|Interior collage vignette by Clive Hicks-Jenkins for Thaliad|
I've been thinking about you and your aspirations as you drift into the world, slipping into a job, finding the time to make your art without someone at your shoulder. You ask for advice, yet always I fear being polonial,* and so needing a good stabbing as I stand behind the arras. And though you must discover your own path and make your own quest, I feel the impulse to warn you against certain beasts along the way. In our age, the barriers to mastery in the arts have become especially powerful and strange. They can lead you in directions that mean the destruction of art--that can cripple your future work at the very start.
I say this in part because you passed through the liberal arts college of the day, and sometimes you have been taught by academics to take angry little hatchets and chop away at the pillars that hold up Western civilization and tradition. (My stance? To teach is a high calling, often fulfilled with grace. But a professor who mocks and throws away the great works of the past is a mere chipmunk digging a hole under the foot of a giant.) Oh, it is good to look with clear eyes at the world and time. But it is wrong to dismantle and trash the glories of a civilization. The truest, strongest art is crafted in the sex-abolishing, race-abolishing spirit, using the tools of the trade.
Take the great works of the past. Make them your own. Know why some matter to you, while others do not, and you will know yourself and your aims better. Know the tradition from which you spring and so be a giant by standing on the shoulders of men and the few women who managed to speak well in spite of the expectations and constraints of their times and culture. Rejoice in the art, rather than dwelling on social critique and conditions as a measure of that art. Conditions and cultural beliefs are not the measure of an art, but part of a complicated soil of time and place from which a work grows and flowers.
Also, sift out and forget any nonsense you were served up in studio or workshop classes--to make art only based on "what you know," "to find your voice," etc. My education taught me that certain words were off limits, that literature was divided into genres and only one was worthwhile, and that I didn't need the ancient tools of my trade inherited from the masters of the past. One of the things I found useful about my education was that it awakened the desire to strive against or test what I had been taught. Question your received ideas, and toss them if they do not serve your art.
Let the art teach you. Know your tools. Remember that the way forward has long been through the tradition and the past. Each time you start a work, you will be starting over. But just make your art. In love. In truth. In grace. You will be making yourself, as well. Each time you begin again, you will be different--bigger on the inside, more emboldened and ready to leap into the unknown with a shout.
Love to you, luck to you--
* Yes, I made that one up. But it's a made-up word I've used for a long time, as Polonius and his advice always come to mind when I am asked for advice. Perhaps in such situations, we are all Polonius, or we are all the grandmother in "A Good Man is Hard to Find," who would have been a good woman--would have spoken only what is true and what matters--if only there had been someone there to shoot her every minute of her life.
Video by Paul Digby.