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Mining the Anxiety of Effort

What human practices enable the genius of creativity to flourish? What is the value of creativity in a culture increasingly grounded in commodities? The goal is less about the product of creation and more about being in a state of mind which makes art inevitable. Janna Malamud Smith is a psychotherapist/writer who reveals the mental processes required for the mastery of technique and form common to all creative pursuits. She also points out possible psychological obstacles and draws upon literature, observations, and experience to guide the reader to greater clarity. This book is for artists, aspiring artists, and anyone wishing to excavate what is undone in their life.

An Absorbing Errand: How Artists and Craftsmen Make Their Way to Mastery

by Jana Malamud Smith

Counterpoint, Berkley, 2012

Smith proposes that “the good life is lived best by those with gardens.” Find the moral equivalent, a virtual garden in the form of a sustaining practice that holds your desire—a task that demands attention and requires effort. Cultivate the wish to labor, create, and rule over an imagined world of your own. Learn to grapple with the anxieties that go with the territory. Whether it is growing roses, building furniture, sewing dresses, assembling jewelry, baking cupcakes, painting, writing, or sculpting—the rewards are plentiful the longer one persists at the endeavor and gains mastery. In contemporary America, status and respect follow successful income-generating activities. Anyone who commits to art making travels dangerously close to the sacrifice of material gain and the shame that comes with that for not conforming to the norms of the group.

Magnificent wealth does occasionally arise from the world of art to confuse and amaze. Recently, a 10-foot-tall, mirror-polished sculpture of a dog by Jeff Koons recently sold at Christie’s Auction House for the record-breaking sum of $58.4 million, the most ever paid for the work of a living artist.

Still, best-selling novels are rare. Box-office hits are few and far between. Painters have stacks of unseen and unsold works. Musicians are expected to stream their work for nothing. Lack of recognition is most pronounced in our fame-obsessed culture of social media status updates. When satisfaction often does not match the effort put forth, many who test the waters of artistry lose motivation and quit too early. Yet, the gratifying bounty of a well-tended garden is the payoff for returning to the practice over time. Creative interests expand us—pull us to leave the routines and safety of the home front.

The author’s title borrows a phrase found in Roderick Hudson, a novel by Henry James. His character, Rowland Mallet, discovers the perils of living a creative life vicariously through others. “I spend my days groping for the latch of a closed door,” he laments. It turns out that the antidote to this condition rests upon discovering and pursuing an absorbing errand that satisfies a need for personal expression and offers a strategy for focusing outside oneself. Zen master Dogen spoke of this back in the 13th century and instructed his students: “To study the self is to forget the self.” Smith draws upon Thomas Mann, Wordsworth, Proust, Keats, Charlie Chaplin, Michael Jackson, Lady Gaga, and so many others, in her investigation of the mechanics of an artistic life. She addresses fear, recognition, shame, identity, solitude, ruthlessness, and visibility as the challenges of this pursuit and reminds us that unhappiness tends to fester where the human need to express is pushed back. While some are born expressing themselves and making things, others yearn for this without knowing how to begin. Anxiety appears when one is caught between the act of trying and the fear of never trying.

The poet Rilke commented on the painter Cezanne’s depth of involvement when he refused to paint with gray: “To his immensely paintery eye it didn’t hold up as a color--he went to the core of it and found that it was violet or blue or reddish or green.” Hedda Sterne had put aside her paints by the time she reached age 94, but maintained the continuity of her work into her elder years by drawing every day. Alistair MacLeod, who crafts short stories about coal miners and fishermen in Nova Scotia, explains that a writer needs to maintain a balance of closeness and distance to his subject: “There must first be a chair. And time for someone to sit in it.”

A certain amount of solitude is required for creative work to blossom. This goes against our human nature as pack animals who find comfort with others. During the 17th century it was even illegal to live alone. Now single households are becoming the norm. Finding meaningful paid employment is increasingly elusive and retirement years may be longer than anticipated. Locating an absorbing errand may be more urgent now than ever before. Close relationships in the service of art-making give credibility and mutual support to those building identities as artists. Poets Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop exchanged letters over 28 years, available in an 800-page volume called Words in the Air. Sadly, family ties are often at risk when a member is fiercely devoted to an artful task. Musa Mayer wrote about her father’s ruthlessness and self-centered ways in a memoir, Night Studio, about the painter Philip Guston.

People naturally hunger for recognition and self-expression is a function of our need to be seen. Psychoanalyst, D.W. Winnicott explained that our earliest form of creativity is emotional survival. The art-making process begins when a baby engages with a toy. An inanimate object, such as a teddy bear, is soon invested with emotional energy and the creative realm of illusory experience. During the late 1970s, Abe Frajndlich exhibited photographs he took of his colleague, Minor White, dressed in costumes representing other lives he might have lived. The Lives I’ve Never Lived show explored how art allows us to selectively costume and reveal ourselves, knowing we will be seen and judged by others. Self-display in the 21st century has gone beyond costume as endless possibilities for shape-shifting are has available in digitally-altered imagery, virtual reality, and social media theatrics. Self-promotion is part of the identity and recognition process—talking about what you do is a way of sharing it with others. Musician Tom Waits compares this to “doing the dishes” after preparing and eating a wonderful meal.

Smith’s book draws the hand to the closed door latch in a call to find the absorbing errand and effort in your garden—a modern classic to add to favored inspirational art reading, such as The Art Spirit (Robert Henri, 1984), Art Lessons (Deborah Haynes, 2003), and The Gift (Lewis Hyde, 1983.

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