Over the next week, I’m going to talk about making brave art and making art bravely and today that means talking about carefree art.
As we move into 2018 and talk about shifting towards carefree art and living free from concern, I want to define what I mean by carefree art. And I’ll do it by the billion dollar vision:
Imagine tonight, in your sleep you were miraculously healed from every care and concern and worry of shame and guilt regarding whatever you make with whatever craft you possess, manual or fine. Imagine that anything standing in your way emotionally, mentally, spiritually disappeared.
What would you make?
What would you create?
How would you act?
Because here’s the thing, I’ve watched my niece and nephew start to grow up just like I helped (in a small way) raise the kids of my friends while in Joplin. Only this time it’s closer to home. And the things they do — they paint with abandon. They play in play dough. It really… man.
You know, there really is a spirit of play in kids that’s seriously lacking in adults and it’s not a mature thing? In adults, I mean. Do you see how immature we are to abandon this spirit of play?
For God’s sake: when did we think it was somehow mature and grown-up to literally become afraid of our own selves? Of the commitments and vows we make? Of our capacity as generative and creative creatures who make in the image in which we’re made?
Why do we pretend like we’re somehow more fearless and courageous for never trying the thing we know we will fail?
Since when did the potential for failure become the metric of badness? Since when was success the metric for whether a thing is good?
And I don’t just mean our main craft, either. People talk about this all the time concerning the thing they have always wanted to do: well and good. The Anne Lamotts and Stephen Pressfields of the world have made plenty of money trying to get people to move past anxiety and do the work. I’m all for that — especially the Pressfield variety.
But what about just normal stuff?
For example: I’m an author who has produced and directed some transmedia works (short films, photo novels, etc.) I’m not a chef. So for YEARS I was terrified of trying out new recipes on guests. My mother and mother-in-law and aunts and grandmas have practically drilled this into me in various ways: don’t try out new recipes on guests.
Who died and made them queen trolls of the tollbridge leading to Culinaria?
I mean, in due respect to them, they’re doing what they’re told. They’re doing what makes them comfortable.
But I’m asking — seriously asking — when on earth comfort has ever objectively helped anyone’s emotional stability or creative bravery on the long timescale? Because last I checked, the more I lean into whatever makes me comfortable, the more sick and addicted and hoarding and messy I become. And the more I do the things that absolutely terrify me — do them for love or for joy or for peace or for kindness or simply to control myself right in the teeth of death and despair — the more these things give me life.
Is there room to try out a dish on guests?
Is there room to start paintings and never finish them — that the act of painting and the end of a picture are not necessarily the same ends? In other words, could one end — one telos — of painting be for the joy of brush on canvas and another for the practice of forms and another for the blending of color and another for the decoration of a room and another for the making of a specific image and another for evoking certain emotions and another for responding to certain aesthetic traditions?
We are too strict in our definitions of art.
Which is funny, when you think of it. We accuse the medievalists — hell, even the renaissance artists — of being too strict with their art. Too obedient. Too standard. Yet for all of their practice and perfection, they seem to have done it for the joy of the thing. We’re the artistic equivalent of kids who do not like their peas and mashed taters to mix. The adult knows the food all ends up the same place. The child worries about the entry point. The adult knows that all art ends up with a better human and humanity. The child worries about who’s watching and whether they — the child — are talented or practiced enough to mess with certain crafts.
Is there a place for expertise? Of course.
Excellence? Please, yes.
Apprenticship? Oh God let us bring it back.
Mastery? We’ve gone far too long without it.
Carefree, free-spirit, I’m-doing-it-because-it-brings-me-joy making?
When was the last time you played around with your own carefree art?
“Critics who treat ‘adult’ as a term of approval, instead of as a merely descriptive term, cannot be adult themselves.
“To be concerned about being grown up, to admire the grown up because it is grown up, to blush at the suspicion of being childish; these things are the marks of childhood and adolescence. And in childhood and adolescence they are, in moderation, healthy symptoms. Young things ought to want to grow. But to carry on into middle life or even into early manhood this concern about being adult is a mark of really arrested development. When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.”
― C.S. Lewis in ‘On Criticism’
Of course this applies to my Contra Graham: The War to Define YA Meaning and Maturity piece. But it also means that the adult who worries about seeming like a grown up in every skill, every craft, every art — manual and fine – is a moron. Of course you’re not going to be an expert at child begetting or child rearing at first. Of course you’re not going to be an expert at cooking and cleaning and carpentry and woodcarving. Of course you’re not even going to be an expert at multiple genres of fiction or poetry. That’s the whole point of life learning! They say of PhDs that you spend the first half of your life trying to earn the title “Doctor” and the last half of your life trying to unearn it. The reason is simple: because as a child you want the stamp of approval of some well-respected institution who may call you a master — their official approval and the rights and titles and responsibilities attending that approval — and once you achieve what passes for mastery by the metrics of the world, you realize you’re still under the tutelage of long-dead masters in eons past as Luke still sat under Yoda long after Yoda died. And so you try to unlearn your title because you realize that the real masters have predated you and dwarf you in so many ways.
The child wants to be an expert. The child wants to achieve mastery. The child is afraid of being anything other than a grown up.
The adult wants to be a great student. The adult wants to play. The adult puts away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to make and create and use their skills as only a grown up can.
The child wants to be Babe Ruth.
The adult wants to play whiffle ball with a child who pretends as much.
The child wants to be Elon Musk.
The adult happily launches rockets with A and B class engines in their backyard so said child can learn about ignition.
Play in the mud, folks.
Delight in the monotony of failing at a new recipe or a new song or a painting. Delight in the boredom of obsessing over something no test nor critic nor investor can ever affirm nor deny. Do what brings you joy and bliss — do what makes you play — and then do it again:
“The thing I mean can be seen, for instance, in children, when they find some game that they specially enjoy. A child kicks his legs rhythmically through excess, not absence, of life. Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, ‘Do it again’; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony.
“It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.”
—Chesterton, of course.