikeliness of success are an welcome addition to the worries and neurosis of the creative mind.

In a TV interview in 1987, Bob Dylan said that fame was not what he, or anyone he knew who was successful, had ever set out to achieve. The desire communicate, to build an audience of like-minds, is not, despite their frequent conflation, the same as a desire for fame.

Fame for an artist is often just as bad as being ignored. Both involve being misunderstood, and both have little to do with the quality of your actual work.

Remembering his mentor and friend John Lennon, David Bowie once said that he and Lennon had bonded over the trials of fame. Both agreed that you spend the first half of your life trying to get it, and the second half trying to undo it.

All the while, your art gets lost in the noise. The very thing you set out to do, is obscured, whether by lack of interest, or too much interest in the wrong direction. The goal of living an authentic life, being true to who you are and the spirit of your sense of purpose, becomes irrelevant, in fame as much as in obscurity.

‘Businessmen, they drink my wine, ploughmen dig my earth/None of them along the line, know what any of it is worth.’ Dylan’s line is as true for the hounded rockstar as it is for the painter sharing her work to the world only to get three likes on Instagram.

In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna tells Arjuna that forgetting the fruits of his work is the route to God. The spiritual path does not require renunciation, and neither does it come from earthly glory.

He says: ‘You have the right to work, but never to the fruit of work. You should never engage in action for the sake of reward, nor should you long for inaction. Perform work in this world, Arjuna, as a man established within himself – without selfish attachments, and alike in success and defeat.’

It is difficult for the modern mind to see beyond the opposites here. Surely, forgetting about rewards and results is a form of renunciation? Why would I work for no reward? What is the point in doing one’s duty if the consequences of that duty are irrelevant?

We are here to do good work. The fruits of our efforts are none of our business, just as the origin of the inspiration is none of our business.

Samurai warriors, confronted with the inevitable death and the terror of war, realised the only way to face their fate was to manifest the highest virtue in the performance of each movement, each cut of the blade. Winning or losing became irrelevant, the only thing they knew they could control was right action. In doing so, they manifested self-transcendence, they turned the degradation of man’s inhumanity to man, into the highest form of devotion.

The artist is here to do justice to the fire inside of her. The idea that people may or may not pay attention to that fire is a depressing distraction from the task at hand. History abounds with examples of poets and artists who received no acclaim in their own lifetime. The fact that they kept going regardless of their isolation and obscurity, adds a spiritual power to the legacies of their scorned genius.

Think of Robert Johnson taking a selfie in a Mississippi photo booth, only for it to become the Platonic form for every future album cover in rock and roll. Think of Keats, spluttering blood on his pillow in Rome in a small, hot and dank little room by the Spanish Steps. He was convinced his name would be ‘writ on water’, but it is now irrevocably etched on the face of literature alongside Shakespeare.

That said, obscurity is painful. Van Gogh, writing to his brother, who was also his patron, bemoaned the suffering of being dedicated but unknown.

He wrote: ‘[D]oes what goes on inside show on the outside? Someone has a great fire in his soul and nobody ever comes to warm themselves at it, and passers-by see nothing but a little smoke at the top of the chimney and then go on their way. So now what are we to do, keep this fire alive inside, have salt in ourselves, wait patiently, but with how much impatience, await the hour, I say, when whoever wants to, will come and sit down there, will stay there, for all I know?’

If the work is not good for its own sake, it’s not one’s proper work. The hardest job an artist ever has to do is face the doubts that come from living in a world of prudential value. The second hardest job is summoning the courage to reject the sound advice of the sensible.

Obscurity is its own reward, because creativity is its own reward. Being an artist requires faith. The odds are always against you, and that’s part of the fun. The joy of obscurity lies in its freedom. You no longer need to relinquish your creativity to the authority of the group, or the accolades of critics.

Mark Twain famously said, ‘Don’t go around saying the world owes you a living. It owes you nothing. It was here before you.’

