Brain Pickings

James Baldwin on the Creative Process and the Artist’s Responsibility to Society

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“A society must assume that it is stable, but the artist must know, and he must let us know, that there is nothing stable under heaven.”

“The sole purpose of human existence,” Carl Jung wrote in his reflections of life and death in 1957, “is to kindle a light in the darkness of mere being.” Five years later, in one of his least well-known but most enchanting works, the great novelist, playwright, poet, essayist, and cultural critic James Baldwin argued for this existential kindling of light as the sole purpose of the artist’s life.

In a 1962 essay titled “The Creative Process,” found in the altogether fantastic anthology The Price of the Ticket: Collected Nonfiction (public library), Baldwin lays out a manifesto of sorts, nuanced and dimensional yet exploding with clarity of conviction, for the trying but vital responsibility that artists, “a breed of men and women historically despised while living and acclaimed when safely dead,” have to their society.

Baldwin, only thirty-eight at the time, writes:

Perhaps the primary distinction of the artist is that he must actively cultivate that state which most men, necessarily, must avoid; the state of being alone. That all men are, when the chips are down, alone, is a banality — a banality because it is very frequently stated, but very rarely, on the evidence, believed. Most of us are not compelled to linger with the knowledge of our aloneness, for it is a knowledge that can paralyze all action in this world. There are, forever, swamps to be drained, cities to be created, mines to be exploited, children to be fed. None of these things can be done alone. But the conquest of the physical world is not man’s only duty. He is also enjoined to conquer the great wilderness of himself. The precise role of the artist, then, is to illuminate that darkness, blaze roads through that vast forest, so that we will not, in all our doing, lose sight of its purpose, which is, after all, to make the world a more human dwelling place.

But unlike David Foster Wallace’s heartbreaking and rather matter-of-fact observation — “I’m going to die, and die very much alone, and the rest of the world is going to go merrily on without me.” — Baldwin is careful to point out that this ideal aloneness is not a state of nihilistic resignation but a prerequisite for realizing and inhabiting one’s true identity, rather than donning an identity inherited from society like a traditional costume:

The state of being alone is not meant to bring to mind merely a rustic musing beside some silver lake. The aloneness of which I speak is much more like the aloneness of birth or death. It is like the fearless alone that one sees in the eyes of someone who is suffering, whom we cannot help. Or it is like the aloneness of love, the force and mystery that so many have extolled and so many have cursed, but which no one has ever understood or ever really been able to control. I put the matter this way, not out of any desire to create pity for the artist — God forbid! — but to suggest how nearly, after all, is his state the state of everyone, and in an attempt to make vivid his endeavor. The state of birth, suffering, love, and death are extreme states — extreme, universal, and inescapable. We all know this, but we would rather not know it. The artist is present to correct the delusions to which we fall prey in our attempts to avoid this knowledge.

It is for this reason that all societies have battled with the incorrigible disturber of the peace — the artist. I doubt that future societies will get on with him any better. The entire purpose of society is to create a bulwark against the inner and the outer chaos, in order to make life bearable and to keep the human race alive. And it is absolutely inevitable that when a tradition has been evolved, whatever the tradition is, the people, in general, will suppose it to have existed from before the beginning of time and will be most unwilling and indeed unable to conceive of any changes in it. They do not know how they will live without those traditions that have given them their identity. Their reaction, when it is suggested that they can or that they must, is panic… And a higher level of consciousness among the people is the only hope we have, now or in the future, of minimizing human damage.

Illustration by Lisbeth Zwerger for 'The Wizard of Oz.' Click image for more.

In a sentiment that Jeanette Winterson would come to echo decades later — “Art … says, don’t accept things for their face value; you don’t have to go along with any of this; you can think for yourself.” — Baldwin considers the unique position of the artist as a challenger of society’s protective delusions:

The artist is distinguished from all other responsible actors in society — the politicians, legislators, educators, and scientists — by the fact that he is his own test tube, his own laboratory, working according to very rigorous rules, however unstated these may be, and cannot allow any consideration to supersede his responsibility to reveal all that he can possibly discover concerning the mystery of the human being. Society must accept some things as real; but he must always know that visible reality hides a deeper one, and that all our action and achievement rest on things unseen. A society must assume that it is stable, but the artist must know, and he must let us know, that there is nothing stable under heaven. One cannot possibly build a school, teach a child, or drive a car without taking some things for granted. The artist cannot and must not take anything for granted, but must drive to the heart of every answer and expose the question the answer hides.

