Had Juliet been a painter, a sculptor, or a musician, she may have cried not for Romeo from her moonlight perch but rather, “Muses, Muses, wherefore art thou, Muses?” Such laments often rip from the souls of those of us dually cursed and blessed to have been born with genuine artistic streaks.
For purposes of this article, I need to clarify the term artist, which has been perverted by the money-grubbers, number crunchers, and attention seekers. By artist, I do not mean those who churn out formula like so many cookies on an assembly line for the express purpose of fattening their bank accounts and those of their record labels or production companies. By artist, I mean those of us who might otherwise inhabit rubber rooms if we were not able to express ourselves daily through creative outlets. By artist, I mean people like Michelangelo, who dissected cadavers in the dead of night to understand how the human body was designed, so as to truly glorify it in works such The David. I mean people like Bruce Springsteen, who pitched his breakout album Born to Run in the trash after more than a year’s work because he wasn’t pleased with it. People like Meryl Streep who are equally comfortable — and compelling — portraying an uber fashionista in The Devil Wears Prada and a drab, austere nun in Doubt.
Let’s return now to Juliet on the balcony. Just as Shakespeare’s heroine cried out for the lover she feared she’d lost, artistic souls are terrified when their creative juices refuse to flow. In those dark hours, we feel abandoned, lost at sea with no lighthouse on the horizon. Needing to find the parties responsible for our stopped-up juices, we blame the Muses, those sisters of ancient Greek mythology thought to inspire literature, music, and other art forms.
How interesting that we lay the blame at the Muses’ feet, for as U2′s lead singer and songsmith, Bono, wrote:
Every artist is a cannibal,
Every poet is a thief.
All kill their inspiration,
Then sing about their grief.
What Bono meant is that much art springs from within, from our own life experiences. As B. B. King advised, “You can’t play the blues unless you’ve lived the blues.” We create the things that we know, things that evoke profound feelings within us. If we fall in love, suffer betrayal at the hands of lover, friend, or government, or survive intact after some cataclysmic event, we pen a song, a poem, a play about it; we paint it, we sculpt it, we dance it. In expressing our deepest feelings and most personal experiences, our art becomes universal, echoing the sentiments of others on their own life journeys.
What, then, about budding artists, those who may have a very shallow well of experience upon which to draw? Is it possible to manufacture experience? It is, if one’s creativity is so strong it will not be denied or subverted into a non-creative channel. Such is the case of Harlan Ellison, an award-winning author who once established a legal precedent by suing a foreign television company for the use of a title synonymous with of one of his short stories. Crafting what he deems alternative fiction, Ellison is a prolific author of books, novellas, essays, and screenplays, including scripts for The Outer Limits and the original Star Trek series. In order to gain some life experience and gather material for his first book and subsequent memoirs, Ellison went undercover in a New York street gang. It was a life-altering experience in which he often did “the right things for the wrong reasons and the wrong things for the right reasons.”
Manufactured or au naturale, every true artist bleeds for his or her craft. Every one of us nurtures our art like a child in the womb. And when we unveil it to the world, we hold our breath like a parent watching a kid set off for the first time without his training wheels. We pray fervently that it will not fall flat on its face. We hope that because our art contains so much of ourselves, that those who view it, read it, or hear it will understand that what we have revealed are pieces of our souls. And that is the difference between media whores and artists.