Going Through: Surviving the Swamplands of the Artistic Journey

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Surviving the Swamplands of the Artistic Journey

“Truth is always on the side of the more difficult.” – Friedrich Nietzche

Not too far from the small town where I grew up in northwest Louisiana, there is a long stretch of swamplands called, graphically enough, “Black Lake Swamp.”

There is a paved highway with bridges that runs right through the heart of the vast wetlands.   And if you ever saw the movie Steel Magnolias and remember the scene where Sally Fields takes a long drive at sunset after her daughter’s (Julia Roberts) death, then you’ve seen this exact place.

It is interesting to drive through such muck on a paved road, but no one I know would like to live there.

Re-Imagining Ourselves in the Artistic Journey

The artistic journey is a labyrinth that leads only into a conundrum at best. There are no comforting explanations. The way is often unclear.

And the point is that we have no choice but to be pulled into these swamplands of the artistic journey, and repeatedly.  We would like to believe that if we live with high moral purpose we will be exempt.  But remember Job and the message of Ecclesiastes.  There is no moral contract which we are able to strike with the universe.

The great rhythms of nature, of time and tide, of fate and destiny, and our own psyche, move their powerful ways quite outside our will.

And while it might be terrible to have to wade alone into the quagmire, that is where we as artists might find ourselves often, so it is no time to try to scamper back, or freeze mid-transit. We are out there in the muck whether we wish it or not.

We were put there.  As Pascal wrote, “It is not a matter of deciding whether or not to set sail; we are already launched.”

So we are forced into a difficult choice. If we move forward and out into the creative world toward the “side of the more difficult,” as our soul insists, we will be flooded with anxiety.

If we do not move forward, we will suffer the depression, the pressing down of the soul’s purpose. Hardly a pretty choice. But it is a choice that each artist makes, consciously or not, virtually every moment.

In such a difficult choice, we must choose anxiety, for anxiety at least is a path of potential growth; depression is a stagnation and defeat of life.

Going Through

There is an incredible sweetness that comes to those who have “gone through,” though you could not begin to imagine such a thing while enduring the torments of Hell.

Thomas Yeats, aging and in poor health, surveys the turbulent course of his artistic life and in 1929 concludes:

We must laugh and we must sing,
We are blest by everything,
Everything we look upon is blest.

These lines are from “A Dialogue of Self and Soul,” in Selected Poems and Two Plays. They come at the end of a long text which acknowledges the defeats, disappointments and losses of Yeats’s life.

No shallow optimism there, only the deepened wisdom of a person who spent much of his life in the swamplands of his own personal artistic journey. And from that material forged his life and art.

Yeats would have preferred certainties but found only fragments, disappointments, but most of all the need to find his own truth.

Like us all, he would have preferred to be given the big picture clearly, coherently and quickly.  But he had to painfully piece things together over decades.

The Blur and Blot of the Artistic Journey

We never achieve final certainty, never see the whole picture, never arrive at the sun-lit meadow.  We see through the glass darkly, see bits and pieces only.

And so for all of its transcendent mystery and beauty, the life of an artist is also a blur and a blot.

We never see it clearly. We never get it right; we never get it fixed; we never get it finished. Only now and then are there moments of purpose, of clarity, of meaning.  For surely we are not gods.

Comments

  1. Gary, you are so right about this. I think part if it is what makes us artists in the first place: we feel more, which enables us to express more. We feel the dark as well as the light.

  2. This is brilliant, Gary. Thank you.

  3. Another take on all this would be for the highly successful artist who makes it huge in the art world, with all the riches, influence and fame that come along with it and the ‘swamp’ that can turn into as well. For most of us who are on the struggle side of it all, what you say here is a given but for the big names with the fat bank accounts and major shows at major galleries it applies too, for different reasons. The constant pressure to match or better their last works, the constant scrutiny of the art press and the ugliness of other artists being jealous and resentful of your noteriety.

  4. Wow, this is powerful and poetic. I needed to read this today. Thanks Gary

  5. Gary, this is a piece of writing that encourages when one is on doubt and feeling anxious. I feel now it is OK to feel anxiety as long as one does not slip into the state of depression.While artists make money from their art, my unique idea that seeks the resources of art to do damage to the tobacco industry, does not make any- it costs everytime a submission goes on to the site. I tell myself it is worth it and each day put one foot in front of the other and keep plodding on. When I think about it, I jolly well feel it is the best business idea of the 21st century. One day down the track, pray it will make some money and keep me from penury

  6. I certainly recognise what you describe here so vividly. But I don’t think we are so different from people in many other careers and jobs – especially the Vocational ones like nursing or Building. It is our job to speak for every-one else, we need to relate to them. Half our problems are not recognising that our business needs are the same as any Sole-Trader.But I wonder if others feel they can change jobs if needs be with nothing lost, no shame or pain apart from wasting hard -won skills. I know many Artists who seem to feel they are ‘betraying’ some thing if they change their job. I don’t believe in destiny or fate ; I think DNA ,inherited memory and collective consciousness (Biological,not in a spiritual way) play a strong role. Perhaps we are just obsessive!? I’m not going to fight it , anyway!
    ps; I am a grateful fan of yours – I always get something from your excellent news-letter.

    • Gary Bolyer says:

      Hi Rebecca,
      Thank you so much for your comments here. Carl Jung believed that creative people must follow an inner voice, that they are not free. I believe that artists are born and not created by their environment. The spiritual plays a more important role than the biological. Thanks again.

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