Tuesday, February 24, 2004

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how great art is made.

When I was young, I thought great art was made by Artists (not artists; Artists). Artists spent their days wandering around in verdant woodlands or flower-filled meadows, possibly while pressing their nose into a leatherbound volume of Sartre. They might possibly talk to passing animals. Then, suddenly, Inspiration would strike, and they would hurry home to pull out a quill pen or a curvy palette with a hole in the middle, and would write or paint or compose or whatever. And they’d create the whole work in one go, or at least large segments in one go. And, if they ever had to revise, they merely moved a word here or shifted a note there.

But the more I read about the circumstances in which great art was made, the more I found writers who were churning out a thousand words a day, or painters who didn’t really like their great art but hey people like it and I’m not going to argue about the money, or composers who wrote song after song after song after song. I realized that great art comes from everyday art, that the great works are just part of the process of consistently and diligently creating more and more work.

After I accepted that fact, I turned my attention to the attitudes of the artists. What separates the great artists from the artists who create one brilliant work and then fade back to banality?

The answer to that question came yesterday as my small group discussed Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together. I realized that great artists do not worry about what their work will do for them. I do not mean that they are detached from their work — far from it — I mean that these artists have successfully thrown off the fetters chaining them to their work. They do not seek prestige with their work. They simply place their work in front of the public, and walk away.

I also do not mean that these artists do not want their works to succeed. Far from it; many great works of art have been created out of dire financial need — Tolkien wrote The Lord of the Rings partly to capitalize on the financial success of The Hobbit — but the great artists don’t seem to worry about any personal fame that their art might bring them. They are content simply to create.

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