Am I an artist?

Source: Book. The Collector (1963), John Fowles

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There’s an interesting point in The Collector where the female lead, Miranda, who I picture as a longer-haired Claire Danes circa So-Called, becomes frustrated with what she describes to be the “crude…primitive” nature of words. Her full quote goes as follows:

“Words are so crude, so terribly primitive compared to drawing, painting, sculpture.”

And although she has every reason for frustration, having been kidnapped, drugged and trapped in an underground tomb by the misguided butterfly collector wanting little more than to possess her (indefinitely—definitely—infinitely it seems), her criticism of words is simply wrong—forgivable, given her delicate state, but wrong nonetheless. When in actuality, it’s drawing, painting and sculpting that represent the more primitive of art forms.

Long before written words were assigned mass meaning, cave dwellers etched images on walls with charcoal and captured their pre-erectus brethren’s likenesses in sculptings of mud or clay. These symbols spoke by drawing direct reference to a real life counterpart. Something letters (and words) are not inherently equipped to do. The symbol “A” does not readily present itself in nature, whereas a buffalo drawing, much like the wild animal, naturally communicates “food,” or perhaps “buffalo.”

Furthermore, drawing a spear alongside the buffalo might logically symbolize “to hunt.” The argument could be made that those symbols aren’t intended as art, but instead part of a visual language—predecessors to text. Fair enough, but that’s not my point (I’ll get to that soon enough).

So I digress—as it’s not my intention to take Miranda’s use of the word primitive so literally; it’s merely my belief that the more visual art forms—drawing, painting, sculpting—are each confined to the shortcomings of overt sight (and over-sight). First glance, all one needs, to say something looks pretty or vulgar or colorful or realistic or literal or whatever arbitrary label our unsophisticated eyes first assign. Our first glance is glaring and overshadowing. A total eclipse of the mind. As an astute friend pointed out at the Warhol exhibit, you’re seeing the same image the artist saw, an image trapped in time—timeless, but stuck in time—their time.

Thus when Miranda arrives at her “crude” assessment of the written word, it’s because she’s not confident in her to ability to communicate the nature of her captor’s icy smile in text. To say, “he smiled,” she says, means “No more than a kindergarten poster painting of a turnip with a moon-mouth smile.” And she goes on to say, “words are all so used…Yet if I could draw the smile…”

But she’s not giving herself, or me (the reader), enough credit. Because I close my eyes and see her captor’s wry smile in more vivid detail than any drawing could open wide; not only do I see him smiling at her, I feel him smiling down on me. And I shiver. The story’s author needs only to supply ample context for me, the reader, to infer chilliness from this aforementioned smile. (Which of course, the author knows too well—and what a devilish trick for the competent writer to suppose, while at the same time disproving, the fallibility of words). But again, I digress.

DISCLAIMER: None of this is to say that a sole image can’t inspire infinite amounts of tangential thought. Where is my mind? But I believe it’s plain text—black and white—that liberates its reader to conjure thine own image. By force; by sensory deprivation of the visual kind. As in, what other choice do you have? Wait for the movie? The visual representation of these written places, people and things exists solely in your own mind. So go ahead, dream. I do…

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On being an author/writer:

*DISTINCTION: An “author’s” text is published, packaged for consumption and aimed to affect second-hand thought. A “writer” is anyone who writes, whether someone sees it or not. I am both.

Want to see how arrogant I can be?
I, the author, trust that you use your power of imagination responsibly; see that you don’t demean or degrade the meaning of my text; that although you may indulge the occasional whim or personal fancy, you always return to my narrator’s perspective, because my point of view is omniscient in that it realigns your line of sight. You are bound to my word. Captive et enslaved.

Want to see how selfless I can be?
On the other hand (my left), I the writer, leave you to purpose my text as you see fit; see that you embolden and enliven this narrative in ways I could never imagine—from a perspective I’m inept to witness because in the grand spectrum of viewpoints, mine is but a dot, a speck—no more distinguished than yours— a collection of abstract letters floating eternal through space. Leaf loose et free.

— — —

On being an artist:

And with that, we finally arrive at my central question—my point. What makes one an artist and am I one? According to the novel’s absentee character G.P., who to Miranda represents artistic integrity incarnate, there are 8 tenants that any true artist (or maker) must live by:

“1. If you are a real artist, you give you whole being to your art. Anything short of that, then you are not an artist.”

In a way, I could see this bringing great relief—offering myself over to something larger. Here I am, one without god, one alone; if I could only join a movement that gathers strength in dividual numbers til the sum of all arts equal collective thought. United we stand apart. For the better; for the time being and for all of my time being. But whole-have me, Art, you cannot. As I’m far too vain, too idle, too weak, too stubborn and too easily distracted to follow devout. Maybe in a world with soul…

“2. You don’t gush. You don’t have little set-pieces or set-ideas you rush out to impress people with.”

