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.

Anxiety is not a sickness. Beauty is not a solution

An age which understands beauty, understands mystery. And an age at ease with mystery must be able to confront the despair of uncertainty, of unsolvable problems.

We must beware of anyone bearing the gift of a perfect idea, a meticulously formed solution. This is one dangerous problem with our technologically enslaved generation. We worship technology, because we worship solutions, we are an age addicted to the dopamine rush of correct answers, formulas and equations.

This is what makes our time in history such a uniquely philistian one.

Before the twentieth century, the primacy of religious ritual and piety was not merely a sign of primitive knowledge, though that may have been part of the success of religion as a social force. The power of religion, however, also comes from its ability to offer a map through uncertainty, a map which if it is understood properly, is not fixed, but symbolic.

The technological model makes mystery, mythology and meaning itself seem like the epiphenomenal waste of brain-function, the evolutionary excess of consciousness.
The danger of this mindset is its in principle hubris. What is unknown, is knowable. What we don’t know, simply awaits conquest.

Ironically, we are less and less able to confront the unknown, our relationship with mystery is one of a frustrated child to a broken toy, and our lustful need for solutions and quick fixes is the product of a spiritual tantrum, an existential outburst, rather than some noble quest of inquiry.

If we do not find ways to confront the infinity of the unknown (for there can be no complete knowledge, no ultimate solution), we lose one of the most exquisite experiences of being alive, and we treat the anxieties and depressions of life as sickness, deviations from the norm, rather than crucial aspects of our growth as moral beings.

Moral behaviour cannot exist in this narcissistic obsession with solutions. Mystery places boundaries on our arrogance, it gives us the necessary limits to our conceits.

By embracing our limitations, by understanding that it is what we don’t know that makes us what we are, we avoid the intoxication of power, and automatically fall into existential solidarity with our fellow man.

The hubris of the Macbook-Tesla generation creates a narcissism that cannot survive the dread of uncertainty and death. We become pathological, hell-bent on final solutions wherever we can find them.

The artist does not need to offer solutions. His criticism does not need to replace what he criticises. It is enough that poets and painters and the heritage of myth give us a looking glass through which we see our own beautiful insignificance.

Dread, depression and stone cold horror are part of life. But so is beauty and love and the creative rush of ideas. We can’t have one without the other, and neither would we want a world so imbalanced.