The ease of viewing contemporary work today is staggering. The steady flow of images on Facebook, Instagram and online art sites brings thousands of images from all over the globe into easy view every day. When I first started as an artist, new work came to me through two or three art publications, gallery visits or the occasional invitation to a friend’s studio. This change in exposure is exponential.
In all this art viewing, some work speaks to me and some does not. Often however I see new work that I admire, and at times my admiration can spill over into the personal, taking the form of comparing or self questioning: How does my work stack up? Is this better at doing what I am trying to do than my own?
For years I have been advocating the importance for an artist to possess a strong sense of self direction and clarity. It now seems that being connected to one’s essence is more important than ever. It is in that effort that I preserve my studio space as a barrage-free safe zone. Of course new ideas and approaches are constantly being explored, but bringing them into the process of my work is a delicate, alchemical thing. I have learned from experience that it must be done with care.
I thought about that as I read a short piece by Sarah Manguso, Green-Eyed Verbs, which recently appeared in the New York Times. (Her book, Ongoingness, knocked me out when I read it last year, written about here.). Her topic is the envy that writers (and by association, other creatives) harbor towards the work of others. As she did in Ongoingness, Manguso fearlessly turns us over for a ventral examination of those darker underbelly issues of life. In her hands that exposure isn’t harsh, hurtful or demeaning. It is more like a good scrub, a much needed grooming of that hidden side of us.
In her article she talks cuts through the admiration and envy to what really matters:
I can tell that I’m making the wrong type of effort when I start to lament my work isn’t turning out the way I’d wanted it to. This feeling depends on admitting to myself that I had an idea of how it should turn out, and that some part of me is trying to reverse-engineer the piece I admire. Some vocations demand this exact strategy: Builders, surgeons and chefs must do this. Writers, though, must not. Writers must labor from a vague feeling, usually some large, old emotion, and in so laboring, come to understand the qualities of that feeling, and the source of it, and the reason they still feel it. That effort is practiced in a place typically insulated from even the idea of publication, and it depends upon a combination of exerting and relaxing one’s will over the writing.
The purpose of being a serious writer is not to express oneself, and it is not to make something beautiful, though one might do those things anyway. Those things are beside the point. The purpose of being a serious writer is to keep people from despair. If you keep that in mind always, the wish to make something beautiful or smart looks slight and vain in comparison. If people read your work and, as a result, choose life, then you are doing your job.
It’s a simple test, and it brings me back around to my own grounded place.
Surrounded as we are by great works—languaged, visual, aural, all of it—we do need a tool or aid that can help us hold the balance between admiration of others and devotion to our own work. “The way to honor great work is to love it, then turn away from it as you write,” Manguso advises. “No imitation, no pastiche.”
She goes on:
All writers will envy other writers, other writing. No one who reads is immune. To write despite it I must implicate myself, to confess to myself, silently or on the page, that I am envious. The result of this admission is humility. And a humble person, faced with the superior product of another, does not try to match it or best it out of spite. A humble person, and only a humble person, is capable of praise, of allowing space in the world for the great work of others, and of working alongside it, trying to match it as an act of honor.
“Allowing space in the world for the great work of others, and of working alongside it, trying to match it as an act of honor.” A beautiful description of humility.
And humility is, as my regular readers know, a favorite theme. A search on that term produced a list of nearly 20 previously written posts. So here’s one more.