By Wil Forbis
We've all seen them before; they are archetypes of our culture. The wild haired painter splashing paint on a canvas, forming unseen shapes that express the agony in his soul. The timid folk guitarist who climbs onstage at an open mic to wail out blistering melodies that salve the frayed nerve endings of his inner self. The lonely poetess, composing page after page of heartfelt verse, constructing her only armor against the brutal onslaught of modern society.
We've seen these people and thought, who the fuck are these pussies? What makes them think they are so special? And why do they get to flaunt society's conventions while I'm stuck here in my dead-end job and shitty relationship with 2.3 kids, a 300 thousand dollar mortgage and a stupid dog that won't even get the paper?
I hear you, my friend. I too have felt pangs of jealousy, confusion and resentment towards this creature in our midst, this living caricature we call the artist.
After all, artists have it pretty good in our society. Oh sure, they'll bleat and moan about how their tortured souls bear the weight of society's sins and the only relief they can find from the unending agony is by expressing themselves in their chosen means, be it music, or writing or painting or film. But we all know that's a load of frogshit. Artists have it made. For one thing, they get all the girls - a steady stream of man hungry she-devils eager to debase themselves for any opportunity to get close to these sensitive souls. (I'm not sure what chick artists get, hell, I still haven't figured out what chicks want in general, but I assume they do all right.) Secondly, artists get to metaphorically get away with murder (possibly literally in the case of Phil Spector.) "Oh, he tied dyed your cat six different colors, threw up all over your apartment and then slept with your sister? Well, he can't be blamed, he's an artist, you know." Artists as varied as Ezra Pound (Nazi), Axl Rose (homophobic racist) and Picasso (philandering douchebag) have all gotten away with behavior the rest of us would surely be ostracized for. But for an artist, these flaws add "character." After all, they tell us, they are only expressing the dark putrid muck that festers within our own souls. At least they're being honest about it. If you condemn them, you are hypocrite and a fraud. (Hmmmm, there may be some truth to this argument.)
And we ("we" being society) let them get away with it. Why? Because we revere the artist. He or she is our connection to something greater than ourselves. The artist is the modern-day shaman, he communicates with the great unknown, and then codifies his transmissions into hastily scribbled free-form verse, dissonant atonal melodies or paintings that appear to be nothing more than a bunch of giant squares. Who are we, as non-artists, to question their proclamations? We clearly don't have the emotional intelligence to even begin to understand their genius.
Why do we put up with all this abuse? I have a theory on this. As science provides more answers to man's fundamental questions about the nature of the universe, and as (with any luck) religion is shown to be nothing more than the cleverly written fables of snake oil salesmen, we find our sources for spiritual nourishment dwindling. We want to believe there is something more - we cannot accept that we live in a godless, amoral, nihilistic universe - so we put our faith in the artist. After all, they seem to be in touch with something grander and bigger than themselves. Only they can peer into the invisible cracks in the fabric of our reality to find beauty and truth. As science and logic remorselessly crush our traditional sources of spirituality, the artist stands unyielding and loudly proclaims the existence of something more.
However, I'm going to blow the lid on the whole thing. You see, I am an artist. I compose music, I write, and I spent most of my teen years actively drawing. And what I came to realize about art is that it is not an antenna to greater truths, it is a skill like any other. You work towards gaining an understanding of the forms and structures of your chosen field, you study the work of those who came before you and with that gathered knowledge, you attempt to create something unique. To do this often involves a lot of really boring effort (practicing scales on the musical instrument, studying the musculature of the human body to render it in clay) and rote mechanical repetition. This effort generates the occasional success, which is enough to spur you on. It can be a very rewarding process, but no more magical than learning to rebuild a car engine or understand the United States tax code. Some people may be more naturally gifted towards the arts than others - they may be capable of long periods of intense concentration, have an intuitive grasp of esoteric and nonlinear thinking, or may be physically gifted, possessing the strong hands that can be of a benefit in playing a musical instrument or rendering pottery. But they are fundamentally honing a skill in a manner akin to a basketball player shooting hoops, or a computer programmer working on increasingly difficult mathematical computations.
This is why I think worship of the artist is no different from the religious fundamentalism practiced by snake handling, inbred denizens of the rural American South. To revere the Picassos or Scorseses or Kurt Cobains of our age is to be a gapped tooth, mullet wearing hillbilly who spends his days tinkering away at the engine of a 1973 Camaro that's mounted on cinder blocks while incoherently rambling about the power of Jesus. To sop up the mindless worship of musicians and artists as propagated by magazines like SPIN and Rolling Stone is to be akin to a savage primitive who scurries under a rock at every appearance of lightning, begging a nonexistent god to spare his wrath.
Do you want to be such a person?
Ha! Look at you run, you Neanderthal hillbilly. Look at you run.