Art's Mother

The search for a womb

At the end of this month, this publication will come out with its annual "Artists of the Year" issue, a celebration of those industrious souls who, over the past 12 months, have unlocked a myriad of wonders from the right sides of their brains, leaving us all more alive, more alert, and more emotionally connected to our world.

The idea, obviously, is to highlight their efforts, and to show gratitude, support, and encouragement. Keep it coming, the issue will shout. We're out here, listening, watching, appreciating. Don't stop. We need you.

The more strange and uncertain the times, the greater the responsibility an artist bears. We look to them not so much to make sense of it all but to help us feel it in some new way and thereby help us feel more alive in that strangeness and uncertainty. Without them, many of us would find existence mundane if not unbearable.

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Yet in all this year-end recognition, the same nagging question will go unanswered: Where do the artists believe all their stuff comes from? Is the source of the creativity the artist themselves? Or are they merely acting as conduits and editors? In celebrating their art, should we be honoring some unheralded companion force swirling in their midst?

I ask these questions because of the extraordinary number of examples I've come across of late where artists allude to a source of inspiration and creativity operating somewhere outside themselves, a mysterious well they've been allowed to tap.

Greg Brown, a recording artist with St. Paul's Red House Records, wrote these lyrics in a song: "I've sung what I was given, some was good and some was bad. I never did know from where it came."

Why the mystery? Didn't it come from his experience, his probing mind, his work ethic? The ancient Greeks and Romans said no. These cultures attributed wisdom and artistic creativity to a spiritual force operating outside human activity. Socrates himself accepted this and said he had simply connected to a voice that spoke to him "from afar."

Is this what songwriter John Prine means when he says he shouldn't be given writing credits for any of his recordings?

"I don't know where my songs come from," Prine says. "I'm just some court stenographer. The credits should read 'Written down by John Prine.'"

In his book Genius and Heroin, Michael Largo writes, "Many creative people throughout history explained the indefinable rationale behind inspiration as an entity invading from some outside source.... The etymology of 'genius' traces it to a Latin word that explained how a person came to an original or innovative idea. It was used to describe how a person was possessed by a spirit, or geni."

Even that can be too much information for some. Songwriter Judy Collins said, "I don't know where my songs come from. If I knew I'd know too much. More than we are allowed on this plane."

Clearly some artists sense a mysterious force at work, one we can't fully understand or, for that matter, name.

Author Barbara Holmes is another who's well aware of the mystery. "Strange as it sounds," she says, "I don't know where my ideas come from. But I receive them as gifts fully packaged."

The notion of the gift arriving fully packaged is not uncommon. Playwright Elmer Rice has said that his play The Adding Machine came to him "all at once, complete," without a need for editing.

"It simply popped into my head already finished," he wrote. "Title, characters, scenes, dialogue. It just appeared to me. It was a rather startling experience."

What on earth is going on here, and should our celebration of art hold up this rather moving and wondrous mystery as deserving equal billing?

Literary scholar James Peacock may think so. After interviewing writers for years, trying to better understand their craft, he grew frustrated at the way they distanced themselves from their work. "It served to amplify the feeling that all my research, all my knowledge was to no avail, that there was some mysterious writerly realm from which profound ideas and perfectly formed sentences spontaneously emerge."

The European Moderns that Jackson Pollack admired so much would have pulled me aside and said it's not that complicated, my friend. All great art simply draws from the unconscious realm. One must merely be open to it and be prepared with the skills necessary to follow directions.

Give it whatever name you like. It should be on the cover of our year-end issue as sure as any guitar, pen, paintbrush, or human hand.

 
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