One of the chief difficulties for aspiring artists of all kinds, is that we often misunderstand the relationship between what our art could be and what it presently is. When we encounter great art it appears like the transformative power of the magician’s staff. Great art opens a gateway to the realm of the gods. It reveals things hidden to our normal senses. It changes our view of the world and ourselves. Great artists seem to pursue their art as a sacred calling, as if it were the grail itself: a chalice of solace and renewal to which they return again and again throughout all of life’s vicissitudes. Even among those artists who are merely technically excellent, and not necessarily endowed with greatness of insight and expression, we wonder at the power their art has to move the world. We see it bring to some riches and renown. We see it used to shield the weak, humble the wicked, build communities of friendship and tear down prison walls. Our own work of course does none of these things. It seems rote, mechanical, and immature. Our enthusiasm for what art represents rubs against our experience of actually doing it. We stop. We balk. We falter. Why?
There is a pernicious lie we believe. It is the lie of the “inner genius”. The substance of this lie is that somewhere within us resides an homunculus – a tiny person. This “inner artist” possesses all the wondrous creative power we seek, complete and fully developed. In order for us to achieve the artist’s life, it is only necessary to contact this mischievous imp, who will then spin thread into gold, make the sun still in the sky, and open the doorway to Narnia. This is assuming of course that we are “real” artists. Non-artists don’t have an inner Shakespeare, a miniature Gauguin, or a tiny Beethoven. Perhaps they have a pet genius for spreadsheets, or an innermost sacred accountant. Having this model of the creative process, we are disturbed when we sit down to work and find our minuscule demon missing from his station. Perhaps we have done something to drive him away, and should seek out some kind of artist’s penance? There is a whole industry of books, support groups, and retreats providing this service. Perhaps we are not sensitive enough and must “develop” our “creative intuition”? Most occult and spiritual practices are substitutes for nothing else. Perhaps we are – horror of horrors – not a “real” artist at all, and should resign ourselves to corporate mediocrity and mindless entertainments? Whatever it is, we must do something. Clearly something is wrong with us, for the magic gate is closed.
The simple truth is: the “little artist inside” does not exist. There is no “inner you”. There is only you as you find yourself: as you presently are right now. The art you are drawn to is not a magical wand, or the holy grail of your life, or even a potent weapon for YOU. It may become ALL of those things in time. For now though, for YOU, it is but a possibility. One of the many things which you may become. It is an interest, for which you have some natural inclination. It is material to be worked. No different from learning to shape wood, or metal, or repair machines, or developing your body, you must approach it as a CRAFT. For that is the possibility the art opens to you right now. It is how the Muse first approaches anyone – not in her wedding finery, and even less in her bedclothes, but in a humble workman’s smock, bearing tools of labor. This prospect should cheer you and bring you courage, for while the sword is fearful, and the road to the grail unknown, and the wand a mystery – the potter’s wheel, the blacksmith’s anvil, the dressmaker’s shop, these things are all known and open to you. Craft is not hard to develop. Anyone can do it. It only requires a little patience and a small amount of discipline. Sadly, in our modern world of mass produced goods and “service” jobs, fewer and fewer people have any experience in craft. Think about it. Most working adults today have mastered little other than a very specific rote process with little or no significance outside the bureaucracy in which they work. Because of this, a little instruction may be helpful.
In my personal experience, the development of craft is a process of three interlocking and self-perpetuating activities. The first is practice. You should practice your craft every day. Even if you can only manage half an hour, or five minutes, it still counts. Practice grows organically in time. Some say that it takes around twenty hours of practice for a new skill to become anything other than a difficult and confusing task. I like to think of this as a day – twenty four hours of time. When you have spent twenty four hours doing something – actually doing it, and not worrying about it, agonizing over it, or avoiding it, then you have a basic understanding of what the activity actually feels like. Of course, this is just the beginning and, even after you have been at it for some time, your work may feel mechanical, crude, and unimpressive. But practice is not fundamentally about what you produce. Practice is the work you do on yourself, for your soul has a shape, and through practice you are molding it. To produce great art you must first become someone who is capable of great art. Therefore, the more you practice, the more rewarding it will become as your soul takes on the artist’s form. Periodically however, even in the best of circumstances, you will “get stuck” and practice will seem indescribably tedious. This brings us to the second activity: experimentation.
You must give yourself permission to try new things, things that will not work, things that will appear – to your critical mind, to lead nowhere. Think of them as little gambles, for you are embarking on a journey of discovery, no different from a Galileo or a Magellan. There has never been, in this turning of the cosmos, a being precisely and exactly like you: with your constitution, history, aspirations and perspective. Thus, no one can tell you exactly how your art will be, or should be, what medium you should work in, or how you should structure your practice. You must discover this road as you travel. Do not abandon critical thought, but merely put it aside for a moment, and only analyze your experiment after it has run its course. The problems of art cannot be solved merely by thinking them through. You must think, but you also must act even – dare I say especially, without perfect knowledge. To demand that you succeed before you have experienced failure, to know of what you are capable before you have tested your abilities, is to doom yourself to paralysis and bitter stagnation. Art is invention. Without uncertain and untested innovation, it becomes merely industry. Somewhat paradoxically art must posses a recognizable form, despite what some in the “post-modern” school claim ( a nonsense phrase by the way, as art is eternal ). Random emotional ejaculation cannot be art, because it can never first be craft. All learning, all thought, all self-improvement, occurs within a tradition, and this brings us to the third activity to which you must apply yourself: study.
Like any other craftsman, you must study – not just your discipline, but the world. Along with the lie of the homunculus – the “inner artist”, there is the lie of the ORIGINAL artist. This is the lie that the content of our art is something we produce from “within” like a gall-bladder produces bile. In fact, these are two aspects of the same lie: that the artist is some kind of isolated autodidact, and this comes from a faulty view of the world. Do not misunderstand me. Self-directed learning is fine, in fact it is necessary, but self-learning is not the same as self-teaching. You cannot by definition teach yourself something you don’t already know. The universe is not fundamentally made of isolated bits of stuff. It is a whole – a continuum – a living body. An artist is not a world unto himself. Rather an artist is like a nerve – a particularly sensitive and intelligent ganglia within the cosmic body. To improve your function as an artist you must reach out to that larger neighborhood of beings who make up “your kind”, and plug in. To be sure, you will need periods of isolation, for reflection, digestion, and germination, but understanding comes from context. You must know what has been done in your craft before you came: what works, what doesn’t work, what has already been tried, and what has no one ever attempted. You must also know what is happening in the world. To not know your craft is to be ignorant. To only know your craft, is to be an idiot – in the technical definition of the term, doomed to repeat the same inanities over and over and over again. For, like a nerve, you cannot decide to feel something that is not present – that does not lie within your field of experience. To create something great, you must know what greatness looks like. To create something new, you must experience something new. This requires no great effort. Newness is everywhere. Even the most ordinary experiences become profound when viewed with attention. Cultivate attention, and you will find teachers everywhere.
These three activities: practice, experimentation, and study will develop your craft. All you have to do is act, and not give up. There is a fourth… thing, you must develop. It is not an activity as such, but rather a quality. That is patience. Be patient with yourself – and, if you do not know how, learn to be patient. If you study your craft with diligence you will develop this quality. Patience is not putting up with suffering. Patience is a knack for finding contentment and happiness within all of life’s situations. It is the art of learning how to enjoy this journey, on this planet Earth. For in the end, we never arrive anywhere. Every ending is the beginning of some new adventure. No effort if wasted. No opportunity comes too early, or too late. There is no experience that cannot be used in the service of the universal harmony, if you come to view it in the right way. What else did you expect, from art?