Musicians are particularly resentful these days about how hard it is to make money doing what they love. They should talk more to journalists, or better, to the poets. Lack of recognition comes with the territory, always has, and is now the very nature of any artistic industry. Those who bitch about this generally seem to be the ones who are not doing their art for the love of it, but for the glory and power it promises them.

The true artists knows there is a flip-side to Twain’s admonition. Just as the world owes you nothing, the artist too owes nothing to the world. And this is the greatest joy of obscurity.

Individual conscience, imagination and morality

Individual conscience is the foundation of a society.

Our society is technologically advanced, but morally narrow. The end result of technological thinking is to treat human individuals as means to ends, to cultivate a nihilistic, mechanised, systems-based way of thinking about ourselves and others. At best the arts, ideas of beauty, the concept of philosophical contemplation, all become simply curiosities, lifestyle choices and distractions for a leisured bourgeoisie.

This kind of thinking robs individuals of their potential, and leaves society resting on an unstable balance of power between fear and security.

Individual conscience is made up of the following:

1. Resilience
2. Imagination
3. Mutual recognition

Resilience

Resilience is the sense that one is capable of confronting difficult challenges, and meeting those challenges.

Psychologists call this the ‘internal locus of control’. The opposite of this is feeling completely beholden to exterior events, and at worst, feeling like a victim of circumstance. A resilient person, however, has experienced enough moments in their life where they have witnessed their own strengths and has enjoyed the feeling of seeing their willpower confirmed as a problem-solving force in the world.

We are not born with an internal locus of control, but personal development is about creating this sense of emotional power. Crucially, none of us has entire control over our circumstances, and none of us is a complete victim of circumstance. Healthy personality is a balance between recognising things out of our control, and recognising our personal strengths.

Undeveloped personalities lack the self-esteem to take on challenges because they have not had the validation of seeing their willpower in successful contest with the world. A child has to be brought along slow, completing small tasks, and expanding the scope of their confidence over time.

Often, people with low self-esteem will try to compensate for their feeling of powerlessness by taking on new, ambitious tasks. This often ends up in driving their personality back into victimhood, because they lack the internal locus of power that will sustain them.

If we are to cultivate individuality, each personality must be treated as unique, and development must be slow, careful and measured. Like athletes, skill and confidence are developed over time. The internal locus of control is a muscle, and it takes training.

If people don’t believe in their own power to affect change in themselves and their environment, they will never be fully functioning individuals. Replacing this agency with state agency is dangerous and is the opposite of human flourishing.

Imagination

Imagination is also a muscle. Rather than being a chance offshoot of evolutionary neurology, it is the vital advantage human beings have over other beings. The ability to penetrate the unknown, the dark realms of uncertainty and powerlessness, by constructing possibilities from experiences, is the very basis of creativity.

This is not a scientific theory, but it is an observable fact. If our survival depends on adaptability, then adaptability depends on our ability to confront many possibilities at once, and to do so in the realm of death and uncertainty.

We cannot rid ourselves of the anxiety of death. We can however, use our imaginations to explore the unseen, the best and the worst of what’s possible, and to anticipate a multitude of outcomes. The cultivation of creative abilities, then, is essential to the fully developed individual.

Through the worlds of myth, theatre and stories, we ritualise our relationship with the unknown, with the darker, more hidden aspects of ourselves as well as the darkness that exists in front of us.

The map may not be the territory, but the imagination kicks in when all we have is the map. The mark of a healthy and sophisticated imagination is the extent to which an individual conscience can review and correct their imaginative map of the unknown as they confront the nothingness of their future.

The artist’s role in society is to do just that for the culture, to push the boundaries of the possible, to confront the darkness of death and infuse it with creative excitement. Without the imagination, human potential collapses. And imagination can only be cultivated through the individual.

Attempts to control the imagination from the top-down, often require thwarting the individual in order to succeed. The historic crimes of institutional religion are perfect examples of this. Political ideologies are another. The result creates selfishness and narcissism, as the individual struggles to reassert its own experience and faculties onto society. Cultivating the imagination means cultivating the power of the individual. Cultivating the power of the individual, means cultivating responsibility.