Oh, is that bad? Because I’m so much more witty given time to rehearse. Usually, I like to have the same conversation (or share the same story) at least five times before it’s perfected, before it sounds, dare I say, natural. Spontaneity being overrated and conversation almost always dead boring.

I’m waiting in line for carrots when a fair-skinned girl walks up.

ME: Your skin reminds me of milk, Hi.

GIRL: What?

ME: Whole milk, not like skim or anything.

GIRL: That’s a compliment?

ME: Yes, skim is translucent, gross, you wouldn’t want that. Whole milk is thick and creamy—like melted porcelain.

GIRL: I’m thick.

ME: No, your skin is thick.

GIRL: Oh okay, then how can I possibly be offended?

ME: Exactly! You’re thick-skinned but obviously not dense.

And we’re off to a great start.

So you see.

“3. You have to be Left politically because the Socialists are the only people who care, for all their mistakes. They feel, they want to better the world.”

I agree. Now, what do I do?

“4. You must make, always. You must act, if you believe something. Talking about acting is like boasting about pictures you’re going to paint. The most terrible bad form.”

Act now. Act now. Act now. Are my actions about acting not acts themselves? I suppose not. I’ve found a clever loophole called journal writing, wherein I write about things I want to write about. (The previous sentence was misleading; I don’t write about subjects I want to write about, I write about the act of writing; that’s the problem, I’m not really “making” anything.).

Rather, I’m circling my prey like a shark without teeth, with gums bleeding eraser. Never devouring any subject using that natural primordial desire found within. I want to shred this story to a bloody pulp; I want to fuck these words into blind submission; I want to vomit this text from my convoluted mind and make sense of it later, not during. Not now. Act now.

“5. If you feel something deeply, you’re not ashamed to show your feeling.”

I show nothing; I play poker; I’m worm. Spineless. Somewhere along the line my emotional cortex was castrated. I’m robbed of the ability to express feeling by a devastating absence of feeling in the first place. If one more person gets in front of me while I’m waiting patiently in line at the grocery store—why I’m gonna—do nothing; feel nothing. Should I be angry? Should I punch them? Probably not. But I should at least have the urge. The urge make us human. Acting on it, makes us men.

“6. You accept that you are English (or whatever). You don’t pretend that you’d rather be French or Italian or something else.”

One of my ancestors is Lithuanian, one is Native American, and that’s about all I know. Is that enough? I am mildly curious to find out more but I’ve not made any attempt to. So for now, I’m American and that means nothing to me. I pledge no allegiance.

“7. But you don’t compromise with your background. You cut off all the old you that gets in the way of the maker you. If you’re suburban, you throw away (cauterize) the suburbs. If you’re working class, you cauterize the working class in you. And the same, whatever class you are because class is primitive and silly.”

The “maker me” is an infant. I’m learning to walk and I’ll do my best not to hitch a ride in society’s stroller. I won’t go so far as to push these zombies of class head-first into traffic but accidents do happen. If your brain stem has long since been severed from the spine anyway, what damage does decapitation really do? My cord is cut.

“8. You hate the political business of nationality. You hate everything, in politics and art and everything else, that is not genuine and deep and necessary. You don’t have any time for silly trivial things. You live seriously. You don’t go to silly films, even if you want to; you don’t read cheap newspapers; you don’t listen to trash on the wireless and telly; you don’t waste time talking about nothing. You use you life.”

Can we say pretentious? Who are you (or I?) to decide what is deep and necessary? beforehand! While it might be fair to prejudge MTV’s Jersey Shore before watching it, or proudly avert your eyes from National Inquirer at the grocery, or even burn every copy of Twilight, page unturned, there are many cases less clear cut. I’d rather seriously live, than live seriously. Right now, I’m seriously laughing my ass off at a YouTube video where this dog pulls their owner off a chair by the hair. Sometimes life rhymes. So let it be.

I am however, fond of the part advising you to “use your life.” Because no matter how silly or trivial the circumstance, active engagement is the secret to life. Engage others, engage yourself, engage art, engage nature—and once you’re completely and utterly engaged, let it aLL GO…

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The verdict:

Please forget everything I just said…

Because it’s not one self-important (fictional) character’s list of values that determines my artistic merit. It’s my personal beliefs—like any true artist. Yes, from this point forth, I deem myself an artist. My medium is text; I use words to conjure worlds adjacent to ours but better. I am an author. I am not a painter, nor a drawer, nor a sculptor, nor a photographer, nor a filmmaker; I am a writer.

And I have but one rule to follow:
Write myself.