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.

Why Jim Morrison was a true poet

Whether we consider Jim Morrison a poet or a rock star, his real art was as a vocalist. This was a form that he mastered, and studied, and took very seriously.

Look at the Hollywood Bowl concert, or listen to his poetry recordings, and you will start to understand his prowess in vocal phrasing, his sense of timing and feel, his complete lack of hackery and automatic recital. Morrison never phrased the same thing the same way twice. He relished the possibilities in the rhythms each word presented, the way you could rearrange conversational cliches to make poetry.

The word ‘spontaneity’ is obviously overused to the point of being meaningless, but in Morrison’s case it is a practical description of his approach to vocal performance.

The Doors

At the very least, the common image of Morrison as a buffoon pretending to be Byron doesn’t stand up to scrutiny, when you study him as a vocalist. He sounds like no one else, but you can hear echoes of Billy Holiday, Sinatra and Johnny Cash. He is versatile, can go from lyrical whisper to a gasoline growl in an instant, and had a Brando-esque ability to balance the violence and the tender with a Shakespearean command.

The charge of pretentiousness relies on the iconic image of him as a mere stream-of-consciousness garbler, a man who made theatrical use of his babbling narcissism.

When you listen to LA Woman, whatever limitations you may or may not find in the writing, the performance, the timing and ironic sense of feel, the playfulness of his delivery, show an artist who considered the effect of his work very deeply. There is a self-awareness and sensitivity to his audience that is overlooked with an almost ideological fervour by his critics. It suits everyone to dismiss Morrison as a cavorting fake, because to admit any level of craftsmanship would be to admit that a beautiful, sexually dangerous drunk had greater talents than oneself. An unconscionable proposition.

At the very worst, The Doors could be shambling, disordered and masturbatory. However, their characteristic style was progressive and dangerous, and very much centred around playful rhythm.

This playfulness extended to Morrison’s verse, which no one can argue is Milton or Donne, but is far better than is usually given credit for.

Morrison wrote in moving images. If we can say that the Ezra Pound imagism of the early twentieth century was a response to photography, Morrison’s great innovation was to write in dynamic images, as a response to cinema.

Without this understanding of Morrison, and without putting two and two together with his background in film and his love of Brechtian theatre, the poetry will inevitably seem meaningless and contrived.

In its proper context, it can be seen as an attempt to make poetry come off like film, to communicate via images and internal dialogue, rather than sculpted lyric for the page.

A perfect example is LA Woman, the song. We are placed in a revving car on the Sunset Strip, images of topless bars and drunks flashing past us, and a girl’s hair streaming in the flying air.

The song is all about creating a sense of movement, and we don’t get this just from Densmore’s drumming or Krieger’s hysteric runs.

‘I see your hair is burnin’
Hills are filled with fire
If they say I never loved you
You know they are a liar
Drivin’ down your freeway
Midnight alleys roam
Cops in cars,
The topless bars
Never saw a woman…
So alone, so alone
So alone, so alone’

‘Midnight alleys roam’. You’re right, it doesn’t make sense, grammatically. But imagistically, it makes perfect sense. It’s language as cinema.

The language is forced and contorted to meet the stretched activity of the moving thought being communicated.

Morrison was a master of this. In Texas Radio And The Big Beat, the phrase, ‘soft, driven, slow and mad, like some new language,’ captures perfectly the swampy, overwhelming and dreadful creative possibilities that the young poet felt in confrontation with the blues and rock and roll music of his youth. The words don’t make sense the way a WH Auden poem makes sense. This stuff won’t pass the test of literary society.

A pretentious person wants to be accepted, to be part of the cool crew. Morrison sang the blues as himself, not in impersonation of anyone. In this sense, he’s easily a better vocalist than Mick Jagger. No cultural appropriation here, sorry.

Morrison’s style is his own, it’s the growling, theatrical, ironic intellectual outburst of a damaged, middle-class and mercurial boy. His soul is as expansive as the western desert, everything from barren sands to sweltering suburbs. It’s both apocalyptic and a celebration of the human spirit.

The strongest argument for calling Morrison a true poet lies in John Densmore’s creative reaction to his words. Densmore said himself that on first hearing:

‘You know the day destroys the night
Night divides the day
Try to run, try to hide
Break on through to the other side’

…he heard rhythms, his jazz instrumentalist’s brain was awakened to the possibilities of song dynamics in such subtle and joyful interchange between rhythm and image.

Densmore is a consummate percussionist, one of the great underrated heroes of modern music, a true innovator in combing jazz music with rock and roll, something which has never been achieved since, without seeming bloated and tiresome.

The test of a poet should never be if another poet likes it. It should never be a decision for the critic. But when a drummer, himself admired by the likes of jazz genius Elvin Jones, says he can’t help playing along to your words, then you know are onto something.

People say such and such a thing is pretentious because their own relationship with their subconscious is thwarted. Their own creative energy feels like a threat, rather than a strange friend. In a word, they have failed to break on through.

You create movement, by creating friction. And Morrison’s poetry gets its energy not from established meters, or from mimicking an accepted style, but from innovating a new way of combining words and rhythms that clash and seem incongruous.

