Sunday Night Journal — November 28, 2004
Sunday Night Journal — December 12, 2004

Sunday Night Journal — December 5, 2004

Some Kind of Artist

A few weeks before the recent election the arts section of our local paper featured a discussion of the fact that so many artists are on the political left, sometimes the fairly radical left. The editor put the question to a number of local artists, and the unsurprising answer that many of them gave was a variation on the theme that artists are superior people who naturally embrace superior ideas. This of course brings to mind Orwell’s “herd of independent minds,” and I can think of several less flattering explanations for the phenomenon under discussion.

But I’m really more interested in the underlying assumption: that “creative people” are fundamentally different from everyone else. I consider this idea not just false but pernicious, doing an injustice to the vast majority of the human race and considerable harm to art, artists, and culture. Among other things, it carries an implication which is pretty much insane: that the definition of art is “what an artist does.” Some twenty-five or so years ago I heard on NPR an interview with an artist which made clear both the madness of this idea and its grip on the world of the visual arts (at least—it doesn’t seem to have the same hold on literature and music). This disturbed fellow’s art included cutting himself with razor blades before an audience. The interviewer, a nice intelligent liberal fellow, was obviously appalled, but, not wishing to appear a Philistine, seemed to be trying not to show it and to treat this sick stunt as just the latest manifestation of the same gifts and intentions that were exercised by Leonardo. But at one point he couldn’t resist asking the question “Is this really art?” The “artist” of course pounced on this; I remember thinking that he had been waiting for just such an opening: “Yes, it is. I am an artist, and therefore what I do is art.” I wanted to reply “No, you are a nut, and therefore what you do is nuts.”

The truth, I think, is that every person is a creative person. The artist—by which I mean one whose primary vocation is one of the arts—may be more creative than most people, and he really must be more skilled in some particular craft than most people, but I deny with every fiber of my being the idea that he is intrinsically different from, still less superior to, them. It’s hard to see that the term “creativity” can mean anything more than the manifestation or expression of the interplay between a unique self and the rest of the world, which of course is always subjectively unique. In that fundamental sense almost everything we do, unless it is a strict and mechanical obedience to the orders of another, has in it some tincture of creativity. We all, for starters, have our own way of talking. We have our characteristic ways of constructing sentences, turns of phrase, witticisms, the occasional simile of our own invention, and so forth. Language in fact is a torrent of mostly anonymous creativity: the other day, listening to a sports talk show, I heard a football coach describe a thin player as having “a neck like a roll of dimes.” Various schools whose football programs are not doing very well have been described as being under attack by the terrorist duo of bin Losin’ and bin Cryin’.

Going a step further into what we more typically mean by “creativity,” we see it in much of our everyday work: a woman rearranging the furniture in her living room or decorating a cake, a bricklayer fitting the pieces of a paved path, a software developer designing a more efficient algorithm, all are exercising a degree of creativity. Our technological civilization in fact surrounds us with the work of engineers, product designers, and advertisers of all sorts who are extremely creative; although we may not consider what they do to be art and don’t credit them with being members of the fragile and superior class of creative persons, I don’t know how one could reasonably define creativity in such a way as to deny that they possess it.

A number of 19th and 20th century thinkers, such as the Catholic artist, typographer, and sculptor Eric Gill, railed against the factory system precisely because it removed the element of creativity from work, making the worker an inhuman automaton. Indeed we are now seeing the replacement of traditional assembly line workers by robots and if this did not involve unemployment we would have to consider it a good thing.

I certainly would not deny that there is a distinction between the fine arts, in which the object is made and valued principally for itself, and the useful arts, in which the object has some function outside itself. But the distinction is not hard and fast and I don’t believe there is any qualitative difference in the human impulses and gifts exercised in either case.

And when I say that everyone is creative in some way, I don’t mean to imply that there is no hierarchy of quality in the arts, or that everyone should be encouraged to write or paint or make music, whether or not they have any talent, on the grounds that creativity is only real if exercised in those arts. I’d have us understand Eric Gill’s aphorism: “The artist is not a special kind of man, but every man is a special kind of artist.” I might even go so far as to say that the term “creative person” is redundant, although the addition of an adjective such as “more” or “less” can make it useful.

Whenever I think of Gill’s words, I remember a poem by James Seay, whose writing classes I took in college. The poem was called, if I remember correctly, “Kelly Dug a Hole,” and although I don’t remember much of the poem itself I remember Jim’s account of its subject, a man who could dig a hole with perfectly square corners and perfectly straight sides. As I remember, Jim said he thought Kelly could have been, in the right circumstances, an artist of some kind. But that’s only half-right: he was an artist of some kind—as was my uncle Jimmy, who was a bookkeeper (or something) by trade but painted the walls and ceiling of his children’s playroom with vertical stripes that tapered perfectly from a foot or so wide at the baseboard to a point where they met at a light fixture in the ceiling. When I expressed my astonishment (not too strong a word) at the skill involved, he just laughed, as if to say it wasn’t that big a deal. And in a sense he was right: the skill was unusual, but the impulse and some ability, however slight or mundane, to exercise skill and imagination belong to us all.

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