Some idiot along the way started lying to us.
The lie was this: that genius, that true genial power, can only happen when some dude or dudette cordons themselves off from society to spend the next decade crafting his masterpiece. Lone wolf artists.
It has many sources, frankly, but the lion’s share of the burden of the lone wolf artist was deposited into our recent history by Thoreau. The mythology surrounding Thoreau’s life is so pronounced that even Freewrite originally came out advertising, “Pull a Thoreau and disappear for a year.” Or something to that effect. Now I’m not against writing retreats or Freewrites — I jack out of The Matrix and go off the grid probably more than anyone here. However, I do that after having harvested raw materia from my relationships. I’m reminded of the line from the song Perimeter of Me:
“The world outside my window is shaming me again from the things I haven’t seen cause I’ve been writing about them.”
Thoreau did not create in isolation. That farm where he hid away? It was his mentor Emerson’s farm. Emerson who wrote that wonderful essay on friendship, the other one on the communal nature of the self, and the third on Shakespeare in which he argued that all of society must pass “unobstructed through the mind” for the genius to strike.
This, the father of transcendentalism.
Now if that’s true of Emerson, true of Thoreau who needed the companionship of his mentor and the society of his “fellow” blue collar millworkers, then it’s doubly true for we who refuse to perpetrate the lie of the lone wolf artist.
In my short jaunt on earth, I’ve come across a great many more artists than I had planned on meeting at this stage. I don’t know why this has happened, but I’ve recently responded to the trend by seeking them out — artists of high report and low report, artists wealthy and poor, famous and obscure, amateur and professional, broken and beginning to mend — all in order to edify them and, together, build up a better Earth. (And maybe even a second Earth in the not-so-distant future…)
All of them — every single one — has shared with me some story of how the fellowship of other artists, entrepreneurs, or diehard supporters pulled them through the valley of Death’s shadow, compounded their output, and refined their finished products.
There are no lone wolf artists.
Take, for example, the Limner’s Society in Joplin.
The Limner’s Society was started when a New York Painter named Daniel Baltzer stopped through Joplin to speak at a regular meeting of their now-disbanded Visual Arts Collective. He encouraged them to get together monthly to share struggles and talk shop. When VAC disbanded and several moved away, only three or so of the original members of the Limner’s Society remained. They met every other month or so pretty steadily for a few years. Then something started happening. The consistency paid off. Artists in the city knew they could count on a monthly meeting and, wonder of wonders, consistently showed up to share. In time, the ranks of the group swelled as new college students moved to Joplin and spent their entire college career hearing about the group. Several have gone from dabbling in their craft to amateur sales to full-blown professional artistry. The future looks pretty bright in Joplin because of the consistency of a handful of artists.
Here in New York City, a group of four — Ben Grace, Matthew Kern, Lindsey Luff, and Robbie Klein — banned together two years ago into what became the Songwriter’s Guild. The idea was to get songwriters (and eventually other artists) together in guilds that would encourage one another by only sharing life struggles alongside in-progress work (no finished products!) and then meet once a year in a Guild Collective that would showcase our progress. From a humble beginning of those four songwriters there are now over seventy-five guild members in various degrees of participation.
Can I tell you that the songwriters in the songwriter’s guild have probably six members who have written enough music for full albums, three of them are in production, and one of them was signed to Sufjan’s publisher? That all happened because a handful of artists dug in and decided to make their own golden era by pouring into the lives and culture of one another.
Artists often apotheosize Paris in the 30’s. Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Picasso, Dali and many more worked in the same airspace around that time. Woody Allen focused on this theme in his film Midnight in Paris, in which an author played by Owen Wilson goes back in time to his idealized 1930’s Paris. He finds, however, the same kinds of people — some are too needy, some are pouring into the community, some are building a golden era from scratch, others are complaining about how Paris in the Gilded Age was the peak time for artists. So the novelist travels back in time with them to another era and finds the same characters with different names. Second verse, same as the first. This happens again for an earlier rendition of Paris and you get the idea by the end of the film that gilded ages aren’t about a place and a time, but rather a people who decide to fall in love with one another and build something right here, right now.