Mutual recognition

The term comes from Hegel. Morality starts the moment we recognise the same conscience we know in ourselves, in other people. This is a leap of the imagination, and speaks to the importance of that faculty in social relationships.

The more subtle and sophisticated our own sense of self, the more likely we are to project that same sophistication onto others, and in doing so, the value of human life becomes a keystone of society.

To deny the depth of conscience in another, is to deny it within ourselves. The essential importance of mutual recognition is that it can only occur through the prise of individual conscience. You can’t rationally argue the equal depth and value of other individuals in an abstract way, you have to experience it through your own experience of yourself.

The less sophisticated your individuality, the less sophisticated your idea of other people will be. The fastest way to cultivate a true brotherhood of man, then, is to cultivate the individual.

Selfishness does not arise from individuality, but from the stunted growth of the individual. The subtlety of our self-awareness, our imagination, and our ideas of what we are capable of, turns our experience of ourselves from powerless objects into active forces of moral power.

In this way, we cannot but treat our fellow human beings as moral ends in themselves, rather than as means to ends.

 

There is no perfect state of individual conscience. This is not a utopian argument. Suffice to say that the moral fabric of a society depends on the empowerment each individual, through their conscience, and we cannot do that in a society which actively robs children of their developmental resilience, and which treats individuals as means to an end, rather than as ends in themselves.

Education is the key here, and it must be an education that gives young people, not just the experience of a locus of power within them, but the sense of possibility and sophisticated experience of self, that gives life the meaning and value enough for them to value themselves and others.

Beauty, reason and the difference between a fanatic and a visionary

There’s a famous quote from Thomas Paine, author of the Age of Reason:

“To argue with a man who has renounced the use and authority of reason, and whose philosophy consists in holding humanity in contempt, is like administering medicine to the dead, or endeavoring to convert an atheist by scripture.”

hitler1A similar thing was said by Friedrich Nietzsche:

“Convictions are more dangerous foes of truth than lies.”

There are however, some seemingly opposing, but equally well quoted passages, expounding on the power of intuition over simple ‘reason’ or analytical thinking.

The most famous, I think, coming from a private letter by the poet John Keats:

“…I mean Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason – Coleridge, for instance, would let go by a fine isolated verisimilitude caught from the Penetralium of mystery, from being incapable of remaining content with half-knowledge. This pursued through volumes would perhaps take us no further than this, that with a great poet the sense of Beauty overcomes every other consideration, or rather obliterates all consideration.”

What Keats is talking about is the unknown, or rather more accurately the unknowable, the essential mystery at the heart of life.

Mystery and superstition are often lumped together, and a false dichotomy is drawn between analytical thinking and intuitive thinking, as if one is hard, real-world mechanical science, and the other is fancy and conjuring.

Superstition, however, is rather the opposite of mysticism, than it is the opposite of science.

David Hume that absolute paragon of sceptical thinking and radical, disciplined analysis said:

‘Reason is, and must only ever be, a slave to the passions.’

What he was referring to of course, was morality, and how we conceive of our ethical values. In a word, he meant how to behave. The process is one based on emotive reasoning, sentiments, in his own words.

The great hero of western analytical thought placed a high value on creative, non-rational thought.

The chain of quotes above does not present an antithesis, and the paradox arises simply because our definition of reason is thoroughly limited.

Keats_aloneFor Aristotle, and equally for Leonardo Da Vinci, REASON was the convergence of logic and beauty, not the separation of them.

Rather than being the opposite of mystical apprehension of the unknown, it was rather the totality of capacities by which human individuals apprehend knowledge and mystery.

In short, reason as a concept refers to something more than just analytical, logical and mathematical thinking.

This was what Keats was referring to when he said ‘truth is beauty and beauty truth.’

Reason must include vision, the ability to see beyond the limitations of the problem at hand, to think laterally and join dots in a way that does not follow linear thinking.

