“This is the mysterious quality of all artists. We are born with this inexplicable knowing in our souls,” she told me once in her genteel drawl, fingers long and adorned tapping on her skull. “We have this intuitive understanding of the universe and its secrets, and that wisdom—that knowing—is timeless. That’s why we always feel old. There’s something in our soul that’s timeless, that’s seen it all.”
A soul as old as time itself—the idea was so irresistibly fascinating that it nestled in my mind long after the circumstances of the conversation faded into forgetfulness. What a wonder that would be: souls that each holds a multitude of secrets about what is real and what is true. Ancient spirits home to private wisdom collected from all eternity, wisdom that was put to brief sleep at the first sunrise of human birth but waits patiently for the moment of its inevitable awakening.
An elaborate image this painted in my mind, and listlessly I wondered if there is truth in this self-serving revelry. Can an artist be—in this world or one where fact blends indistinguishable from imagination—compared to ancient sentinels of the kingdom of universal truths?
What does it mean to be an artist?
Many have written at length, often in pedantry or pompous sentimentality, but the crux of the matter is simple. To be an artist is to first and foremost deliver on the demand for creation. The artist cannot be separated from the act of creation because it is only through this act that we are able to fulfill our more essential role: to untangle the human experience to rediscover the truths about the human condition.
To be an artist is to go on a parabolic journey of first absorbing what is external to us, all the sights and sounds and connections both weak and strong; then of letting all these collected slivers simmer in our minds and hearts, reaching into that kingdom of universal truths hidden within us to make sense out of the fragments; and finally of returning outward by taking what is inside us and wielding the outside world to conform to its likeness—gold out of straw, beauty out of chaos.
But there’s the rub. If the artist’s soul holds deep within it the secrets of what is real and what is true, what action—what solemn ritual, what flaming hecatomb—is required to call to the forefront of our consciousness these things that our inarticulate hearts intuitively know? What do we do to awaken from the darkness of forgetfulness the slumbering wisdom of the universe?
Experience tells us one thing: the artist’s soul demands a life intensely lived. The mysteries of the human condition are not to be taken lightly, and how better can we honour these than by being driven by a mind that is completely captivated by the enigma of what it means to be and by a heart that is passionately and irrevocably in love with all that is?
Artists have no use for a repertoire of tepid concern and afterthoughts. We already swim in the static of apathy and disillusion every day. To devote one’s life to art is to be willing to endure both the constant ravaging of ferocious feeling and the agony of a discontented mind wishing to fit within the walls of its skull that which is beyond its own comprehension. To be an artist is to be willing to dive into the terrifying depths of our emotions and to soar into the transcendence of the thinking mind. We are artists and we have no use for the haphazard human experience.
We know this, but once again we find incongruence between what should be and what is. Is it not true that there are too many winds that blow us in too many directions far beyond our control? Is it feasible, or even desirable, to live day upon intense day in never-ending action and reaction? Are those who lead lives with moderate circumstances doomed out of the possibility of being an artist?
But it is not the ‘slings and arrows of outrageous fortune’ that make one an artist. It is the eyes that perceive beyond what can be seen—profundity in the mundane, magic among the humdrum of the commonplace. It’s that fervour for living, that reverence for reality that manifests in the greatest of worship—creation—that make man an artist.
In other words: it’s the universe within, not without.
True as this may be, it cannot be denied that while ‘something in our soul is timeless’, the rest of our constitution lives in the concrete here and tangible now. And so appears the challenge—how do we become at once timeless and topical? We do not exist in a void of only abstract thoughts and metaphysical truths. We exist in a given place and in a given time with circumstances that constantly shift as we go along, but it is exactly in this world of transience that artists are most needed. The duty of the artist is to remind people of the transcendent constants in our running time. Artists are the link between all of antiquity and all of posterity, the ancient sentinels of universal truths that never change even when here’s and now’s do.
The parabolic journey is one that must be taken again and again to cultivate a life intensely lived. We must remember that there are great mysteries beyond the prosaic, that the iridescence of existence lies just behind the grayscale shroud of daily trifles. We need only look beyond what can be seen. For the duty of the artist is to seek revenge against the tyranny of our dated existence; to rise in rebellion against the fleeting and absurd circumstances of the human condition to remember what is real and what is true; to tug against chaos and forgetfulness’ grip on our minds to create for the world beauty to keep the truths that even the dead know.
And all these we can say we have done the day we can find infinity in a dandelion.
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