The Selfishness of Art

If you’re a fan of musicals, maybe you remember Mandy Patinkin singing the line “Art isn’t easy” in Stephen Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George.  Whatever your feelings about Mandy Patinkin, he was singing truth.

“Art isn’t easy. . . anyway you look at it.”

It’s an obvious statement, to be sure.  Anyone who wants to create anything knows this.  Hard to make a living with art.  Oh hell, hard to find the time to do art at all, even if you’re not depending on it for money.

Artists are accused of being selfish, but they need to be.  There comes a time – maybe once in your life, maybe every week, or every day – that you need to shut out the rest of your life, the rest of the world, and do art.  It won’t get done, otherwise, and god knows we need art.  If it hadn’t been for the selfishness of artists, societies since time immemorial would have been poorer in spirit.

I’m not saying that artist have license to be shits.  Dickens had a lover outside of his marriage, Jackson Pollock was an alcoholic jerk, and Woody Allen a pedophile.  The list goes on.  I think you can be a decent person (and the diversity in the word “decent” would be hard to limit) and still be selfish, still do art.

That we need to separate the person from their art is arguable.  (Although if I never see another Woody Allen movie again, I would be fine with that).  I’m not going there at the moment because obviously, I have conflicting thoughts on the matter.

I know people are often selfish (for reasons other than art).  I see it all the time, and I’m sure you do, too.  We live in a very individualistic society that probably encourages selfishness.

I’m writing a book (isn’t everyone?).  Between work and volunteer activities, between family obligations and my Etsy shop, I often feel overwhelmed and without the needed time to write.  Even when I sit down at a computer after a strong cup of coffee, I have difficulty quieting my mind enough to work on my story.  It’s true, I’m not a dedicated writer.  Sometimes I don’t want to write.  Actually, I can go for long periods like this.  It worries me – do I want to write enough?  – but all I can do is wait out these fallow times.  I suppose a lot of artists worry if they’re enough of an artist, if they’re good enough.  It’s tiresome to spend any energy on these thoughts, but they rise up, like a tsunami, sometimes.

So perhaps for this reason, among others, it’s important to make the time to write, even if I’m just staring at the screen, or pacing in the kitchen to a pop radio station.  All of that is writing, too, after all.  A lot of work is internal before it ever reaches the page.  And sometimes, sometimes, I must put work, and volunteerism, and family all aside, and just do what I can to put words on paper.  It may be selfish, but it sustains me in a way that other things don’t.

I think, too, we are often berated for our selfishness, perhaps unfairly.  As a good friend once said to me, “We’re all muddling through as best we can.”  I believe that.  Perhaps we need a little more “presumption of goodwill” – a phrase that came out of a writing workshop I’m in.  I like that a lot – presuming the good in people instead of jumping on them for something they’re supposedly not doing.  The pressure “to do” in this society is out of control.  Maybe we’re doing enough, just as we are.  Take a deep breath and think about that for a moment.  We’re doing enough.  We are enough.  And if you need art in your life, you also have, I believe, license to be selfish.  Take time to create.  If feeds the soul, and if we’re all feeding our souls, how much better off life would be (for everyone).