The Self as an Idol
Even Oscar Wilde, bizarre and radical as he was, understood that aesthetics is not just a pleasing pursuit like it's a hobby, but something necessary for human happiness. The choice to focus on something outside ourselves that lifts us up rather than adhering to some humanist notion of staring in at our ugliness in a losing battle to make it go away, was at the center of every art for millenia. As I walk outside, I see life and death. In the garden behind my house, there are beautiful and exotic plants and trees that take my breath away. There are also plants that are dying, but their seeds have already been sewn, bringing forth more of its kind. It lives, having been given life by something long dead, and now it gives life facing its own death. I see carnivores that devour helpless herbivores, but in the process feed their own carnivore young. At every stage, death brings forth life, ugliness transformed and seen through the veil of beauty. The artist has a similar task; giving his own life to create the beautiful. Even in the representation of the hideous and grotesque, he does so with skill, imagination, and yes, even beauty. These are lost concepts now, as navel staring rules over all.
The reason I bring this up is because I had really come to accept it. Movies come out that make comments and references to things that are so current the movies will be incomprehensible five years from now. Art is reduced to inane concepts such as "painted sculpture" and "video collage." Acting is reduced to the representation of the actor's feelings, and actors wonder why they're typecast. Music must be automatic and spontaneous, thus any sort of training is seen as stifling creativity. Writing must be automatic or else a story idea is scrapped. One is not considered a writer unless he has vomited forth three books by the time he's twelve. Time, honing, work, it's not valued. I found myself face to face with my unspoken belief that unless I accomplished a goal inside five minutes, it would never happen. That is, until I started reading Michael Chekhov's To The Actor.
I read about Michael Chekhov, who had trial after trial, and only found the success he had been seeking much later in life. He abhorred the notion that the actor must rely only on his own experiences in order to be able to portray a character. Focusing inward to be able to reflect universals is a sure way to find artistic incest, but not a way to develop a character. Chekhov differed in this from his teacher and mentor, Konstantin Stanislavsky, inventor of method acting. I believe Chekhov was correct in his break from Stanislavsky's method acting, and the proof is in Chekhov himself. His characterizations were often preferred over Stanislavsky's, and Stanislavsky gave Chekhov the highest compliment, "He is my most gifted student."
I would like to reproduce some of Chekhov's writings on art and imagination. I found it to be very enlightening. I hope you do, too.
Chekhov's To The Actor - Chapter One: Imagination and Concentration
The great German director Max Reinhardt confessed, "I am always surrounded by images." Charles Dickens wrote in his journal, "I have been sitting here in my study all morning, waiting for Oliver Twist who has not yet arrived!" Goethe declared that inspiring images must appear before us as God's children and call to us, "We are here!" Raphael saw an image moving within his room that later became the Sistine Madonna on his canvas. Michelangelo complained despairingly that images pursued him and forced him to sculpt in all sorts of materials, even solid rock.
How can we question the beliefs of these master artists and writers that their imaginative life came to them from outside themselves? And would they not scorn the narrow conception of creativity that relies solely upon personal memories and efforts? They would undoubtedly feel that today we deny our communication with the objective world of imagination, in direct contrast to their free excursions into it. The creative impulse of the masters was an expansion toward the world beyond them, while ours is often a contraction within ourselves.
The old masters of European and Asian culture might even shout to us, "Look at your creations. They are not confined to reproductions of our petty, personal lives, desires, and limited surroundings. Unlike the artists of today, we forgot our individual selves in order to be conscious and active servants of otherworldly images. Truly, we did not want to be slaves to these unguided visions. But in our work, we incorporated them like an unexpected blessing. Why are you then creating so many specimens of ugliness, disease, and chaotic contortions? Is it not simply because you are too concerned with yourselves alone and not your art?"
The conviction that there is an objective world in which our images lead their independent life widens our horizon and strengthens our creative will. Developing and assuming new conceptions concerning the creative process in art is the way for the artist to grow and to understand his or her talent. One of those new conceptions is the objective existence of the world of the artist's creative images. What is the reward of artists brave enough to acknowledge the objectivity of the world of imagination? They free themselves from the constant pressure of their too personal, too intellectual interference with the creative process, the greater part of which is intensely personal and takes place in the sphere that lies beyond the intellect.
Later, Chekhov writes:
Poor indeed is the imagination that leaves the artist's mind cold, and poor indeed is the influx of wisdom to such an artist, when one hears him say, "I have built my art upon my convictions." Would it not be better for an artist to say that he has built his convictions upon his art? But this is only true of the artist who is really gifted. Haven't we noticed that the less talented the person is, the earlier he forms his "convictions" and the longer he tenaciously clings to them?
I really enjoyed this section of the book, not because I enjoy being proved right and only read things that "preach to the choir," but because it forced me to accept that I had become complacent in my pursuit of my crafts, be they music, writing, or acting. If I really want to hone my abilities, I have to sacrifice to do it, to accept that I must study, practice, and work in order that the force of creative imagination might work through me to its highest degree. I must adhere to time honored principles, humbling myself to accept that I must learn before I can contribute. Instead of thinking that I'm going to throw out all the work done by previous generations and replace it with my own ideas, I have to look to what is done, what is universally accepted as master work by master craftsmen. That is the only way I can grow. Indeed, it is the only way anyone can grow.