Exploring issues of sustainability in the arts.
–by Scott Pinkmountain
Part 1: Do
The most important thing is that you do. Everything will evolve from the doing. When you start, maybe there’s one question. It doesn’t have to be too big – an “Is there a god?” type thing. In fact, it’s better if it’s not too big, though of course it needs to be big enough. Open. Flexible. Most of all, genuine. You have to not know the answer, or sincerely believe you don’t. If you have one good question, it will generate others, but only if you do.
It’s also important that you not worry about doing well. Quality will suffer from overt desire. What will enable quality is the parallel development of two functional identity states. One is the generator, the maker, the improviser. The other is the critic, the editor, the composer. In order to achieve quality, they must be kept distinct. Their separation is what makes this path so difficult. But without the separation in place, you’ll either become paralyzed as a perfectionist, unable to release into the world, or you won’t be able to see anything through to the end because you’ll become over-enamored with the generative process.
In order to convince, you have to be a megalomaniacal god who believes and exalts in your own absolute power. Then you have to be able to shut that mechanism off entirely and inhabit the cruel analytic eye, to see through your indulgences, your stupidities, your gaping inabilities that are always going to be there, no matter how good you might become, no matter how much access that creator part of you might gain to the infinite, because you’re not a god, you’re you. Plus, the infinite is comprised of everything, glowing treasures and stinkheap garbage. The more open you are to it, great, but you’re still going to suck in fuming crap from the void, it’s inevitable. So you have to become The Self-Hating Narcissist.
Neither extreme is particularly attractive to a healthy, sane person, which is also why it’s valuable, if not necessary, to cultivate a third, average identity. This is the version of you that’s tolerable to the rest of us. Mr. Everyday can run interference between the two other parts of yourself. This is the guy that chops wood and carries water. He doesn’t mind going to the post office. He answers emails in a regular, timely fashion, pays bills, remembers to shave and bathe and clip his nose hairs. He goes to the dentist and calls his mom and friends – he has friends and makes sure to see them twice a week if possible, looks them in the eye when they speak. He’s maybe in a relationship. He’s your lifeline to the world. He’s in and of it, and though he might seem boring and superfluous to both the other parts of you, he may ultimately turn out to be the most important component. He’s the one who’s balanced enough to let in outside influence appropriately. He’s not overly swayed by it like the critic tends to be, and he’s not immune to it, like the maker must be. If the maker is the access point to birth energy, and the critic is your connection to the death-head, this guy’s your bridge to the banal, but fundamentally crucial daily cycle of life. The in-between. If you don’t foster a healthy relationship with this guy, your work will seem either unrealistic or nihilistic. Stick with me now.
These three identity states – the generative, the critical and the day-to-day – correlate loosely with the common developmental stages.
At first, childlike and unselfconscious, you become entranced by the sound of your own voice, by the incredible realization that you can do. You’ve got to build that generative muscle first, because without that, there’s nothing. If you start off with the critical voice too strong, you’ll never take your first steps, right? So you make, joyfully, without a thought for anyone but yourself, building and growing daily like an infant.
Eventually, you become aware of the Other, entering the self-conscious adolescent phase. You foster the external eye, which you then aim toward yourself. The critic in you awakens to the backlash of the assessing world, self-awareness, the challenge of communication. Hopefully, you learn to put on and take off this perspective like a pair of glasses.
Once you reconcile this schism, or perhaps in order to, you enter the third phase where you recognize the value of letting go of yourself – or selves, as the case may be – in the service of something larger. You move beyond communication to communion; adulthood, maturity. The fascinating thing here, of course, is that the cycle can start over again, as this phase potentially allows you to become the maker of new entities.
It’s even more complicated than this, because within the two extreme primary identity states, there have to be many different voices. As a generator, you must be able to convincingly take on a vast plurality of languages, perspectives, opinions. You have to see the world from the point of view of a man or woman, animal, plant, rock, cloud, microbe. Really see it, not just dress yourself up in a chimpanzee costume and jump around. You have to be the beast. And the critic has to sit in every seat in the house, listen to hear if the sound is coming through, check sightlines from every angle, can the front row see the tenor sweating too much, does the soprano project to the cheap seats, do the backdrops look ridiculous when you turn up the house lights for the finale, will kids be able to sit through it, will old people be offended by the jokes, is it too risqué for the sponsor, or too middle-of-the-road for the enthusiasts? And the moderator has to be there all along reminding both extremes that none of this actually matters; it’s all illusion, unless it’s serving a higher purpose.
So it’s completely schizophrenic, though of course it comes down to one single question again and again: Is it honest? Is it true? This is your guiding light, your beacon, the one thing that can cut across all three of you and bind your mission. But easier said than done, because what does that even mean? It’s possible to get lost in that question and never move another muscle. What’s best is to completely get out of the way and let the truth come coursing through you, unobstructed. That’s the definition of virtuosity.
Once you’ve established the partitioning, work.
Keep in mind that all work is hagiographical, either toward another or the self. Generally the self. If work isn’t functioning as a form of emulation or, ideally, worship, then it’s rejoicing (right or wrong) in the originality and innovation of its maker. Once you acknowledge this and get over it, you’re more free to simply work.
Also, there are elements of autobiography in everything, even in what claims to be biography, but that’s taken as a given at this point. The notion that we are bogged in our own limited perspective has become so deeply imbedded in modern consciousness that it goes assumed and unstated. No one should claim to be speaking for anyone else anymore. Don’t trust the ones that do. If they actually could, they wouldn’t feel the need to proclaim it, they would simply speak, and you would know.
I predict a new generation of generalizers, positioning themselves as globalists, universalists; the rise of a new absolutism. We’re already seeing it happen with the vigorous and polarized championing of certain technologies, political systems, religions. But our job is to stay singular in perspective. It’s the most humanizing, humbling approach to take, regardless of how egoistic it may appear. Only through the process of self-exploration can we arrive at a universal perspective. And in order to maintain the motivation and interest in the required depth of internal interrogation, we have to believe in our individual worth.
To truly understand human behavior, our tendencies, our most intrinsic proclivities, there must be scientific levels of research undertaken; rigor. Once we acknowledge the vast canyon alienating us from all other beings, we see that the only accessible test subject is our self. Given this physical, external distance from others – which we stubbornly come to recognize sometime roughly between the ages of seven, when we first realize it, and twenty-five, after we’ve accepted the failure to bridge the distance (through love or sex or communication or drugs or whatever) – we cannot begin to enter the path to absolute maturity until we place the self at the center or our research.
Know yourself, you can’t love another until you love yourself, the kingdom of god is within. All these ham-fisted greeting card aphorisms are rooted in a fundamental truth, as unfortunate as it might seem to those of us who have witnessed the dark side of self-ism push this world to the brink of extinction, (not to mention the commodification of this epiphany by the Baby Doomer generation). It’s a false or superficial understanding of self that leads people to act in their own interest though, and that’s where popular interpretation of this notion fails us. It stops at the entrance to the mine and claims possession of its contents without even entering into it. Let me elaborate.
Scott Pinkmountain is a writer and musician living in Pioneertown, CA. His writing has appeared on This American Life, in The Rumpus, A Public Space, HTMLGIANT, and other publications, and he hosts the Make/Work podcast for The Rumpus. He has also released dozens of albums of both instrumental music and songs. He works as a music analyst for Pandora Radio. He can be found at www.scottpinkmountain.com and @spinkmountain.