Sweep Mud in the Street: The Artist and His Un-Artistic Life

"Go to your cell, and your cell will teach you everything."
~Desert Fathers

"I would like to probe a bit into the act of writing as it relates to daily life.  Is there a value in mundane life for the work of the artist? How can the writer in the romantic ideal combine the demands of daily life: family, bills, housework, and physical labor with the dramatic aloneness of the writing life?"

"He whispered something to the clockwork bird, words that coursed through his blood as he spoke, that throbbed on his breath like fire."
~Mr. Pond

If any of you know of an artist who manages to escape the mundane life and everyday labor entirely, let me know. I figure I lose myself in the romantic ideal of creative work as often as anyone, yet I am responsible to a husband and house and garden and church and family—all of which require me to get my head out of the clouds now and again.

Masha claims that regular non-writing work is important to the writer:
I am very much convinced that daily chores are a grounding, inspiring, and essential aspect of my own creative process.... Ora et Labora, the blessings of balance. It is what the Romantics lack, balance, aching muscles, roots, and the soothing resistance of bread dough. Not everyone is suited to physical labor, but the presence of mundane tasks is an essential to creative wholeness.
Or, one might say, as in Ecclesiastes: "Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh." (ESV)

Mr. Pond decided he'd said all he could say about artistic solitude and community and all that what-not in a story called Ragabone, which I highly encourage everyone to read. It's a beautiful tale, and speaks greatly to the idea of the isolated artist living his true calling surrounded by community.

Every artist must work out the balance between his creative work and the rest of his life. Very few of us earn our bread and housekeeping by art alone, so the tension is constant. Art expands to fill all available space, my artist mother often says. That's true mentally as well as physically, so art, in its attempt to claim the artist's time and energy, battles day job and family and social demands and hunting for food and managing the mess of living.

Perhaps no two artists handle it the same way. Masha says that her "best writing came during a time I spent working long hours at a dairy farm" with long hours of physical work. Contra that, my own outdoorsy years were those in which I wrote less than at any other time in my life; these past three years have been my most productive as a writer, and I've barely moved off the couch and out from under the laptop. Not that that's healthy, mind. But it's hard to convince myself to move about when the words are coming.

That said, a regular dose of manual labor is good for the writer. I am grateful for my garden, which gives my mind and eyes a break and the rest of my body some honest-to-goodness work. Devotion helps, too. It nearly always requires me to fight the flow of artistic thought in order to concentrate on reverence, but it offers both discipline and inspiration. Likewise, family and friends keep the artist—this one, at least—human and grounded.

There's also Louisa May Alcott's point that we're better off sweeping mud in the street than wasting time creating poor or damaging art. I'm not speaking of the failures that are naturally part of practice and work, nor of the simple mistake, but of dishonest art: art that by intention is morally or technically sloppy. A moral agenda may be a bad thing for art, but so is an attempt to excite humanity's weakness for mere gratification in defiance of conscience. Alcott's Professor Bhaer is right overall (regardless of whether he's correct about whisky or sensation stories): there is a demand for many things which are unwholesome, and the temptation to supply such things is always present. By common wisdom, honest, mundane ora et labora are the natural antidotes to that disease.

I believe Masha and Mr. Pond are both more right than may appear. The artist must have time alone, time devoted solely to art; yet he must spend some time involved in reality and among others, where hard work strengthens the body and clears the mind, and common sense and principle return in the presence of common conversation and everyday human need.

The stabilizing powers are not mundanity's only gift to the artist, however. Whatever his life beyond art happens to be—the people he knows and loves and struggles with, the daily labors in which he partakes, his beliefs and rituals, his everyday and earth-shattering moments—that life gives him the content for his work. Not necessarily subject matter, but experience, the experience that is necessary for the creation of good art.

1 comment:

  1. Ooh.. very nice!

    And I like Alcott's idea that it's better to not create damaged or damaging art..I like it a lot! A beautiful tying together of the talk of daily things.


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