In fact, this very phenomenon was tracked and recorded in the book For the Love of Cities. The book shows that every major metric for measuring a city’s health — economy, population, tourism, education, crime — showed exponential progress in the years following a group who (1) assembled over similar values, (2) fell in love with one another and their local environment and from that love (3) resolved to cultivate a brighter tomorrow through local artifacts and service.
In every city I’ve called home — San Diego, Detroit, St. Louis, Joplin, Effingham, Salem — I’ve run across two kinds of people regarding culture care. The first kind hate it there. They can’t wait to get out. These are the people that complain about Salem and so they move to Joplin, complain about Joplin and so they move to Kansas City, and so on ad nauseum. Just a few weeks back, I was walking my dog home from Sunset Park in Brooklyn and heard the following exchange:
“You don’t like it here?”
“Nah, man, nah. I hate it here. Grew up here. Can’t wait to get out of this city.”
They were talking, of course, about the capital of the world: New York City.
And it made me realize that it’s not the place, but the posture. Everywhere I go, the majority of citizens act as if staying where they are will utterly destroy them. They say it in my home town of Salem, Illinois (population: 8,000 before the factory closed) and they say it in my new home of New York, New York (population: twenty-million and rising). The Onion recently wrote a piece regarding people who have no contentment in any town.
But the other kind of people operate out of the ideals found in For the Love of Cities. They band together a group of like-minded cultivators and fall in love with their local place. After years of diligent culture care, they soon look around to find their mundane surroundings rendered extraordinary. That’s the kind of artist I want to become.
Have you ever heard of the Inklings?
It was a 1940’s and 50’s society of men who gathered around the same basic ideals. Atheists, Catholics, Protestants, all of them gathered to discuss romantic, neoplatonic thought. “Inkling” is a pun, in case you didn’t know. They were a literary society, so Inklings are people of the ink to the same degree that Underlings are people beneath you. At the same time, an “inkling” is a slight knowledge or hint or suspicion of an idea. In Middle English, it literally meant “to utter in an undertone.” In other words, their group was founded upon (1) thinking deep thoughts and (2) incarnating those thoughts into the written word. They talked about this tenant in every way imaginable and all of their work benefitted from the ongoing discussion — both Lewis and Tolkien wrote of tree spirits and river spirits defending the world from the coming wrath of wraith-like men. Several wrote about personified animals who took care of humans and of beastly humans who abused animals. Almost every single one of them wrote articles about Spencer or Keats or Coleridge or Chesterton. The list goes on, but the point is that none of their work would be as great had they not all contributed to this unique literary society.
Sometimes, a community of culture care only manifests itself in pairs: Basquiat had Warhol. Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. Warren Buffet and Charlie Mungor. Jimmy Fallon and Justin Timberlake. Bert and Ernie. Coleridge and Wordsworth.
Other times, it shows up in groups: The Beat Poets, The New School, The Round Table, David’s Mighty Men, The Disciples of Socrates, The X-Men, Saturday Night Live, The Founding Fathers.
I will tell you this: if you don’t already have a tribe at least online, you need to find one quickly. You were never made to go it alone. There are no lone wolf artists.
But I’ll also go further than anyone I’ve read here: if you haven’t started something locally, if you have no one to meet with in person on a semi-regular basis and thus have no one to call, no one who knows everything about you, no one to call you on your shit when you’re in the wrong — you’re in a world trouble, my friend, and your art is bound to suffer for the loss.
Be brave. Be a friend and you’ll find friendships. Create community and you’ll have it. Do everything you can to build up the society in which you live. Get together with some like-minded folks and care for the culture around you. Fall in love with the place in which you find yourself, tend to it as an orchard keep tends to fruit trees, and five or ten years from now you’ll look back and realize you’re not in Kansas anymore.
cover image by Alice Popkorn