April 24, 2011

The Conflicted Artist

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The artistic mind seems to be defined by its ability to “live in the moment”: to be so directly connected to sensation, so capable of vivid contemplation, so in tune with one’s own emotive forces, that they are able to experience their reality of self in a totally unmediated form — they become able to touch their own being in a relatively unextended manner. The key to this experience is the psychological occupation of the present moment. It cannot occur in retrospection or anticipation, it cannot rely on memory or habit or expectation or construction — for such mechanisms would constitute mediation, and such an encounter would be indirect and deliberate. This is surely not the type of experience an artist strives for. Admittedly, this artistic ideal is not always directly relevant to the art being produced, but surely in self-reflection the artist’s aim is still to pinpoint and describe an “in the moment,” unmediated, unmuddled experience, and thus the moment is, nonetheless, the focus.

But it seems, that although the artistic mind has been historically revered, there exists a similarly cherished yet counteractive ideal, which, if given priority can come to extinguish any existential effort of the artistic mind. This ideal is consistency of person: the ability to act, think, consent and dissent the same today as you will tomorrow, and thus exhibit a pure-mindedness, a solidity, a reliability. Consistency suggests trustworthiness: a character trait that has been forever revered and also possesses practical importance. A trusting relationship is a more functional relationship. It also precludes artificiality: in dealing with a consistent person, there is no fear that they would be acting, consenting and dissenting differently in another scenario, surrounded by other attitudes and beliefs. And so, consistency of person is a trait that the individual is expected to aspire to.

The artistic ideal of the intimate encounter with the present is defined more by what it lacks than what it possesses. All that could intrude upon an existential experience must be shunned, leaving only the artist, and the moment … or perhaps, just the moment. Yes, just the moment. At the mercy of an existential and passive encounter with their own sentience, the ideal artistic experience does not consider the artist — how could it? To consider the self would be to consider a memory of a former being or an anticipation of a future being, and this would be a defeating distraction. To silence the bombarding noise of what has been, and what may come to be — this is at the heart of the artistic encounter.

The trouble with this dichotomy is the antagonistic nature of the artistic ideal and the ideal of consistency; aspiring simultaneously to the two ideals will result in obvious confliction. And if the artist resorts to a “turning on” and “turning off” of their aspirations to the two ideals, they are directly violating the ideal of consistency. It seems this opposition of ideals has the capacity to implicitly fuel confliction for an individual that aspires to the personal ideal of the artist, as well as the sociological ideal of consistency. If social consistency is prioritized, artistic capacity will be unavoidably subverted. If the artistic ideal is prioritized, the individual runs the risk of social inconsistency, self-contradiction and accusations of hypocrisy, which result when the social perception is that an individual’s reaction to one of their isolated “moments” isn’t aligned with their reaction to other, necessarily detached “moments.”

The “conflicted artist,” a concept that has become somewhat of a cliché, is not always merely a product of a complex introspection, coincidence or the individual’s deliberate façade. Instead, it can be a product of two antagonistic ideals: one internally motivated and one imposed by social expectation. For commercial and non-commercial artists alike, a decision must be made concerning the relative importance of being true to the moment and staying true to a former self and the side on which an individual lands can come to define their art and their person.

Original Author: Nathan Tailleur