If art reflects life, then there seems little point in a life spent blocked off, tucked away from experience.
So many of the artists I know sacrifice those unified experiences life has to offer in the name of making time for their art.
They skive off personal connections, they avoid adventures, they stifle too much movement or activity, and they become perpetual homebodies, because they need to live within an incubator so they will have time to fiddle around ceaselessly, honing their skills or scrounging for materials…
And the result is kitsch – aesthetics-driven art that appears to carry some weight at first glance. Preachy-pulp-fiction-pop-culture-palatable writing. Technical writing, when people write about something they have no personal interaction with, because they read, and they think, and for many that is enough to replace firsthand experience.
Hypothetical treatises of self-discovery. A robot’s account of feeling alive, of primal love.
Reading Tolstoy or Camus or whatever other long-dead thinkers gleaned centuries ago can enhance your appreciation of humanity. Following a path to enlightenment, via Christ or Kundalini yogis, reciting benevolent words…
But their wisdom, no matter how it resonates with you, is not yours, because they walked, and bled, and felt things like abandonment and regret, in order to get there. Their truth may coincide with yours, but it is not identical to your truth.
Relating to the suffering, the lust, the relief of others is not a substitute for experiencing them for yourself out in the world, for working through your own real demons of jealousy, of humiliation or guilt.
At worst, all that reading about life from a detached, ‘objective’ perspective can cultivate that academic or spiritual narcissism of those well-educated enough to trick themselves into thinking they know how everything works, into thinking they are experts.
I was there as well. And then I realized I did not know shit. I still do not, but I know a little more now than I did back when I thought I knew everything, pontificating from the safety of an emotional condom.
Take it off. Dare to look stupid. Dare to misspell. Dare to ask an elementary question, rather than pretending you understand.
Dare to be proud of something you made that was born of your own truth rather than extrapolated from the truths of those before you, even if it is not marketable, even if someone calls it low-brow or sophomoric.
Dare to sing, dare to scream, dare to forgive yourself of your mistakes and dare to never apologize for your glories. Dare to deplete yourself and push yourself to the outer limits of your existence – and then dare to exercise true patience and forgiveness, to nurse yourself back to homeostasis, taking notes of what happens along the way.
And I will admit, most of the artists I know who live this way have technical skills that surpass mine. It is true that if I invested more time into practicing my craft, on the surface I’d probably look like a better artist.
But I’d just be churning out pretty stuff, not really knowing why. Stuff to put on a t-shirt that would sell at Urban Outfitters, stuff to decorate your house with and stick on your trendy coffee table. Stuff to stock a festival vendor’s booth. Not just useless — arguably a defining characteristic, maybe even a virtue, of art – but also meaningless.
That work may be able to shock you, but it will not haunt you.
It may present social commentary, in disorganized rants or cutesy platitudes, but its source is media and late-night conversations, not sweat and trauma and flirtations with death and the bitter tears born of experiencing injustice. It will titillate or fluster, but it will not give you indigestion.
That kind of work is crying wolf — it is self-righteousness, silicone passion. If you ask me, it is those who have at some point been broken down who have beautiful things to say.
And I do not want to make social commentary — I want to make existential commentary.
I want to suffer Hell and Nirvana and Purgatory before deigning to let them peek through my work. I want to mess with my own head until I feel like I have lost control, and then come back to tell you about it, and maybe you will come with me next time, and maybe we will fall in love and maybe we will tear each other apart and lose ourselves, and years later we will learn how to rise above those ugly thoughts and feelings and harness true compassion, and forgive ourselves and each other – and then, maybe that is when, I will write something true.
I want my path to wisdom to involve a lot of stumbling, landslides, and pits, because the significance of your path is measured in how high you have risen from the depths into which you have fallen — I do not want to reach the mountaintop via some wide, meandering trail and then claim enlightenment.
If I am going to create anything I could call art, then I do not want it to shock. I want it to stir up, even disturb. I want to drug you — by proffering myself as an example that shows you a glimpse of your shadow, a dark truth that you cannot quite deny relating to.
More than that, I want to compel you to do it back to me — to do your very worst. I want my writing to be, not a soapbox, but a dialogue across time and space — a divine argument between us, strangers. I want you to boomerang back so I can learn from you too.
I hole up too, sure, as a reprieve from my otherwise torrential life — for just long enough so that I can write it all down, paint it, sing about it, recover from it, re-calibrate to Center and practice Being over Doing. Lick my wounds and embrace what I might have previously called boring. Then I run back out into the storm again. Because it keeps me organic, keeps me human.
Our work is more stirring when you let life chew you up and spit you, tumbling, back into the cosmos. How else do we figure out what we are made of and who we are?
A committed bonne vivante bearing scatological proclivities, Bumpkin Wolfgang is an ex-yuppie who quit a cushy office job in favor of running off to the mountains, where she spent six months building trails and digging cat holes at 13,000 feet. The experience irretrievably addled her brains, and she’s since been on an unstructured pilgrimage to nowhere in particular, which has led her to work as a ski instructor, massage therapist, freelance model, golf cart mechanic, and so on. She believes in candor, experimentation, and catharsis, and generally enjoys this whole Being Alive Thing. Her table manners border on obscene. You can reach Bumpkin via her website.