Artistic Desire, Artistic Torment

So my friend wrote a comment on my post entitled “An Artist’s Prayer” that read something like this: “How do you know the difference between artistic desire and artistic torment? It seems one and the same some days.”

Honestly, I’m not sure what she meant in asking the question, but given my mood today, it seemed like a decent place to jump off into some words.

Take off the modifier “artistic” and what you are left with are two states of being…desire and torment.   Indeed, they do seem one and the same many days.   Buddhism holds that desire is one of the chief sources of suffering (or torment, as my friend put it).   The Bible holds that there are two different kinds of desire: evil desires, and by implication, good desires.  (The Apostle James says that we sin when we are tempted by evil desires, and the Psalmist says to take delight in the Lord and he will give us the desires of our hearts.)  So it seems in Judeo-Christian thinking, desire is a given, and the choice is in what to desire.   Lao Tze, according to this website, says, “Freed from desire, you can see the hidden mystery. By having desire, you can only see what is visibly real.”    Again, desire seems to be a blinder preventing us from seeing the reality that runs deeper than surfaces.   Hinduism, on the other hand, according to this source, sees the path of desire as a legitimate path to life, and asserts there is nothing to be gained by repressing desires for both pleasure and success.

It seems hardly arguable that while some desires are good and noble, there are desires to avoid, and that the very nature of what is considered “temptation” arises from desire.  On the other hand, even what appear to be “good’ desires can be deceiving, blinding us to deeper and “more excellent” ways.

Just now, the image of an artist sitting quietly before her material comes to me.  The tormented artist seems to be at odds with the material, unable to make it bend to her will.   Imagining “mastery” to mean that she can make the material do her bidding, so that her artistic conception will arise and exhibit itself just as she imagines it, she chafes when the material stays true to its own nature, disregarding the artist’s wish that the material move against its nature in order to fulfill her desire.  Over and over, the artist rains blows on the material, or claws away at it, swearing and cursing, as if to bludgeon her way to beauty.   Tormented, she finally stops in exhaustion, and gives herself to despair over a simple truth she might have easily understood in the beginning.   Mastery will never mean violating the nature of the material at hand, be it clay, words, or human nature.   Mastery will mean humbly learning the properties of the material and working to draw out its best and finest qualities, qualities that existed long before the artist arrived on the scene, qualities that will exist long after the artist is gone.

The hopeful, untormented artist is focused on the dance to which her idea invites the material.   She engages the material, learns of it over long periods of work, settling into the simply rhythms of daily artistic chores; showing up, carving, shaping, setting out rhythms, letting go of mistakes and old ignorance according to what the material is teaching today.   She remembers the sculptor’s remark that he’s simply removing the excess from the forms that are already present in the stone, and she leans toward her material and idea with all her intuitive and sensory understanding, and seeks the patterns suggesting themselves.   To change metaphors, she trusts the winds in her sails, touching the rudder when she must, and allows her desires to rise according to the rhythms, shapes, and sizes of the swells in which she finds herself.    Perhaps the long view was the desire to sail the world, eager for a quality of experience that suggested itself to her as she stood on the shore watching the tides, but now, in the midst of the sea, she will find torment only if she curses the winds and oceans for being what they are, true to their nature.    She will find joy and good work if she stays true to what the nature of the material is revealing to her, even if in the end, the reality of the sea overwhelms her.   Easy enough to say, but in the end, doesn’t the very nature of life overwhelm us all?

Lots of associated images flooding in now, far too many too capture.  But there’s something here of the ease that comes with full commitment, and the faith that the material at hand will dance with you if you pay enough attention, approach it with enough humility, and keep showing up.

There’s also something here of the will of God, it’s arising from the very nature of things, and the possibility that obedience is more elegant dance than spirit breaking subservience.

Charity, thanks for asking the question.

It saved me a little this morning…

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