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the consolation of art

August 16, 2012

As I wrote in my last post, I have been struggling recently. It is not a big deal (though feels overwhelming). It is part of what happens, what needs to happen. Confidence needs doubt or it becomes arrogance. Creativity needs stuck-ness. A sense of direction emerges from being lost. Hope is kept grounded by the echoes of despair. It doesn’t mean that it doesn’t feel like hell when you are in the darkness, an utter hell, but it is a necessary part of appreciating the light.

In that darkness, there is always art – as there is also art in the light.

I sat and read Coleridge’s poem ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’. It is about absolute loneliness, self-loathing, despair.

I listened to Mahler’s 2nd symphony, which travels from the depths of despair to a vision of resurrection (complete with choir and chimes)

I listened to Keith Jarrett’s trio play “The Fire Within’ live at the Blue Note – a piece of spontaneous composition by three musicians at the top of their powers – music so ecstatic and transcendental that it leaves me breathless. My breathlessness reminds me of a woman who watched ‘Echo Chamber’ in Athens and afterwards said she felt unable to breath during it. Might I, just once, have done for one person what Jarrett does for me? Might that be some consolation in the darkness? No, that’s too easy and is a cheap way of avoiding my encounter with despair….

I need to sit inside the darkness and allow it to have its time. But I am not alone. Mahler, Coleridge, Jarrett are with me. And I am with me. I, the person who makes art ,am with ‘I’, the person who sits lost in the darkness.

When I read Coleridge’s descriptions of despair, it does not make me despair. It allows me to encounter despair. Art places content into a structure. We use that structure to hold onto our sanity in the face of the unbearable. What Coleridge describes, what Mahler evokes, what writers like Primo Levi or singers like Johnny Cash bring to us, is often unbearable. But they deliver it inside a structure we can hold onto as we consider what might otherwise consume us. You know, the small things like love, death, loneliness, ecstasy, childhood, reality, the universe, loss, regret, ageing and, perhaps hardest of all, the sheer fucking fragile beauty of being alive, here, now.

Art has structure – art IS structure – and that allows its content to be safely encountered.

This might sound as if I am saying that structure makes content ‘safe’ – makes complex human experience, painful human experience, into an ‘idea’ for us to consider. I’m not. I’m saying the structure of a work of art gives us something to hold onto so that we can, safely, risk opening ourselves up to the depths of its emotional/philosophical/spiritual content. I can meet the Ancient Mariner’s despair precisely because I can always step back and remember that I am reading a poem. I can allow myself to be transported by Keith Jarrett precisely because the structure those three musicians discover to transport me with – for they are all masters – will also transport me back to earth again. I can trust their structure. I can even visit the concentration camp with Primo Levi. I might not enjoy it, but I can do it.

So too the process of making art. In writing about my darkness, I find a way to look at that darkness. In sitting at the piano and playing that darkness, I hear a little of its inner-dynamic. The few days of solo improvising I had in the studio last week – sharing practice and developing my craft alongside a couple of trusted colleagues – allows a space where the inner  dynamics that threaten to consume me become content that I can explore through a structure. I can make myself observable and at least a little more understandable (or survivable).

Does this mean that art is just therapy? No, art is art. It is the placing of content into structure. The vision of the artist is to discover rich content, the craft of the artist is to find the structure that will allow an audience to encounter that content. The creative act of the audience is to choose how, and how deeply, to engage with it. Art is not therapy, but again and again I come up against the need to create art or engage with art created by others.

Perhaps then it is therapy. For if art answers a fundamental need, then to satisfy it tends to make us happier, to deny it (or ignore it) tends to frustrate us, perhaps even lead us towards despair. Encountering art, as maker or user, tends to move us from despair, frustration. That sounds a little therapeutic….

Actually, I am clear when I teach. I train performers. I improvise or direct or write performance works. It is not therapy. However this is not to say that art is not born from need. Nor to say that are not clear intersections between creative and therapeutic processes. Art is born from need. It is born from an artist’s need and, when it reaches its audience, it speaks to their needs.

To be an artist requires that we find what we need to say and develop the skills to say it in ways that honour our content and offers our audience a chance to engage with profound complexity.

As an artist you must find what you need to say.

Not try to guess what you thinks the audience wants to hear.

Not ask what people and governments are willing to pay to have said.

Not find a plausible lie to please the powerful.

These latter three questions are all things it seems we are supposed to ask in the post Thatcher/Blair era of artist-as-small-businessperson. But they are the wrong questions.

One needs to find what one needs to say.

And this is the consolation of art. As consumer and producer it offers me a chance to meet fundamental needs – to say (usually in my case not through words) what I need to say, and to encounter what those who came before me had to say about things I need to encounter. To make art is a creative act. To encounter art made by others is a creative act.

Of course not everyone will find what they want in Coleridge, Mahler, Jarrett. Perhaps they will find it in Tom Waits, Virgil, Klee, David Bowie, Wim Wenders. That’s a matter of taste. But all of them had something to say and the skills to discover the form to say it through.

It is a fundamental need. And to meet a fundamental need is a consolation.

In my last post I wrote of needing to find that something matters. Art matters.

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