Drawing Creative Wisdom From Those Who Came Before Us
It seems that almost every generation feels like the times they’re in are particularly strange and difficult, and nearly every human the same about their individual life.
Throughout the creative journey, and especially in tumultuous climates likes the one we are in now, it can be comforting to learn what artists who came before us have gone through.
What struggles they faced, what they thought of their times, the legacies they left…
such pieces of the past can give us insight and even help us feel less alone, realizing that much of what we wonder or feel is very, very parallel to the generations before.
I’ve been reading through a book of gathered writings from James Baldwin (1924-1987), an acclaimed writer prominent during the Civil Rights movement. He also happened to have a good bit to say on the “artist life,” meaty things which I’ve found thought-provoking and edifying. Hoping they might give at least a bit of the same to you.
On the special demands of the zeitgeist
“What the times demand, and in an unprecedented fashion, is that one be—not seem—outrageous, independent […] That one resist at whatever cost the fearful pressures placed on one to lie about one’s own experience. For in the same way that the [artist] scarcely ever had a more uneasy time, he has never been needed more.”
(“A Word from Writer Directly to Reader,” 1959; originally in “Fiction of the Fifties: A Decade of American Writing”)
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On where pain can be purposeful
Everybody’s hurt. […] You must understand that your pain is trivial except insofar as you can use it to connect with other people’s pain; and insofar as you can do that with your pain, you can be released from it, and then hopefully it works the other way around too; insofar as I can tell you what it is to suffer, perhaps I can help you to suffer less.
(“The Artists’s Struggle for Integrity,” 1963)
His commentary on how art may fall short
“These […] are designed not to trouble, but to reassure; they do not reflect reality, they merely rearrange its elements into something we can bear. They also weaken our ability to deal with the world as it is, ourselves as we are.”
(“Mass Culture and the Creative Artist: Some Personal Notes,” 1959)
The (non-)relationship of creating and success
“Success’ is an American word which cannot conceivably, unless it is defined in an extremely severe, ironical, and painful way, have any place in the vocabulary of any artist. […] Obviously, one must dismiss any hopes one may ever have had of winning a popularity contest.”
(“As Much Truth As One Can Bear,” 1962)
What great artists can show us
“[…] the people who produce the [artist] are not responsible to him: he is responsible to them.
That is why he is called [an artist]. And his responsibility, which is also his joy and his his strength and his life, is to defeat all labels and complicate all battles by insisting on the human riddle, to bear witness, as long as breath is in him, to that mighty, unnameable, transfiguring force which lives in the soul of man, and to aspire to do his work so well that when the breath has left him, the people—all people!—who search in the rubble for a sign or a witness will be able to find him there.”
(“Why I Stopped Hating Shakespeare,” 1964)
In sharing these highlights with you, I hope they’ve stirred some thoughts and bolstering of your own! There is so much more from Baldwin in each of these pieces, and if you enjoyed them, I encourage you to look him or the book these came from up (the book is titled The Cross of Redemption, and I borrowed my copy from my local library).
For the audio learners out there, you can also listen to the complete speech of “The Artist’s Struggle for Integrity” here