It’s been almost a year since my last published article on here – the Wheel of the Seasons has turned around and here we are already at Beltane; a time of cleansing with fire, of coming back to life, of the balance of light and dark tipping ever more towards the light. A time of freshness, creativity and renewal. I thought it an appropriate time to write somewhat of a meta-post (don’t worry, I won’t make a habit of it) on the artistic or creative process and why it sometimes seems so very difficult.
My last article was ‘Down the Rabbit Hole’ (1); well, I might have fallen down it and got lost for a while. These are my experiences, I hope they resonate with you and maybe even help you on your own artistic path.
Why make art?
Much of our society appears geared towards short-term material gain. In a world of intellectual property rights, deeds of entitlement, money as time and where creating art in order to sell a product can gain you instant financial success compared with the uncertain and often penniless path of creating things simply for the pleasure of creating, is it any wonder that sometimes we may ask Why am I making this art? What purpose does it have? Can I use it in a professional context and if not, should I really be wasting my time on it?
Such questions, though understandable, miss the fundamental aspect of art: that it is absolutely neccessary for our continued existence as humans. We are creative beings; simply by being alive we carry the ability to make and regenerate, as well as the ability to stagnate and destroy. The choice is always ours. The creative process is an aid to so many aspects of our lives. Indeed, John Paul Lederach, founder of the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding at the Eastern Mennonite University (2) writes about how, since making and maintaining peaceful societies is an ongoing process of creativity, one must be in tune with one’s creative drive in order to effectively achieve peace (3). In this sense, art and peace can be seen as inextricably linked; we cannot live in a world which is more or less free of conflict unless we honour and exercise the artist within us.
The Moral Imagination
Who can make art? The answer, of course, is ‘you’; and indeed everyone. Artistic actions are not necessarily measurable and so their effect can often be overlooked. Lederach gives a number of examples of artists responding to times of extreme violence or crisis, and the possible consequences; though these can never truly be known except in the hearts of those who experience them. For instance, the cellist who sat playing in the public square of his town while bombs fell all around him, following the murder of many of his fellow townsfolk who were trying only to buy bread.
As Lederach writes,
“When his spontaneous playing was done, Smailovic discovered that people had gathered to listen near the square… ‘I understood then,’ he wrote, ‘That…music heals, and that this was no longer a personal issue.’ He decided to return to the Bread Massacre Square and play every day for twenty-two days in a row, one day for each person killed in the massacre. Shelling never ceased during those days, but neither did his music.
On one occasion, during a lull in the shelling, a TV news reporter approached the cellist seated in the square and asked, ‘Aren’t you crazy for playing music while they are shelling Sarajevo?’ Smailovic responded, ‘Playing music is not crazy. Why don’t you go ask those people if they are not crazy, shelling Sarajevo while I sit here playing my cello.’” (3)
For Lederach, this story and many other examples are portrayals not only of people using creativity, but of the embodiment of what he calls the “moral imagination”. This is made up of four things, creativity being one of them;
1- Holistic thinking (this could also be equated to ‘permaculture’); an ability to view the holistic web of relationships which make up our experience
2 – A “paradoxical curiosity” about what is possible
3 – Creativity; A “fundamental belief” in the power of art and the creative act
4 – Risk; the willingness to take risks. (3)
The art of falling into a hole
I go into more detail about the moral imagination in my article here (4) and if you are interested in the subject, I strongly recommend that you read Lederach’s book of the same name (3). Right now I want to look at the fourth strand of the moral imagination, that of risk. This can be seen as, in many ways, the most difficult practice of all of them. Artists are kind of risk-takers by nature, in that we journey beyond what has previously been deemed possible, find ways to receive the gifts of what we find there, and bring them back to our respective societies. We walk the “sharpened edge of the razor,” as Joseph Campbell puts it (5).
But sometimes it is easy to slip into the comfort of not taking risks. This comfort could be in the fact that you feel pretty good where you are and do not want to change it. However, it could also be the opposite; that the status quo, however violent, painful or full of suffering it may be, has been going on for so long that you have become used to it, and to change it would be to upset your feeling of security within it. Along with this might be the lure of many artists, the idea that perfection is unachievable and pain is inevitable, which, if taken to unhealthy extremes, could lead to the conception that there is no need to change anything because it is already how it is.
If you keep going with that train of thought, in my experience, it can lead past a balanced view of the holistic equilibrium of life, to a kind of inertia in the face of it, or even an irresistible attraction to that which can be seen as dark and ugly; since that is what we are already accustomed to. As Ursula K. LeGuin put it,
“Only pain is intellectual, only evil interesting. This is the treason of the artist: a refusal to admit the banality of evil and the terrible boredom of pain.” (6)
So how can we step beyond this potential inertia or depression?
“Risk is mystery. It requires a journey. Risk means that we take a step toward and into the unknown.” (3)
The unknown can always be a scary place, but not to go into it willingly and creattively is to somewhat let go of our enthusiam for life.
Lederach writes mainly from his experience of working with people in situations of overt physical violence or conflict, from Sri Lanka to Serbia, Colombia to Northern Ireland, where after over thirty years of “Troubles”, one peace researcher is quoted as saying,
“Violence, fear and division are known. Peace is the mystery! People are frightened of peace. It is simultaneously exciting and fearful. This is mystery. Peace asks a lot of you. It asks you to share memory…it asks you to share the future…It is walking into the unknown.” (3)
Heading into the unknown
I believe that even if you do not live in a society where violence and conflict are overt, Lederach’s work can still be immensely useful and powerful. All violence and conflict can be seen as beginning within each individual human consciousness, and we need to exercise the moral imagination within ourselves in order to then bring it to our communities.
Feeling pain and experiencing violence is part of life. Pretty much every society in this world has some kind of overt or inherent violence to it, and to some extent it can be helpful to accept this since it is how it is. But allowing it to influence our actions just because it has been so for some time is to refuse the call of the artist, which is the call of our own inner voice.
Our art probably can help us in many ways, help us to heal, help us to be happy, help us to gain the resources we need to live. But until we listen to the voice inside us we probably can’t know how; the path of the artist is not really something which can be planned.
Listen to it, follow it, even into mystery and the unknown.
You never know where it might take you.
1. Ashwanden, C, 2017. ‘Down the Rabbit-Hole: Storytelling and its Healing Potential in Modern Society’. Abundance Garden, 20/6/17. https://abundancedancegarden.wordpress.com/2017/06/20/down-the-rabbit-hole/
2. Center for Justice and Peacebuilding, 2018. ‘About CJP’. https://emu.edu/cjp/about/
3. Lederach, J.P, 2005. The Moral Imagination: The Art and Soul of Building Peace. Oxford University Press: Oxford, UK.
4. Ashwanden, C, 2017. ‘Permaculture and Community, part 1: Permaculture as a tool for peace’. Permaculture News, 2/11/17. https://permaculturenews.org/2017/11/02/permaculture-community-part-1-permaculture-tool-peace/
5. Campbell, J, 1959. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Griffin: New York City, USA.
6. LeGuin, UK, 1973. The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas: A Story (A Wind’s Twelve Quarters Story). Harper Perennial: New York City, USA.