Saturday, 1 November 2008

Neither Nasty nor Nice

Why is it that artists, who often dedicate their lives to creating beauty and exploring truth, do not necessarily seem an inch closer to beauty or truth in their own lives? Have not we all been a little surprised by crassness, maliciousness, petty nastiness, leechiness, and hatefulness our favorite artists sometimes seem to exhibit? We are quick to forgive, for they are people, and all people have flaws, and because we love their work, yet uneasiness remains. If beauty and truth are not enacted in their lives, are they real in their work? How piercing is their exploration, if it cannot penetrate the surface of their everyday lives? Is their work truthful and beautiful if they themselves are not? How can we become more truthful and beautiful through their work, if it does not move them?

All of these questions lean toward a longing, a longing for ideals, a longing to have a creator and creation both illuminated with the same light. We see them reaching, and want them to have reached that which we all long for. But their kind of exploration is open-ended, like a question with no ready answer. It is, in fact, perfectly understandable how a painter can have a malicious row with his wife in between gentle brush strokes at his easel, how a poet can write a verse of unearthly beauty, only to go to the kitchen, put her head into the gas oven, and turn the gas on. They are reaching, as we all are, and we have to reconcile ourselves to the fact that the beauty of their work could bring us the very gifts that it failed to bring them.


Anonymous said...

Is there any form of truth that does not by necessity comprise the non-ideal and the ugly as well as the ideal and the beautiful?

I think truth, as far as we can ever speak of it - and as far as art can ever explore it - is fraught by the same divides that characterize all of our lives. Our reigning truth is paradox, and the exploration is indeed infinitely open-ended.

So what is an artist's relationship or duty to the irreconcilable ranges of identity, emotion and experience? Rimbaud said of the poet (or seer): 'Every kind of love, of suffering, of madness; he searches himself; he exhausts every possible poison so that only essence remains.' In art, beauty is when this 'essence' of a non-essential life is tapped, when its baffling variety is to some finite degree articulated and sublimated with metaphor.

In the same letter he states that 'I is someone else' - that the goal of the seer is to arrive at this unknown. The method he proposes involves deliberately deranging the senses and making the soul 'monstrous.' Maybe others have the same impulse, or maybe they find themselves in such a state of vertigo without needing to impose further tests.

F., the character in Leonard Cohen's Beautiful Losers, proposes something similar: 'to discover the truth in anything that is alien, first dispense with the indispensable in your own vision.'

If artists are particularly contradictory beings it is perhaps because they inhabit the truth of how foreign we are to ourselves. It is perhaps exactly because they are so close to truth, and even to beauty.

Maja Djikic said...

Dear Anonymous,

I think you are right - the paradox is the seeming ugliness of truth, but it is only seeming, because there is something about the process of beholding it, accepting it even, as part of what is essential in humanity, that makes it beautiful. It could be that beauty is to aesthetics as truth is to psychology, and it is only our misconceptions that necessitate that we consider beauty as pleasing rather than awe-inspiring.


Dan Perlitz said...

Hello Dr. Djikic,
You have written about a phenomenon that I have often pondered.  As a result of my psychoanalytic training over the last several years, I’ve come to understand dissociation as a profound aspect of psychological survival.  We all need many parts of ourselves to live in this world.  The artist is also a parent, a lover, a business person (when she deals with her gallery for example), and so on.  We need to engage different parts of ourselves in different situations.
Psychological health includes an acceptance of this phenomenon and depends on the fluidity with which we can move from one aspect to another – from one set of characteristics to another.  Rigidity is the problem and the potential downfall.  The psychotic is someone who has lost all ability to live in anything but one particular universe – and is cut off from all outside influences because he can survive only by rigidly keeping within that universe.
The poet who writes an ineffable verse and then goes to stick her head in the oven is someone who is perhaps so moved by the beauty of what she has written that she becomes enormously sad and hopeless (which might seem paradoxical on the surface but is consistent with many peoples’ experience).  Then – as her head is in the oven – can she see any other universe of possibilities?  Or has she become so rigidly bound by this space that she is now in that all sense of hope is gone?  At that point in time, it’s the fluidity with which she can break through and move to another aspect of herself that is key. In the example of the poet you gave this is only one of an unlimited number of possible constructions of meaning but they all end-in this particular example-in someone who has become locked into a particular state that includes physiologic and relational traits as well as a way of making meaning which requires suicide.
All of us know that moment when her head goes into the oven from our particular vantage point of meaning-making.  Thankfully most of us are flexible enough to be able to move away from it.  She was not.
Perhaps another interesting question is this:
Do artists have a greater propensity to becoming rigidified in the spaces into which they move?  By the nature of their activity artists become deeply immersed in whichever psychological space they enter.  Does this in itself make it more difficult for them to move into other spaces? I suspect that the answer is both yes and no. The ability to move very deeply into a space with its particular qualities of experience may facilitate the ability to move easily back-and-forth but might also entrap.  This is a post-modernist sense that  these opposites are both the truth.
The romance of the doomed artist – the greater the beauty of their work commensurate with the greater the tragedy of their life – appeals to us because I think it reverberates with something that we all touch on from time to time – the more deeply we enter into a particular mode of being the more seductive it is to become lost in there forever.
Kind Regards,
Dan Perlitz

Maja Djikic said...

Dear Dan,

It is an interesting idea that you suggest - that precisely because artist's work requires an in-depth movement, those artists whose self is rigid will be likely victims of psychological disturbance. They get locked into the depth, it seems, the depth they cannot sustain for long.

While reading your comment, a metaphor came to me, related to the danger of creating art and the need for fluidity.

Imagine a diver who takes a deep breath and goes under the water surface toward the ocean floor to explore life forms that flourish in the dark. As he goes deeper, he can feel the darkness and the cold, and when his breath is half spent, he knows it is time to turn back toward the surface. However, some choose (or feel compelled) to continue the descent.

Now, it need not be the case that no one can survive going beyond a particular depth of knowledge. Rather, the fluidity of their personality corresponds to the lung capacity. Depending on it, artists can descend to different depths, and still survive to tell us about it. Yet, few of us really understand the dangers of creating art, and many artists strain the often fragile material of which they are made to the point of breaking. It is sad for them, but also for us. I often wondered what a late novel by Virginia Woolf would look like, and now I'll never know.


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