Why do we bother making art?

It’s a question that haunts me. According Maslow, art should be something that we only bother with once we have secure housing, food supply, love, care, and support…and yet. And yet—there is something so patently untrue about this. Art is made despite a lack of these things; often because of that lack.

John Green, discussing the Lascaux Caves, says in his excellent book, ‘The Anthropocene Reviewed’:

The paintings were made a time in early human history, when every healthy and capable person would have needed to contribute to the basic survival of themselves and their clan. And yet, still made art. Almost as if art is essential…

In a book I talk a lot about, ‘Art and Fear,’ David Bayles and Ted Orland say:

Through most of history, the people who made art never thought of themselves as making art. In fact it’s quite presumable that art was being made long before the rise of consciousness, long before the pronoun “I” was ever employed. The painters of caves, quite apart from not thinking of themselves as artists, probably never thought of themselves at all. What this suggests, among other things, is that the current view equating art with “self-expression” reveals more a contemporary bias in our thinking than an underlying trait of the medium.

Motivations for making art are more complicated today than they ever were, because of money and media, which has turned art into a tradable commodity. Even 200 years ago, it was less complicated. Art was so tied up for the most part with the Church that the ‘purpose’ for it was clear: art was in the service of God, not in the service of oneself.

Bayles and Orland again:

Making art now means working in the face of uncertainty; it means living with doubt and contradiction, doing something no one much cares whether you do, and for which there may be neither audience nor reward.

While that may be true, there is a paradox at the heart of this – we make art for our own “self-expression”, but it is still a political act. There is still a social value not just in a good product, but in the act of doing something that does not equate neatly to a limited notion of value that reduces people to dollar value.

By Scott Wrigg. Instagram: @scottwrigg

I make art (in my case, writing songs, writing articles, and making videos) for a curdle of reasons. Yes, it’s self-expression. It’s also a way to make money (at least part of it, but all the other ways I make money rely on the very fact that I’m an active songwriter, so in essence, entirely to make a living). But it’s also something more. It’s a contradiction. I would (and do) write songs regardless of whether I would make money from them. I do it as an almost aggressively spiritual act. The kind of ‘muscular’ spiritual act that I think Krista Tippett talks about on her podcast, On Being (one of my all-time favourite podcasts, by the way). It’s not spiritual in the sense of touching the ‘divine’. It’s spiritual in the sense of the painfully awkward act of doing something in the face of uncertainty; uncertain of the very reasons why I do it.

I have started to read ‘The Practice’ by Seth Godin, and was moved when I read:

Let’s call it art. The human act of doing something that might not work, something generous, something that will make a difference. The emotional act of doing personal, self-directed work to make a change that we can be proud of. We each have more leverage than ever before. We have access to tools, a myriad of ways forward, and a real chance to contribute. Your part matters. Your art matters.

Art matters. I’m not sure why it does. But it really, really does.

Wintering

It always feels as though the seasons do not change gradually, but instead, that the sun takes a sudden jerk around its solar orbit, turns a sharp corner, and within a week the days are shorter by 3 hours, the evenings are cold, and the shadows are long and languid throughout the day.

My relationship to winter is one of conflict. I have a fantasy ‘winter’ in my head, in which the forced introversion equates to productivity. It’s a vision of me writing more, reading more deeply, making more connections, steeping in creativity, its output rising and curling in a scarf of steam out of my mind.

The reality is always one of fatigue, bodily heaviness, and a motivation for nothing more than thick socks, soup, and a fireplace (it doesn’t matter that it’s fake. It’s warm.).

I heard a beautiful interview recently on my favourite podcast, On Being, with English author Katherine May who has written a book called ‘Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times’, and it has changed my feeling—or at least, my expectations, for this coming winter.

May weaves together, with gentle meandering threads, an exploration of wintering cultures and creatures, and uses them as a metaphor for the cycles of human energy. These times of personal ‘wintering’, she says, are:

…gaps in the mesh of the everyday world, and sometimes they open up and you fall through them into Somewhere Else. Somewhere Else runs at a different pace to the here and now, where everyone else carries on.

Wintering, for those creatures and cultures who literally cycle through its doors, is not a retreat from life, but a retreat into it. Summertime is a season of preparation, not relaxation. Embracing that energy is an acknowledgement of reality. Being inside—physically, figuratively—is an essential part of the creative cycle.

Quick side note: DID YOU KNOW that honeybees dislocate their wing muscles from their wings in the depths of winter, so that they can use these muscles to rapidly vibrate their bodies to reach temperatures of up to 45°C!? The 'heater bees' cluster together, and if you were to stick your hand into the centre of a hive in the middle of a northern winter, it would be around 35°C/95°F! The never-ending strangeness and marvel of bees...end side note.

This, of course, has so many tethers into the realm of creative process. The main idea that has struck me from this beautiful book is to stop expecting the creative process to march along in a linear fashion. That NOT producing work is not a failure, it is merely part of a cycle.

I feel like I am old enough at this point (a ripened 37) to have experienced this. I have had enough creative winterings that surely enough thaw that I trust that cycle to happen; I trust that I will come back round to a sense of energy in my writing and creative work and teaching. And yet, those winterings still come with a tinge of panic.

This winter, I plan to embrace my socks, soup, and fake fire with a gusto that you might not even see, because a giant scarf will be covering my face.