Lest He be Wise in His Own Conceit: The Artist, Agenda, and Self-Love


"God and other artists are always a little obscure."
~Oscar Wilde

Many good writers fall into the trap of agendas... Is it because they forget to hear the world around them?

Between the polarization of American society and the vast echo chambers we build for ourselves, there's nothing easier than forgetting to hear the world around us. Everybody does it; it's only human, especially when stepping outside our own comfortable exchange of ideas means hearing ourselves belittled and demeaned, sometimes fairly, but sometimes most unfairly. The real wonder is that anyone ever does speak with artistic empathy.

Masha continues our discussion on agenda and the artist this week, making the point that:
Most of us are passionate believers in something, hoping to share the good news that lifts us up with the world. To write without agenda, I suppose the vision must be to share the goodness first and foremost, leaving the news to be discovered by those willing to dig for it...
Mr. Pond separates the artist and his ideals by another step:
A story is its own word. I might know how it works, and I certainly think we have a responsibility to learn how to let a story speak clearly. But the story isn’t necessarily connected with any outside goodness or ideal or belief. It’s just itself. It just is.
I found myself sympathizing strongly with parts of both of these statements. The disclaimers are as follows: 1) I get so exhausted by rhetoric and advertising that, honestly, the idea of "sharing good news" is depressingly unmotivating, and 2) so much of myself goes into a story that I can't imagine its being completely unconnected from the ideals and beliefs and goodnesses I admire.

To counter that, though, I love the idea Masha expresses of sharing "the goodness first and foremost, leaving the news to be discovered by those willing to dig for it." As per Wilde, a little obscuration is very much part of artistic rendering.

Likewise, the qualifying 'necessarily' makes Mr. Pond's statement something I can wholeheartedly agree with. Such connections as he describes can happen organically, rising from the very nature of the story—which, admittedly, comes from the nature of the writer. If the writer feels the need to insist upon the connection, however, he might want to question whether he's being honest in his art.

But now I've been talking about ourselves getting into our own tales, and that takes me straight to one of the quotes Masha put forward for our consideration:
"Love the art in yourself, not yourself in the art." ~Konstantin Stanislavsky
We artists are a narcissistic bunch, and whether we agree with Gn. Stanislavsky or oppose him—at least as he's aphoristically quoted here—it doesn't seem to me that we're progressing past that tendency. Granted, a little narcissism seems necessary to the artist. It takes great self-importance to believe that one's own words are worth reading; that, for instance, anyone has the slightest reason to trouble their time over a two-bit blog published four times a week by a nobody. Much less a novel, an art form to which many are called, but few are chosen, and even fewer run the race in such a way as to win the crown.

I'll stop mixing Biblical metaphors now. Anyway, my instinctive response to that quote is to say—well, why? Why is it better to love my own ability to write than to love the wisps of authorial spirit and image that breathe life into a story, that make the characters sons and daughters to me? When I look at my own heart, the latter narcissism seems quite harmless compared to the former, and is probably far less likely to seduce me into didacticism.

Perhaps that isn't what the good thespian meant, of course. I'm working from the quote without context, and may be representing his words unfairly.

Either way, my ideal answer to the problem of agenda and the artist hasn't changed from last week. Submitting ego to charity, to the ability to love that which is good in all things—even in our enemies—this is our empathy. This is our humanity. This is our work of art.


  1. First, I must strongly speak out against the suggestion that this is a "two-bit blog published four times a week by a nobody"!! This is, Jenna, an utterly thought-provoking blog by a lovely somebody! :o)

    Okay, now that that's out of the way, I don't have much time (and there's much to reflect on in your post), but for now I'd like to say that one needs to have at least a healthy self-love (in Aristotle's sense) in order to pursue projects. This is not at all the same as narcissism, which to me connotes being taken with the superficial and oozing "look at me, me, me--ain't I all that and a bag of chips." An artist (or any creator) with a strong sense of self and good self-love doesn't stoop to such hoo-hah. Instead, she lights up the page and the lives of those around her with sharing thoughts about good things, wonder at mystery, and profound sadness at life's heartaches. It's a deep self connected with things and people outside her, but also of her. Creations that come out of this place skirt the agenda issue and allow Art to surface (with whatever insights and lessons might come in its wake)--so I guess that I'm underscoring at least elements of your last paragraph.

    1. Awww. Thanks. :)

      Good thoughts. That's an interesting distinction between healthy self-love and narcissism, which I think--for me at least--is difficult to distinguish from the inside, as it were. But yeah, I resonate with your point, and it certainly touches the ideas in the last paragraph.


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