My younger brother has been thinking about “being an artist / human / creator in this modern age,” so he wrote about five of his current questions, worries, and concerns, and then answered them. This is a response to that post, “Things I’m Struggling with as a Musician/Human Being,” from his blog I Will Write About Music Here.
As you know, I am not a musician, but still feel as I can relate to these questions. Perhaps my extra ~3 years on this Earth can offer a slightly different perspective, so here are some of my thoughts about each of your questions and responses.
1. Do people have time for art anymore? Is it relevant?
Yes, it’s definitely very relevant, and it’s no surprise we’re both on the same page here.
You had asked what is art’s place within all of the world’s very real problems (poverty, sickness, genocide, war, global warming, political divisiveness, etc.), and I’d say that art is a huge tool for making progress in those issues.
Advocacy is a big way art can help—doing a photography exhibit, cartoon, or concert to raise awareness or money for a cause. (In writing this, I discovered there’s a group called Artists Striving To End Poverty, which must just be the tip of the iceberg.)
A group of Syrian refugees are using art to preserve their culture by recreating historical landmarks. Ahmad Hariri, who plays a big part in the project, says (emphasis mine), “It felt like a good way to get the message out, because art is a language that doesn’t need to be translated.”
And especially with war and any other less-than-desirable situations, people have used (and always will use) art to escape. Think of all the songs sung by African American slaves, for example.
Jumping back to the first half of this question—do people have time for art—I want to note that “people” spans a huge range of lifestyles and cultures. Some of your American peers may not appear to have time, but that’s just a tiny fraction of the people on this planet.
During my year in France, I got the impression that it was quite common to go to an art gallery or museum on the weekends, which Damien and I did every couple of weeks (even though he is very much a mechanical guy); art can be appreciated by all.
2. I feel uneasy about self-promotion. To the outsider looking in, I must look like one helluva self-absorbed guy.
I struggle with this one, too, in sharing things I write or sell (-cough- Korean food guide I spent two years writing and of which I have yet to sell one single copy -cough-). But realize that people who follow you on Twitter or who like your Facebook page, for example, have chosen to do so. They want to see your face, watch you play, and hear your thoughts. So no need to hesitate posting about yourself there.
Where it can feel self-absorbed is going outside of those circles to connect with others. But as you’ve said, this is necessary in order to get your art into the world. If people don’t care or aren’t interested, they don’t have to click/watch/read. They choose. And then everyone continues on with their lives, and no harm is done.
But when your work reaches someone who does care, it could very well have an effect on their life (and yours). There are likely a ton of people who would like to see your face, watch you play, and hear your thoughts—for a variety of reasons—but they haven’t met you yet. So self-promotion increases you chances of “discovering” each other.
Although innate for you and me, I don’t think this feels self-absorbed for everyone. I think the fact that it does for you shows how aware you are of others in the world.
I feel like I’ve probably recommended this to you already (and maybe you’ve already read it), but I enjoyed Austin Kleon’s “Show Your Work,” which had worthwhile ideas about sharing one’s creations.
3. Sometimes I find myself falling into the trap of equating my level of musical performance with my self-worth.
You know what, while I can relate to this one (in a non-musical sense), I actually don’t think everyone can. I’ve met people who were terrible at their jobs, but they absolutely didn’t care—for a variety of reasons. A job for some is a completely separate entity, and their job performance is only that. Not all cultures are so “success”-driven like in America, but I’m glad you’re wary of that darn s-word.
I really like your idea of measuring “success” with growth-centered markers (surprise, surprise, after my obsession this year with Carol Dweck and the growth mindset). Or, as you wisely recently told me, you could measure achievement by how close you are to being “your truest you.”
And I admire your large step back into the fact that we are all humans.* As time goes on, I only see more and more examples of how complex (and long! yet short) a person’s life can be. Someone’s website or video is an itsy bitsy item, but a human being—their emotions, past, desires, relationships, society, daily struggles, passions, body language, genetics, creations, community, etc.—that’s a full-blown 4D experience. I’m simplifying this, but someone might be able to give a kick-ass piano performance in front of a camera, yet could be a total asshole. We cannot be defined by one thing.
(*And if you’d like to really freak out your mind, take an even larger step back and see that us complex human beings are minuscule specks of dust in this ever-expanding universe.)
4. Is music my true “calling”?
A few questions to start: Does each human even have a true calling? How do we know? And would “true” mean just one?
I was so excited to learn, upon reading Julia Child’s awesome book “My Life in France,” that she first went to France at the age of 36. Her entire love affair with French cuisine and cooking (including all the learning (starting at zero), experimenting, cook-book writing, and TV hosting) happened after that point. Although I realize it’s silly to use 36 as an arbitrary age comparison, it’s still cool to think: “I can keep farting around for nine more years, and my greatest life pleasure might still be ahead of me!”
As far as following paths goes, I think this Ralph Waldo Emerson quote speaks for itself:
“Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.”
Later on you’ll be able to connect the dots backwards and see the path you made.
5. I feel stuck, musically. I feel like I’m playing the same things again and again.
Good idea to force yourself into the uncomfortable by forbidding a certain lick or style! You know, I’ve read that Dr. Seuss was bet by his publisher that he couldn’t write a book using only 50 different words. The result? “Green Eggs and Ham.” By imposing limits, you can force yourself to be creative.
Exposing yourself to new things can help get your creative juices flowing, too. That can be as simple as walking a new route to somewhere you go often, reading a book or article outside of your preferred genre, socializing with people in different fields from you, etc. Remember that you have (to an extent) control over your input: what you see and hear each day. By controlling the input—and then giving yourself space for the subconscious to make connections—you’ll get unstuck.
I’m not sure how much you’d be able to apply the ideas when composing, but I really liked Michael Michalko’s “Thinkertoys: A Handbook of Creative-Thinking Techniques.”
So to conclude as you did, none of us have it figured out. And I don’t think we’ll ever feel as if we have it “figured out” (let’s ask Grandma?). Gregorio (age 50) just mentioned the other day that if he couldn’t see himself in the mirror, he feels—in his mind—the same as he’s always been.
Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts with the internet world—for beginning this discussion. It’s never easy to be raw, let alone with an audience, but the audience always appreciates and benefits from it (as does the one who shares their inner thoughts, right?).
Actually, today’s “Daily Clue” email from Amber Rae ended with:
“The vivid detail at which you share the truth that stirs in your soul will move all the people it’s intended to touch. The aim is not to receive mass approval or have everyone connect with your work. It is to reach those who experience goosebumps when they come into your orbit because the realness at which you create grabs them and pulls them close. Be true to yourself, and the work you know you must create, and you will experience the profound joy of honoring yourself and your creative vision.
And as Neil Gaiman reminds us: If you’re doing it right, you will feel like you’re revealing too much of yourself.”
So here’s to many more decades of questioning, reflecting, revealing ourselves and sharing as we both continue on this journey of growth.