Valentine’s Day Special: The artistic importance of self-love

Here goes another foray examining the place that love has in the practice and manifestation of art! Maybe a bit off the beaten path, but its rarely as simple as just doing what we love…. So:

There is some debate over the old saw that you need to first love yourself before you can love another. But leaving aside the chicken and egg controversy, the idea of vanity, or self-love, itself has importance for those of us pursuing a creative life. Here’s what David Foster Wallace had to say:

“In the beginning, when you first start out trying to write fiction, the whole endeavor’s about fun. You don’t expect anybody else to read it. You’re writing almost wholly to get yourself off. To enable your own fantasies and deviant logics and to escape or transform parts of yourself you don’t like. And it works – and it’s terrific fun. Then, if you have good luck and people seem to like what you do, and you actually start to get paid for it, and get to see your stuff professionally typeset and bound and blurbed and reviewed and even (once) being read on the a.m. subway by a pretty girl you don’t even know it seems to make it even more fun. For a while. Then things start to get complicated and confusing, not to mention scary. Now you feel like you’re writing for other people, or at least you hope so. You’re no longer writing just to get yourself off, which — since any kind of masturbation is lonely and hollow — is probably good. But what replaces the onanistic motive? You’ve found you very much enjoy having your writing liked by people, and you find you’re extremely keen to have people like the new stuff you’re doing. The motive of pure personal starts to get supplanted by the motive of being liked, of having pretty people you don’t know like you and admire you and think you’re a good writer. Onanism gives way to attempted seduction, as a motive. Now, attempted seduction is hard work, and its fun is offset by a terrible fear of rejection. Whatever “ego” means, your ego has now gotten into the game. Or maybe “vanity” is a better word. Because you notice that a good deal of your writing has now become basically showing off, trying to get people to think you’re good. This is understandable. You have a great deal of yourself on the line, writing — your vanity is at stake. You discover a tricky thing about fiction writing; a certain amount of vanity is necessary to be able to do it all, but any vanity above that certain amount is lethal.”

It seems an important but unusual acknowledgement to describe the necessity for a certain amount of vanity in an artist’s practice. If we love what we are doing (the ‘other’), at some point we need to tell ourselves that its not a mistake or an accident. Its our job to ‘get it right’. We need to tell ourselves that we ourselves, we the maker, are better than mediocre. Sometimes, whether we are or not.

The idea of “showing off”, as DFW puts it, is that what we do is a reflection of ourselves. We can’t put out stuff we know is crap, if we care, because our vanity usually means more than that. The burden of bringing forth new things into the world is that we do care. We are responsible. And as any parent with their offspring, artists care that what they’ve created is worthy of love. To not care is like a parent not caring about their biological children. Is that the kind of artists we are?

Artists typically want to be good parents. We want our created offspring to flourish, to find joy in the world, to be loved for who and what they are, and we hope that they in turn give joy to the new people in their lives. Its the only way to be an artist who’s not a manipulating miscreant, or someone just gaming the system…. Loving our art and loving ourselves as worthy creators just seems to be naturally intertwined.

Not that we are always duping ourselves, but perhaps a certain amount of unreasonable blindness and incurable fidelity is necessary. To have these hopes for our art we sometimes need to believe that the works are better than they are. That we are better artists than we are. That we are capable of making great difference in the world through our art. And unless we are so far out on the alien cutting edge, chances are there will be some confirmation that what we are adding to the world has a place where it will be cherished and respected. Even if its pots only our parents could love, a fumbled bit of poetry that only that special someone sees as a true gift, or a story told by someone you love and meant just for you….

Creative gestures have an honored place in our world. And so its not surprising that doing creative things makes us feel good about ourselves. The anxiety of getting it wrong is balanced by the chauvinism of getting it right. But sometimes we can go overboard on the bliss and self-satisfaction we feel. Taken too far an artist will imagine they are the gods’ greatest gift, that what they are doing is the best thing since the invention of sliced bread. They puff up with self importance, extolling their ‘leadership’ in the field and how iconic their work is. And maybe its true. But can we carry this self love too far? Is our vanity kept in check by a necessary humility? When does a viable self-love become dangerous narcissism?

Around the same time I first posted the DFW quotation I found this from Anne Lamott, and I felt that somehow they were connected:

“[T]he opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty. Certainty is missing the point entirely. Faith includes noticing the mess, the emptiness and discomfort, and letting it be there until some light returns.”

I take this to include all manifestations of that human temperament. And the line I would draw from these two ideas is that the conviction we have as artistic generators, parents, and practitioners needs to be weighed with the more realistic view that we can always do things better (noticing the mess), that no matter how much we love ourselves and what we are doing, the world always pops up with differing opinions (the emptiness and discomfort), and that our hubris always matters more to ourselves than it does to others. Eventually, we hope, some light returns….

But never the less, sometimes that creator’s fondness is enough. Sometimes its all that matters. As long as its a love for what we are doing, a love for what we’ve made, and not an overblown love for our self-perception and conceit, or infatuation with the imagined status we feel we’ve merited. That way lies an abyss of self-deception…..

We can love ourselves and love our art, but also with humility. A parent trying their best. Not taking the public’s adoration for granted or as expected, but sometimes grateful when it is given, that it is earned rather than our due. We need to have faith in the sense that there is room for the unknown, that there is room for interpretation, and that others may have equally valid yet opposite points of view. If we can have faith in that sense we can learn to love ourselves and what we do without needing to be on the top of the hill. We need to be able to believe that what we do is one right way, and that there are many others. Its not a selfish or self-absorbed love, but a love with an open heart. Can we be artists in that way? Can we love ourselves and others equally?

I’ll leave it to you all to think about…

Peace all!

Make beauty real!

.

Read these other installments on a valentine’s day theme:

The eight faces of clay love – A valentine day’s special

Valentine’s Day special: The Curse of Pablo Picasso

Belated Valentine’s Day Special: Art as a committed relationship, and matchmaking with galleries

About Carter Gillies

I am an active potter and sometime pottery instructor who is fascinated by the philosophical side of making pots, teaching these skills, and issues of the artistic life in general. I seem to have a lot to say on this blog, but I don't insist that I'm right. I'm always trying to figure stuff out, and part of that involves admitting that I am almost always wrong in important ways. If you are up for it, please help me out by steering my thoughts in new and interesting directions. I always appreciate the challenge of learning what other people think.
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