Linear thinking is hugely important from the stand point of strategic action, but when it comes to uncovering our goals, then we must have vision, and vision requires imagination, the ability to create and conjure possibilities as well act logically.

The importance of this when it comes to argumentation and dispute is that a person’s values tend to emerge from their ability to conceive possibilities and their capacity for vision. Our ideas of morality are grounded in ethics, and ethics is essentially the science of what’s possible.

That’s why it was said by Socrates that the fundamental question of all areas of philosophy is ‘how should I act?’ The implication of this is that even questions of metaphysics or logic come down to the question of what’s possible.

It is normal to find oneself in a dispute with a man or woman who regards themselves as the defender of the ‘the facts.’ If you happen to have a conviction that does not correspond to these sacred facts, then you are easily dismissed as fanatical or intransigent.

There’s a difference however, between someone who sees possibilities beyond the evidence, and beyond the reality of historical truths, and someone who is delusional.

The difference lies in a person’s willingness to test out his theory or ideas.

And it is also true that often these ‘defenders of the facts’ happen to be people who will do anything to avoid acting.

These are people who will dismiss a hypothesis before it’s even been acted upon or tested once.

Contrary to what these people tell themselves, such thinking is actually profoundly unscientific, because the mark of true, radical scientific thinking is not a talent for number crunching, but a talent for experimentation, and a willingness to test any dogma, no matter how common sensical or absolute.

What distinguishes the visionary from the fanatical then, is not logic, but flexibility, a willingness to personally live out his theory and test it himself.

This crucially cuts out the intellectual ‘middle man’ who arrogates himself the role of guardian at the gates, a Cerberus monster who defends hell from any wayward poet.

Aldous Huxley once said he struggled with the difference between genuine mystical thought, and superstition. Huxley spent much of the latter half of his writing career attempting to salvage mysticism and religious tradition in the context of science.

It was necessary for Huxley to do so, he believed, because the non-rational, the visionary expansion of imaginative thinking, is essential for moral activity.

If a man acts from a fanaticism for certainty, then he acts in a myopia of selfishness and short-term thinking. And it was this very closed-mindedness, this anxious relationship to the unknown, that for Huxley was the biggest threat to human civilisation.

The unknown is almost always unknowable. That is, the five senses, logical discrimination and the reptilian mind, cannot penetrate it.

The fanatic is no mystic. What Huxley couldn’t see was that the fanatic prefers his imagination to the world. The world of action, impact and moral goodness become irrelevant to him.

The mystic on the other hand, is a kind of Bodhisattva. He is primarily concerned with effective action, change in the world. However outlandish and experimental his visions, however unlikely his ambitions, the Bodhisattva, or the true mystic, is concerned with results – his vision serves a greater end.

The fanatic on the other hand is someone who cares not a dot for results. Fanaticism serves to support a narrow view of the world, but creative vision serves to expand the range of possibilities.

These possibilities are almost always illogical, or paradoxical, or seem senseless in the face of the facts.

Typical arguments between the ‘fact defenders’ and the more creative problem solver, tend almost always to come down to ‘human nature.’

The fact-defender, for instance, probably views the issue of climate change as one of damage limitation. Material scientific solutions must be found, but they won’t solve the fundamental problem of human overconsumption.

A slightly more visionary person will understand that a basic shift in human perspective is needed if the problem of man-made global warming is to be countered. They also have the scope and forward thinking to know that any short term practical solution will be its own worst enemy, because the relationship of man to his environment, or man to man, won’t change.

The fact-defender poo-poos such talk out of hand. Because it just seems too abstract, too high-minded, to talk about ‘shifts in consciousness’ or ‘evolving human nature.’

Again the question is about human possibilities. There is no way for a visionary to prove his conviction in argument. If he does, he is likely to fail. The whole history of the human race is almost always working against him.

Does this make him a fanatic? No, because a fanatic’s convictions are there to defend a weakened ego, a psychic wound. A visionary’s convictions are there to see beyond the limitations in thinking that have created the problem at hand.