It’s easy to say you make art only for yourself
We turned toward art as kids because we could not not create.
But we also turned to art for our own defenses.
It quieted the yelling downstairs. It salved the confusion of being an outsider when we didn’t have the language of feeling like an outsider. Retreating to the imagination’s citadel felt safe and strangely pleasurable compared to the weirdness going on inside the body and with the vagaries of middle school friendships.
The adult ego carries inexhaustible defenses that can keep the imagination from growing up, rich and strong. Those defenses ward off another kind of vulnerability that we all felt in grade school. The vulnerability of learning. The exposure that we might appear wrong or ignorant. That we screwed up. That we’re not as good as straight-A Matthew or as the kid who can pick up the guitar, piano, and drum sticks with equal ease.
It turns out that as adults it’s easy to resist craft knowledge.
It’s easy to say that learning about the syntax of things will convict the original love for writing to a life sentence.
It’s easy to say that learning about f-stops and light settings will send the love of photography to the dark room never to be exposed again.
It’s easy to say you like to speak extemporaneously and spontaneously and authentically and avoid the whole vulnerable challenge of learning how to engage your audience not because you just let it spill on stage but because, behind the scenes and unseen to them, you moved them through an experience that opened them up to something new.
It’s easy to pretend you’re being original by ignoring the tens of thousands of people who have come before you that you might make this art on this day.
It’s easy to say you write or make art or speak or photograph only for yourself.
The ego has an insatiable hunger for validation. Feed it, and it wants more. Let that hunger drive your art-making, and it will devour that drive, too. Eventually, you’ll feel starved.
The real bravery is to stand up for your art
and say, with conviction, that your art merits being honored for itself. That its form and heritage and exquisite challenges of craft are greater and more important in this lifetime than the little self’s need for validation. That by learning when and how to focus on story architecture or the composition of shapes – oddly enough – might provide a more satisfying albeit indirect and subtle avenue to untangle those unconscious defenses than directly and only making art for personal therapy.
That craft knowledge gives you soulful tools to tweak another person’s mind or heart. Not to manipulate but to elevate.
This time you’ll learn on your own terms.
You will choose your mentors – dead, remote, alive. This time you will choose your peers. This time you will replace the need to do good, compete, or perform with a wide-awake wonder and curiosity and interest. This time your audiences will find you because you took the risk to honor the craft so they – not just you – could have moving experiences with your art and because you cannot help but engage them.
That’s not the easy path. But no risk and no challenge, no quest. Healing or atonement or reconciliation, if that’s what needs to happen, will follow.
A true knowledge of craft can open, not close, the eyes and ears and heart again. To photograph truth, you have to learn to see outside of you again. To write truth, you have to learn to hear outside of you again. To speak truth, you have to learn to feel outside of you again.
That’s the way true craft knowledge deepens instead of deadens wonder.
Live the quest.