This is deliberate, just as his suspenseful phrasing and ability to goad and provoke a crowd were deliberate. Whatever you think of Morrison as a poet, claiming that he is a stoned idiot jacking himself off, is a clear sign of ignorance, not just of his music, but of the history of poetry itself.

Why hipsters secretly hate Patti Smith and how modern intellectuals have become the propagandists for consumerism

pattinakedI was recently watching an interview with Patti Smith, by a Scandinavian cleric. He told Patti that she was embodying a very traditional, and long-forgotten Christian value-system, by centring her art on expressions of the divine.

Patti acknowledged that is actually her mission – to harness the ineffable beauty inside of her, and communicate it to her fellow man.

It made me laugh, because this view of art, and the placing of a high-value on the individual artist as spiritual missionary, flies in the face of the hipster nihilism of our times.

The very notion that an artist would arrogate herself the role of divine PR-officer is a direct threat to those with a vested interest in a Godless, Machiavellian culture.

Not only is it a threat to the CEOs and the elite billionaires who profit from animalistic consumption; it is a challenge to the smug, wise-cracking, hipster, social critics and academic liberals, who see themselves as independent thinkers, but assume that this role requires nothing more than pointing and laughing at human folly.

The tendency to assume that purely egotistical motivations lie behind everything, especially art, has its roots in the puritanical iconoclasm of the late medieval period – the Reformation.

Like the reaction to colonialism, the reaction to corrupt religion is legitimate, and accurate in ascribing narcissistic motives to the trumpery of ritual and scriptural propaganda.
But the danger is that all sacredness becomes suspect, just as today, all statements of purpose are considered suspect.

In the modern, post-Marxist, post-everything world, it is not enough to reject religion. Purpose and meaning are also to be treated with contempt.

When an artist says – “my purpose is to manifest the divine in the material world,” it sounds grandiose. But what is the alternative?

A belief in the sacred is simply the expression of gratitude and love, not just for people, but for life itself. Enthusiasm, curiosity, idealism and a faith in the flourishing of life are unfashionable.

The advantage of nihilism is it allows you to be lazy. The advantage of cynicism, is that it allows you to be right, all the time.  When one lives with faith, one must live with the possibility of failure and disappointment. When one lives with enthusiasm and purpose, one must live with the prospect of one’s own frailty, one’s sinfulness and self-destructiveness. A sense of purpose is a lot to live up to.

This is the ultimate defence of the artistic missionary. As it is with the person of faith. It may be that a simplistic Freudian explanation is true. The artist is grandiose and narcissistic. But it is more likely that their sense of who they are, the sense of meaning that guides them, is tested at every creative juncture – with every choice and new beginning, and with every moment of inevitable exposure.

In that way then, the artistic life, the life of the self-ascribed missionary of beauty, is one of great humility and egotistical cost.

The egotist plays it safe. The missionary takes risks. The egotist has the benefit of always being right, because he is never testing himself. The missionary is always wrong, and her success emerges from acceptance of that fact.

To live an artistic life, the poet’s life of spiritual purpose, contravenes the arrogant assumptions of modernity. Far easier is it for the modern happy worker, and the contented cog in the great technological wheel, to believe that human beings are narcissistic and greedy, and live lives of meaningless consumption.

Thinking this way gives a person a sense of righteous insight; it also embodies the very values that allow the worst crimes of exploitation and rapacious consumption of our times.

What people cannot stand about the artist, is not that she has elected herself to be a voice of the divine, though that might be the stated reason for contempt. Rather, it is the values implicit in an artistic world view, that the modern, Hobbesian nihilist cannot abide.

The artist, as opposed to the prosaic creative craftsman, is a threat to the very value-system of intellectual slavery that governs modern life. In order for the consumptive economy to persist, higher meaning and alternative forms of happiness must be rejected and purged from our consciousness. The pursuit of fulfilment must be replaced with the pursuit of lust.

Scientific method has come to represent nothing more than this violent nothingness, this industrial void. Academics and cultural commentators no longer feel a duty to propose alternative views of human nature and social values. Instead, they invest their rebellion in disgust at consumerism and the will to power. They sneer from the sidelines of public life about the gracelessness of human nature and reduce all human achievement to an imperial instinct for self-aggrandisement.

As a result, rebellion is really now just a form of conformity to the dominant power-worship of the day. By simply professing contempt for power, without affirming alternative values (other than economic equality), the liberal rebel is not really challenging the intellectual regime of the age.

The modern critic does not see fit to offer new models of living, or to affirm bygone values of a higher happiness.

The hipster – the scientist, the broadcaster, the prose writer, the journalist or academic – is content to be complicit in modernity’s nihilism, because exposing it for what it is, is enough to feel superior and intellectually penetrating.

A belief in beauty, a leap towards an earnest view of human potential, would mean there is too much to lose. The modern rebel, the hipster, has thus become simply an unwitting propagandist for meaninglessness, and he is usually happy to be just that.

In an age of nihilism, the profession of faith is the most damaging form of rebellion. For this reason, the hipster rebel must pour scorn on the true artist.