What’s that traveling on the spring air? What’s this sweet sequence of notes that stirs us? Who plays this fine legato, who works the strings? We feel we’re rising higher—what luck—we’ve stumbled upon a true artist. She sits in a vernal grove, oblivious to our eavesdropping—what do our ears matter? She plays for the trees, for the thought of some lover, for her spirit—this little woods has a mysterious quality—have we been drinking?—I can’t be the only one feeling intoxicated. Animals bound about, wisterias blossom, petals fall, it’s a dizzying, ethereal scene—are we hearing correctly?—there’s something foreign in these tones. Is it possible this forest player is channeling some beyond—has some Artemis picked up a different bow?
That’s how it is with art, though we’ve sobered up these days. We consider art a practice, not a metaphysics. We study its cultural value, its origins. Systematize it, sell it. We want it plainspoken. Brief. The day is in poverty of hours, after all. Few of us care to pay attention to visitors from the pantheon frolicking on our terrain—we’re too familiar. We audiences—we’re easily bored. We post-post-postmoderns are disillusioned with that forest scene. We’ve come to understand all of art’s tricks. Out with aesthetics, in with psychology. We’re suspicious of any notion of an art as transcendent, distinct, Sui generis, above—or are we?
Some new poet appears and pens new songs. Her rhythms reanimate some old restlessness in our blood—some artist brings us to belief. Some hapless fool, some clueless dabbler, pulls us into an overflowing, has us scientific number crunchers picking up all sorts of dusty notions of soul and spirit, of higher humanity—some sod de-rationalizes us. We give a solemn nod to a host of ancient superstitions, of inspiration, muses, a dark unknown—fantasy—that the artist should commune with these powers, should leap to these heights and return with art—this remains an alluring explanation of genius in spite of all our psychologizing. We’d like to believe there’s simply no other way.
In truth we know the artist is a workhorse and severe taskmaster—but why? What drives her to such harshness—such hounding at her own feet? Well, it’s simply——no, perhaps—well maybe—ah, the answer is obscure. We have the artist, we have the art, we are so perverse as to even have her childhood, her influences, her development unravelled, but we lack the reason. We can see where muses suddenly enter the conversation. Why attain to art? Well, well, well—
It remains unclear. We’ll call it a drive to worship—that art and religion are easily compared is no coincidence. Art is a metaphysics of the first kind—why else would we dare to patron it and give our alms—why else rise to be its champions, its devouts? A dogmatic belief in art—does an artist require anything than this and her medium? Her god and her oracle?
But this is a fickle god who requires constant sacrifice. You must bring a lamb to altar daily. What form of hecatomb does art demand? What do we have to stake for the blessing of that old deity? A good friend of mine (whom I only wish I could sit down and have a conversation with—alas, I settle with stealing her words), has compiled a neat list, at least for those of us drawn to ink, others may substitute ears for eyes:
“You stand to lose your youth, your eyesight, your self-respect, and whatever potentialities you may have had in other directions, and if the worst comes to the worst, remember, nobody promised you anything…”1
Nothing to shrug at—nothing to shy from either, for those who catch the other-worldly hum of this god’s voice find worship a necessity, a vocation. Some go so far as to martyr themselves in the name of this calling—at least those that are serious. A little trick for picking out true artists: they carry bottomless libation bowls. Yes, those true, those impassioned, those mad artists are always bowing, kneeling, prostrate.
And what’s the end to all this devoted religious experience? As my friend told us—possibly nothing. But what saint isn’t content with the private bliss between her and her god? Isn’t content with their ceaselessly renewed struggles, spats, and schisms? A saint suffers no reward. Their final end is a gift given, not received. I defer to my companion’s noble tongue again, more pious and enlightened than my own:
“Well, if you are going to throw all that, except the self-respect, into the ash can, you may as well, if you wish to write, be as good a writer as you can, say what you think and feel, add a little something, even if it’s the merest fraction of an atom, to the sum of human achievement.”2