This is not a post about sadness. Far from it. This post is for ALL you sensitive folk out there. You know, artistic and/or introverted types, introspectives and observers. This is for the folk who care deeply about what they are doing and may just need to pursue it away from the spotlight, away from the scrutiny of neighbors, and away from the mayhem of keg parties. This post is for all the quiet people who are routinely trampled underfoot in the enthusiasm of ‘normal’ people climbing to the center stage. Its a post about the occasional human need for physical aloneness. And so, this is for all the wallflowers and the blazing stars of the infrared human spectrum…..
So if you’ve been reading my sometimes insipid occasionally mind blowing blog excursions for long you will know that I’m quite interested in the challenges facing Art and artists in our society. I read almost as many arts advocacy blogs as I do pottery blogs. Often its quite illuminating and sometimes its chilling and depressing all at the same time. But at least some folks are trying to make a difference. So here’s to the cheerleaders out there who are waving their pom poms and warbling out the school songs of “Why Art Matters”! Maybe it will be enough to make a difference.
But maybe there’s also a different tack to take. Maybe there’s an argument that quiet people can make….
In one recent advocacy blog post there was a perspective that touched one of my special nerves. It aimed at something that is perhaps at the core of society’s misunderstanding of artists. You can read that post here. The claim it made is that because artists frequently spend so much time tucked away in the solitude of their studios they are too often seen only as mysterious neighbors and not properly understood as real live community members. Not that they are loud mouthed freaks and therefore misunderstood, but that they are quiet. And perhaps there is a kernel of truth in that…..
As studies have shown, what distinguishes world class experts from talented amateurs (and other stripes of dilettantes) is how thoroughly they have engaged in “deliberate practice”. For an artist this almost always means solitary work that addresses that person’s challenges and interests specifically. You don’t get to the imagination easily by cavorting drunkenly around a keg or jabbering away at social cocktail parties. It often takes concentration and focus, and that usually means also very little distraction. Even classical musicians benefit more from the time spent in solitary practice than in chamber group collaborations. In other words, most artists we can think of are often best served by doing what they do off on their own, out of the limelight, and away from the distractions of nosy neighbors.
And all this time alone is sometimes just what it takes. They may look like anti-social hermits, but solitude is sometimes exactly what is required to do what they are called to do. They are not being sad necessarily, its just that they are on a mission. Situational or physical aloneness is NOT the same thing as emotional loneliness.
Here’s the world’s most famous patent clerk and notorious introvert (who knows a thing or two about creativity and solitary introspection) to tell you about it:
“My passionate sense of social justice and social responsibility has always contrasted oddly with my pronounced lack of need for direct contact with other human beings and human communities. I am truly a lone traveler and have never belonged to my country, my home, my friends, or even my immediate family, with my whole heart; in the face of all these ties, I have never lost a sense of distance and a need for solitude.”
And so what I would like to suggest is that this depiction of artists as outsiders or “mystical unicorn-like beings” possibly also has a deeper source than merely the social distance. And addressing the ‘problem’ by insisting that artists ‘make nice’ with their neighbors is a discredit to who many artists are deep down inside. And it also disrespects what they are trying to do.
It seems that for society an artist’s ‘unusualness’ is a problem and they now need to prove their humanity by being understood in terms that the crowd can grasp. The author of that post suggests that our way out of being misunderstood is that we artists try to be more like the ‘normal’ Joes and Janes of the world. Its as if artists were somehow socially deformed. In other words, it seems that Artists themselves are essentially to blame for their failure to be understood.
Its as if artists and wallflowers need to be fixed. Its a perception that there is something ‘wrong’ with us. And as with most stigmas, the ones dishing it out only have a vague understanding of how awfully myopic, parochial, or biased their stances are. Perhaps this perspective is simply conflating emotional sadness with physical solitude? Perhaps its only confusing people who DO need help with people who are fine just doing what they are doing?
The author suggests that we clear up the mystery by meeting the public on its own transparent terms, artists admitting culpability and taking their deserved lumps. Its as if we are at a frat party and artists need to pass some social initiation by doing beer bongs and tipping cows. Its like asking us to show our papers to prove we belong here. “Prove you don’t need to be fixed by wearing this lampshade and telling jokes to a crowd of strangers”….
Does this seem right? Aren’t artists doing something profoundly important as it is? Don’t they only make these contributions to society by so thoroughly engaging in solitary introspection? Is there some better way of investigating the interior life of the mind and imagination? Do we really need to prove our citizenship in this public way? And my big question: Isn’t solitary art making something that normal people do?
The simple truth is that as important as it is for experts in any field to hone their craft in isolation, folks that are naturally drawn to extended periods of solitude are also more likely to be the ones who choose this direction as a career path. Right? Perhaps certain folks are artists because the studio life is an appealing alternative to the stimulation saturated gregariousness of an extrovert dominated society. Not every ‘normal’ person is a boisterous cock-sure exhibitionist. Quiet isn’t just necessary for making some art, its sometimes welcome. If you are an artists you may also (but not necessarily) be an introvert. Between 33 and 50% of the general population are introverts, it seems. Yet they are perpetually cast as outsiders…..
And so I wonder just how many artists fit that introvert oriented personality type. Perhaps disproportionately high numbers compared to the general fallout. Is it any wonder most artists would be offended by being told to strip down naked in front of their neighbors to prove that they are not some alien being? Oh. We’re only being told to glad-hand, smile beamingly, and schmooze confidently?….
But can we honestly expect such behaviour from folks who are simply not made up on the extrovert model? Some artists, sure, but not all. And maybe not most. Is it even fair to make this demand? If naturally extroverted artists, squeaky wheeled attention grabbers, and smooth talking mountebanks are the ones who most often pack the limelight, just who are those quiet folks sitting in the corners, toiling anonymously, or struggling with notoriety? These are society’s supposed strangers, but don’t they also seem to be familiar? Don’t we know some of them in more personal terms?
If you are an artist, just think of how much you sometimes prefer the quiet of the studio to the hubbub of a crowded circus-like room. Mostly? Sometimes? Occasionally? Rarely? But almost surely not never. I’ve even known artists who leave their own gallery openings after just a few minutes (True story, many times over!). They flee. Doesn’t this say something important? And because artists sometimes avoid the spotlight, even when its in their own honor, there often is no one else to defend them from public misunderstanding and disapproval. Are Artists and introverts really misanthropic pariahs? Don’t we have husbands and wives, partners and friends? Don’t we have parents and sometimes children? And aren’t others just like us? Are we not legion?
So it seems like a darn big question….
(This post was encouraged by the awesome work that Susan Cain has done to publicize the issues facing introverts in our society. Follow her blog and read her new book “Quiet” if these issues reflect on your situation or that of someone you may know. She’s waaaay smarter than me, and she’s done the research to back it up.)
Make beauty real!