“Men occasionally stumble upon the truth, but most pick themselves up and hurry away as if nothing had happened.”
A friend posted a quote from James Baldwin on Facebook, “The Poets (by which I mean all artists) are finally the only people who know the truth about us. Soldiers don’t. Statesmen don’t. Priests don’t. Union leaders don’t. Only poets.”
The more I read it, the more I cringed. By tagging me I think my friend implied I was on his team and would revel in the “Yeah, we got this shit figgered out!” spirit of claiming to be artists in service of truth that others just don’t get or possess.
That in itself is horribly uncharitable reading of the spirit in which I know this friend offered the quote. My horribly uncharitable, untrusting reading of other’s intent is my stumble-inducing truth, and I need to fix it… but let’s ignore that and hurry on.
Artists express. They put work out in the world. By that standard alone, I don’t get to claim membership as an artist. Occasionally I write a blog post, and I’m hacking away at an attempted memoir-cum-movie idea, but I’ve been and am predisposed to solipsistically doing nothing.
My muse is somewhat of a deadbeat dad. He occasionally materializes, unexpectedly, lavishing gifts and inspiring great excitement. When I turn to him in search of seconds, continued presence, additional nourishment, he has abandoned me for months and is nowhere to be found.
And “the only people who know the truth about us”? How condescending can Baldwin be? Surely Churchill’s take on truth is more real: everyone encounters it, but it’s what you do with your truth that matters. Express it. Live it. Do not deny it. But is expression confined to visual displays, movies, plays, music or abstract performance? Is there no art lived by those who express him or herself through daily service? House cleaning? Parenting?
Is it ‘art’ if you express only to show how well you see through the sham and dross around you, to rub others’ noses in their ignorance and blindness? Expression that becomes a mirror in which others can see truth about themselves and the world around them — about the strange in the mundane and “taken for granted” nature of how things are — seems to me to be the highest form of art. How often does art which meets that standard, or has that effect on the audience, arise from the same explicit intent?
Holding up a mirror through expression is valuable and transformative… but no more so than living an exemplary life of doing. In fact, art is in the doing. Sometimes the “doing” is being the storyteller for the tribe. Sometimes the art of “doing” is being the mother, father, breadwinner, defender for the tribe.
I’m typing this as my wife vacuums. But I digress. I must pick myself up and hie-me-away to my book-writing, as if nothing has happened.