artistic unknowns by Chris Matarazzoreligion & philosophy

Holding the line: Putting happiness before art

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I’ve been writing this column for over a year now.  The reason it is called “Artistic Unknowns” is because my original idea was to focus on the issues surrounding being an unknown artist, yet one who soldiers on in art despite obscurity — an artist like yours truly: busy in a professional and personal artistic context, despite the realities and responsibilities of living everyday life. Sure, the column has branched off into my opinions about the nature of art (some which have been well-received, some, not so much) but the recurring theme has always been folks like me — the busy, if publically unknown, artist. I’ve tried to “write what I know.”

On numerous occasions, I have urged the unknown artist to get over him or herself — to accept the real reasons for obscurity and not only to learn to live with these reasons, but to be grateful for the artistic freedoms that the lack of fame grants us.  I’ve even challenged my unknown colleagues to prove their real artistic merit by not quitting amidst a meteor shower of face-saving excuses (the “oh, the world just doesn’t understand me” bullshit).

I’ve tried to draw distinctions between those who make art because they have to and those who make art because they think it would be really cool to be artists. (The latter usually give it up when they find out art can be thankless, hard work — that is isn’t just about growing one’s hair and walking around with a guitar on one’s back or a sketch book in hand.)

Some people have gotten sick of hearing me touting the idea of living a “normal life” and being an artist, but I am sticking with it. I’m going to flat out say it: I think my situation and that of so many others who remain dedicated to creativity can be preferable to a career as a famous artist, in the grand scheme of life. Of one’s own life, which — as I have said before is more important than any art.

How long are we going to underestimate the depth of the human psyche — or our own souls? People are so much deeper, inside, than a mere choice of career. The thing we want most in the world is never the only thing we need. Is there any argument against that?

The problem with artistic fame (and a lot of other sorts of success outside the arts) is that it often requires all of one’s time.  If artistic fame is the thing we want most, but, is not, in fact, the only thing we need, and it takes up all of our time, then those numerous other needs  go forgotten — or worse, not forgotten, but simply out of reach. The result can only be sadness, or, at the very least, regret.

We need to toss out the Romantic view of the suffering artist. It’s a bunch of crap. (Sorry, teenaged, dreaming me from the past — it is true.) Suffering is not a job-qualification for artistic greatness. It is a cliché and it is a role that, more often than not, mediocre artists play in order to grasp at validation. And when the suffering is real (and it often is — I admit it) it is a sure sign that, while success as an artist may have been achieved, the success of living a fulfilling life has been sacrificed.

(I’m not saying that there are not happy people who have achieved artistic fame. No viewpoint  is ever absolutely true, but there sure are a lot of people in the celebrity world who cry through life and who die miserably and way too early as a result of depression and addiction — as a result of the quest for artificial fulfillment; for the essential needs their success has stolen away.)

Yeah, the disheveled, drunken, arrogant, outsider artist cuts a pretty cool figure in a movie. But who the hell wants to live like that? I mean, I know we all really like to have it harder than the next guy — it’s a badge of honor — but maybe that is something we need to get over, for our own sake.

While feasting on prime rib, people have a tendency to wish for filet mignon at the next meal. But, you know, I’m in a good band that plays regularly and has done for some fifteen years now; I have a CD out; I write a column for a damn good online magazine; I write a blog that is thriving; I have a fulfilling job in education and I get to talk about books with my students every day; I have a decent house in a good neighborhood and I have two healthy sons and a beautiful (tolerant) wife. I even have a cool dog. What more do I want?

Well, the truth is, I want lots more, but being Sting is not one of those things anymore. I’m not going to get a anywhere by dropping reality and dedicating every second of my life to achieving and — harder, still — maintaining the love of a crowd.

It’s hard to escape a few centuries of programming from books and movies and the media, but there are no requirements for being an artist — not dress codes; not addictions; not social awkwardness; not depression; not uncontrollable appetites; not crazy hair — except one: making art.

In the case of artistic lifestyle, maybe the innovative thing — the real breaking of the mold — is living a normal life and still creating obsessively. It is hard to let go of the Romantic views, but this particular Revolution is likely to leave a trail of happy, productive artists in its wake.  It may not be as cool or as dramatically rich, but it sure winds up better for everyone involved.

Chris Matarazzo’s ARTISTIC UNKNOWNS appears every Tuesday

Chris Matarazzo is a writer, composer, musician and teacher of literature and writing on the college and high school levels. His music can be heard on his recent release, Hats and Rabbits, which is currently available. Chris is also the composer of the score to the off-beat independent film Surrender Dorothy and he performs in the Philadelphia area with the King Richard Band. He's also a relatively prolific novelist, even if no one seems to care yet. His blog, also called Hats and Rabbits, is nice, too, if you get a chance...
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2 Responses to “Holding the line: Putting happiness before art”

  1. More wants more. If you’re famous, then you want to be really famous. If you’re really famous, then you want to be really really famous. And so on. So there’s little satisfaction to be gained by pursuing fame. We’ll never ever get there.

    Having said that, I’m sure most artists want some recognition. I don’t think it’s an unworthy desire. We want to be respected for what we do. It can be difficult to maintain self-respect if we’re not respected by others.

  2. “It can be difficult to maintain self-respect if we’re not respected by others.” — so well-put.

    Thanks for commenting, Duncan. I do agree with you: we all need affirmation. I guess the key is to be respected by those we respect back.

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