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Bitterness?

May 18, 2011

A good friend of mine – and someone I respect deeply – commented on my last post, saying that she regretted the tone of bitterness she detected in it. This made me think. I don’t consider myself to be at all bitter, yet my post was read by someone I respect as embittered….

So – for the record – I don’t think I am bitter about anything to do with my life as an artist. Nobody forces me to do what I do. I do so purely because there is nothing that is more fulfilling, more challenging, more awkward than trying to grow an incoherent, fleeting impression into a piece of work that I can proudly put my name to. If that were not the case, then there are other, more lucrative, more secure, more ‘respectable’ ways to be. I’m an artist because I want to be. As an artist I teach and perform all over the world, meeting and working with extraordinary people – some of them highly experienced, some young artists just discovering their own voice. I have nothing at all to be bitter about.

What I was writing about was the need to be very disciplined in the relationship I have with the art I make. I need to find the intrinsic value in all the work I do  – in other words to look continually at what it is in the work I do that gives me joy, that fulfils me. I must never devalue the work I do by focusing on extrinsic matters – those things that come ‘as a result of’ having made a work of art. My last post was really about the fact that the extrinsic rewards of making art – fame, respectability, income – are outside my control. If I try to justify to myself my involvement in making art because of the extrinsic rewards that might come to me, I delude myself. This is why I write that one must be disciplined, for if I buy into the myth that ‘doing good art’ will lead to rewards (more bookings, more funding, more opportunities) then I risk disappointment, for those things do not necessarily follow one from another (Van Goch sold nothing in his lifetime. Should he have given up?). There seems to me only a short journey from that disappointment to cynicism and another short journey to bitterness. If one becomes disappointed in a work one has made because it didn’t ‘lead to anything’, then one risks destroying the most important  relationship one has as an artist – the relationship with ones own creative potential and the manifestation of that potential in works of art.

When I train performers, the foundational principle from which we work is that we must ‘Pursue Pleasure’. This never means doing what you want, but finding how to access deep joy while doing the activity your art requires of you. Just as this principle applies to every aspect of training, so it applies to the making of art and, I suggest, the whole vision one has of oneself as an artist. I find my joy in the making and the sharing of my art. Whatever follows on from that, is outside my control. If I receive great offers, money, opportunity, then that means I can access new experiences, sometimes work on a larger scale. That’s great. If nothing ‘comes from’ doing a work, that means I can create my next work without having to meet the expectations of others, without having to write funding reports etc etc. That too is great. However if I lose the joy, the passion of making, of being with extraordinary and beautiful people, both training them and learning from them, then I have lost my art.

So bitter? No.Not in any way. Not even slightly. Frustrated sometimes, but as often with myself as with the world. But never bitter. I cannot afford bitterness for it is an acid that destroys the delicately emerging form of a work. And I am grateful to my friend Jaya for pointing out that bitterness could be read into my words. Because bitterness and its bosom-buddy cynicism always exist in the shadows, on the edges, waiting to pounce on the very best of our ambitions and convince us that it is not worth following that half-imagined vision, that dream, that extraordinary life.

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