But the artist’s responsibility to society springs from the artist’s responsibility to him- or herself. Reflecting on the monumental challenge of self-awareness and the notion that “we hardly know our own depths,” Baldwin considers the elusive art of knowing ourselves, which we often evade by seeking to know others instead:

Anyone who has ever been compelled to think about it — anyone, for example, who has ever been in love — knows that the one face that one can never see is one’s own face. One’s lover — or one’s brother, or one’s enemy — sees the face you wear, and this face can elicit the most extraordinary reactions. We do the things we do and feel what we feel essentially because we must — we are responsible for our actions, but we rarely understand them. It goes without saying, I believe, that if we understood ourselves better, we would damage ourselves less. But the barrier between oneself and one’s knowledge of oneself is high indeed. There are so many things one would rather not know! We become social creatures because we cannot live any other way. But in order to become social, there are a great many other things that we must not become, and we are frightened, all of us, of these forces within us that perpetually menace our precarious security. Yet the forces are there: we cannot will them away. All we can do is learn to live with them. And we cannot learn this unless we are willing to tell the truth about ourselves, and the truth about us is always at variance with what we wish to be. The human effort is to bring these two realities into a relationship resembling reconciliation.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from 'Open House for Butterflies' by Ruth Krauss. Click image for more.

His words ring with double poignancy, for Baldwin — a queer Black man — came of age decades before the marriage equality movement and penned this essay a year before the March of Washington, at which Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech. Echoing throughout his manifesto for artists is Baldwin’s clarion call for acceptance of all who appear dissonant with society’s forces, for granting equal dignity to the human experience in all of its manifestations:

The human beings whom we respect the most, after all — and sometimes fear the most — are those who are most deeply involved in this delicate and strenuous effort, for they have the unshakable authority that comes only from having looked on and endured and survived the worst. That nation is healthiest which has the least necessity to distrust or ostracize these people — whom, as I say, honor, once they are gone, because somewhere in our hearts we know that we cannot live without them.

Baldwin closes by reflecting on this relationship between the artist and the nation, specifically in the context of American history. In a sentiment that calls to mind Susan Sontag on courage and resistance, he appeals to the artist’s most crucial, most challenging responsibility to culture:

In the same way that to become a social human being one modifies and suppresses and, ultimately, without great courage, lies to oneself about all one’s interior, uncharted chaos, so have we, as a nation, modified or suppressed and lied about all the darker forces in our history.

[...]

Societies never know it, but the war of an artist with his society is a lover’s war, and he does, at his best, what lovers do, which is to reveal the beloved to himself and, with that revelation, to make freedom real.

The remaining essays in The Price of the Ticket: Collected Nonfiction explore, with the same blend of intellectual vigor and social sensitivity, subjects like power, protest, equality, patriotism, and the value of indignation. Complement this particular essay with Joseph Conrad on writing and the role of the artist.

Thanks, Morley

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Inside, Outside, Upside-Down: A Sweet Children’s Book About Understanding the World Through Relative Positions

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A gentle reminder that everything is a matter of perspective.

It’s hard enough for grown-ups to grasp that distances shape how we relate to the world, so how is a child to comprehend the importance of positional relationships in making sense of the world? In Inside, Outside, Upside Down (public library) — not to be confused with Upside Down Day, the curious 1968 gem by NASA’s head of publicity — British illustrator and animator Yasmeen Ismail offers young minds a primer on relational aesthetics in the form of a playful activity-book.

Beneath the simple line drawings and primary colors lies a more subtle message that understanding the world is about understanding everything in relation to everything else — about, to borrow Henry Miller’s perceptive formulation of the art of living, how we orient ourselves to it — and, most of all, that everything is a matter of perspective.

Complement Inside, Outside, Upside Down with French graphic designer Janik Coat’s Hippopposites, a minimalist primer on aesthetic opposites.

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Why the Sky and the Ocean Are Blue: The Color of Distance and Desire

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“Something is always far away… After all we hardly know our own depths.”

“To see the Earth as it truly is, small and blue and beautiful in that eternal silence where it floats,” the poet Archibald MacLeish wrote after Apollo 8′s legendary “Earthrise” photograph made its debut in 1968, “is to see ourselves as riders on the Earth together, brothers on that bright loveliness in the eternal cold…” Its unprecedented perspective of distance seemed, paradoxically enough, to bring us earthlings closer together, to desire connection to one another more strongly than ever before. Nearly three decades earlier, Simone Weil touched on another aspect of this paradoxical relationship between spatial remoteness and emotional closeness when she wrote in a letter to a friend: “Let us love this distance, which is thoroughly woven with friendship, since those who do not love each other are not separated.” So much of “the aggregate of our joy and suffering” that takes place on our Pale Blue Dot seems to stem from this eternal tug-of-war between distance and desire.

In A Field Guide to Getting Lost (public library) — that sublime meditation on how we find ourselves in the unknownRebecca Solnit examines the color blue and its relationship to desire in an exquisite essay that begins with the scientific and blossoms into the poetic:

The world is blue at its edges and in its depths. This blue is the light that got lost. Light at the blue end of the spectrum does not travel the whole distance from the sun to us. It disperses among the molecules of the air, it scatters in water. Water is colorless, shallow water appears to be the color of whatever lies underneath it, but deep water is full of this scattered light, the purer the water the deeper the blue. The sky is blue for the same reason, but the blue at the horizon, the blue of land that seems to be dissolving into the sky, is a deeper, dreamier, melancholy blue, the blue at the farthest reaches of the places where you see for miles, the blue of distance. This light that does not touch us, does not travel the whole distance, the light that gets lost, gives us the beauty of the world, so much of which is in the color blue.

