To go wrong in one’s own way is better than to go right in someone else’s — Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Crime and Punishment
Freedom is a complicated thought especially freedom of expression. When society draws a border to indicate the art that will be commercially viable, it creates a cell confining the artist. It is true that society does not always know what it should consider art but to create boundaries to exclude commercially mediocre art is like saying people know exactly the kind of art they admire. Even if an artist tows the line and pursues commercial success sacrificing his unrestrained expression, the success in many cases feels like a betrayal of everything natural.
Again, I realize it is easy to discuss freedom when your stomach is full and you have a roof over your head. For every artist struggling to make a living, philosophy is useless. Somehow, I exactly know how that feels because I saw my inner artist fade as the economic machine dictated my career choices.
Call me an irrational optimist but I feel you can always come back to doing what you truly love after you have loved what you have done before. For many people, it means loving the job they are in to be able to support their art in the later stages of their lives.
One reason I see a distinct advantage that late bloomers have is the fact that wealth allows you to be free of the encumbrances that money puts on art. You can freely gift the world your authentic self because the world no longer dictates your art.
Paradox of Plenty
On weekends that felt like they spanned an infinity (because I’d not know what to do with my time), I would listen to Pink Floyd.
One of the most influential albums that I listened to growing up was ‘The Wall’. In this album, the song ‘Comfortably Numb’ often captured the stasis of aimlessness. For me, at least, it was a song that captured the successful but embittered artist and its music captured suspended animation in a way it would be hard for any words to capture.
Fast forward to today and much like the artist Pink portrayed in Comfortably Numb, Chester Bennington became an icon of inexplicable memories in good ways and bad because of his early exit from the world. I have been a fan of Linkin Park and Chester for a long time and I pray for his soul to Rest In Peace.
Chester’s primal voice and the band’s music gave expression to my angst. All of a sudden, rebellion seemed a way of life. Personally, I felt devastated to learn about his abrupt end.
Ironically, many artists including Kurt Cobain and Amy Winehouse were victims of spectacular success. While I don’t confess to knowing the truth, it felt like success surely did not buy them happiness. Very often, great lives tread a slippery slope. The very society that rated their work commercially successful was perhaps responsible for their profligate use of a precious resource called life. In a sense, confinement liberated them from a life of perceived success but actual numbness.
A Gift For Generations To Treasure
The ultimate success for an artist is the inheritance of his visions by complete strangers. Through his art, an artist conveys a view of the world that is hidden from others. Therefore, he gives the gift of sight to those with challenges of the ocular kind. Of which, including me, there will be many.
However, many artists such as Vincent Van Gogh, Edgar Allan Poe, Jean Michel Basquiat died penniless because the confines of commercially successful art at the time never allowed their work to be rewarded.
On the other hand, many artists who became commercially successful succumbed to profligacy by spending their earnings unwisely or losing their health and sanity to an extravagant but empty and unhealthy life.
The Way Of The Artist
Honor is one of the key virtues of Bushidō (the Way of The Samurai Warrior). A Samurai who could not honor his tradition would commit seppuku (切腹, “cutting [the] Stomach/belly”) which was also known as harakiri (腹切り, “abdomen/belly cutting”).
At the time, a Samurai was loyal to his master the Shogun. Life was simple and code bound.Today, money can be a cruel master. For an artist to be loyal to himself could be akin to harakiri. An irony that is certainly not lost on anyone.
Confinement becomes a crime for an artist and profligacy that comes with commercial success it’s possible punishment.
The Final Salute
This article is a salute to every artist who has managed to stay between confinement and profligacy without succumbing to either. In the process, never sacrificing their art.
For every other artist who has stayed true to their own art without commercial success, an even bigger salute to your loyalty to principles.
For other artists who have become commercially successful, I hope the sacrifices soon bring you back to your true self.
Finally, I hope all of us can remain true to ourselves without a life of crime and punishment.
In “The Book of Five Rings” , Miyamoto Musashi (宮本 武蔵, c. 1584 — June 13, 1645), also known as Shinmen Takezō, Miyamoto Bennosuke or, by his Buddhist name, Niten Dōraku, who was an expert Japanese swordsman and rōnin wrote:
“there is nothing outside of yourself that can ever enable you to get better, stronger, richer, quicker, or smarter. Everything is within. Everything exists. Seek nothing outside of yourself”