For many years, I have been moved by the blue at the far edge of what can be seen, that color of horizons, of remote mountain ranges, of anything far away. The color of that distance is the color of an emotion, the color of solitude and of desire, the color of there seen from here, the color of where you are not. And the color of where you can never go. For the blue is not in the place those miles away at the horizon, but in the atmospheric distance between you and the mountains.

Trampolining off former U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Hass‘s memorable formulation that “desire is full of endless distances,” Solnit dives into the pooling of the physical and the metaphysical:

Blue is the color of longing for the distances you never arrive in, for the blue world.

This relationship between desire and distance, Solnit argues in one of the most poignant passages in this altogether brilliant book, is also the root of our deep-seated unease with desire — a state we approach with a single-minded quest for its eradication. We seek to demolish it either with grasping action, through consummation, or with restless resistance, through denial and suppression. We can’t, it seems, just be with desire — bear witness to it, inhabit it fully, approach it with what John Keats memorably termed “negative capability.” With extraordinary elegance and sensitivity, Solnit offers a remedy for this chronic anxiety:

We treat desire as a problem to be solved, address what desire is for and focus on that something and how to acquire it rather than on the nature and the sensation of desire, though often it is the distance between us and the object of desire that fills the space in between with the blue of longing. I wonder sometimes whether with a slight adjustment of perspective it could be cherished as a sensation on its own terms, since it is as inherent to the human condition as blue is to distance? If you can look across the distance without wanting to close it up, if you can own your longing in the same way that you own the beauty of that blue that can never be possessed? For something of this longing will, like the blue of distance, only be relocated, not assuaged, by acquisition and arrival, just as the mountains cease to be blue when you arrive among them and the blue instead tints the next beyond. Somewhere in this is the mystery of why tragedies are more beautiful than comedies and why we take a huge pleasure in the sadness of certain songs and stories. Something is always far away.

Playing off Simone Weil’s bittersweet paean to distance and separation, Solnit writes:

The far seeps in even to the nearest. After all we hardly know our own depths.

Artwork from Ralph Steadman's illustrated biography of Leonardo. Click image for more.

Blue, it turns out, has long been used as a symbolic demarcation of distance. Solnit cites Leonardo da Vinci’s philosophy on painting buildings:

To make one appear more distant than another, you should represent the air as rather dense. Therefore make the first building . . . of its own color; the next most distant make less outlined and more blue; that which you wish to show at yet another distance, make bluer yet again; and that which is five times more distant make five times more blue.

Solnit considers the role of temporal and psychological distance in the architecture of memory — that singular human faculty that keeps the horizons of our lived experience, however distant and blurry, in sight — by recounting the disintegration of a vivid childhood memory:

When I was two, we lived in Lima, Peru, for a year, and all of us, mother, father, brothers, and I, went up into the Andes once, and then sailed across Lake Titicaca, from Peru to Bolivia. Lake Titicaca, one of those high-altitude lakes, Tahoe, Como, Constance, Atitlán, like blue eyes staring back at the blue sky.

One day a few years ago my mother took out of her cedar chest the turquoise blouse she bought for me on that trip to Bolivia, a miniature of the native women’s outfits. When she unfolded the little garment and gave it to me, the living memory of wearing the garment collided shockingly with the fact that it was so tiny, with arms less than a foot long, with a tiny bodice for a small cricket cage of a ribcage that was no longer mine, and the shock was that my vivid memory included what it felt like to be inside that brocade shirt but not the fact that inside it I had been so diminutive, had been something utterly other than my adult self who remembered. The continuity of memory did not measure the abyss between a toddler’s body and a woman’s.

When I recovered the blouse, I lost the memory, for the two were irreconcilable. It vanished in an instant, and I saw it go… Sometimes gaining and losing are more intimately related than we like to think. And some things cannot be moved or owned. Some light does not make it all the way through the atmosphere, but scatters.

Solnit closes with a return to the overpowering duality of distance, at once destructive and generative:

The blue of distance comes with time, with the discovery of melancholy, of loss, the texture of longing, of the complexity of the terrain we traverse, and with the years of travel. If sorrow and beauty are all tied up together, then perhaps maturity brings with it not … abstraction, but an aesthetic sense that partially redeems the losses time brings and finds beauty in the faraway.

[...]

Some things we have only as long as they remain lost, some things are not lost only so long as they are distant.

A Field Guide to Getting Lost is spectacular in its entirety and remains one of the best books I’ve ever devoured.

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