A Confession, a Conclusion, a Manifesto….
Otherwise titled, Five Years in the Journey of a Artist in the Age of Unenlightenment
Otherwise titled… Onward!
Five years ago I sat a table with a small group of friends and revealed to them my decision to step away from the world. I don’t think I said “drop out” because I knew I had to remain attached enough to put food on my table and pay the rent. And I wanted to try, for once, to put 100% of my effort into surviving financially as an artist. But, I explained, I don’t believe in it anymore… the BIG LIE, that I have to make my money this way (at the time I operated a successful tourist shop in Fish Creek, WI) and all the little lies that I swallow in order to make that happen. I moved out of the city and into this little doublewide in the woods and started making my exit…
Within a year my “step away” was a giant leap into the unknown and uncertainty of the path less traveled. I closed my shop, and I sold or gave away most everything that remained. I kept what I needed to work from home as a eco-conscious artist, working with repurposed materials and selling in a few local galleries and online. It was a dramatic change of lifestyle and work and income.
It didn’t take long before the little savings I had was gone. The simple choice of whether to drive to town depended as much on gas money as the environmental consequences. I had cornered myself into a life of quiet solitary work (which I wanted) and financial precariousness (much more than I expected) and the stress of trying to succeed at something in these circumstances.
I am not writing this to tell you about reducing trips to the dump and the pump. There are plenty of resources on the internet if you want to learn about that. I’m sure there are people doing a better job than I am. What I want to share is the psychological impact this leap had on me and my life, my relationships and, in the end, my definition of self. What i didn’t realize, while revealing my decision at that table five years ago, was dropping out of the system would mean emptying my life of the activity and thought that filled every work day. And it would be scary to be that empty.
We are all born into a culture and we are a part of that culture. And that culture is a part of us. As many people already realize, in a racist culture, the members, even when they are abhorrent to the IDEA of racism, still have elements of it in them. That is true for every distinguishing feature of the culture you exist in. As we are in the universe and the universe is in us, WE ARE IN THE CULTURE AND THE CULTURE IS IN US. And this culture we live in, this American Dream, it is a state of heightened consumerism. Everything we do is somehow measured and compared, every breath, every step is broken apart into quantitative measurements. We lay prostrate to the system waiting for the final numbers of our worth. When you’re not productive in the system, you are invisible. You are certainly not a success.
That was the hard part…
We not only consume products of the system, we are the products and the consumers and the means of production. Even if all you are producing is another version of the lie. Stepping away means unraveling oneself from these roles, and refusing to lie to yourself. When you start to really separate yourself from the culture you live in there is a dangerous thing that happens, you lose your sense of self. This is evident when you are a solitary and, for the most part, unrecognized artist. Being a solitary and unrecognized artist had always made it possible for me to be true to myself. I have always been free of the pressures of academia and fashion and trends, whether intellectual or aesthetic. But here I was taking a leap of faith that I could survive financially as an artist and still retain my artistic freedom. I had no idea what a psychologically dangerous pit I was falling into.
I didn’t expect the loss of my connection to this world I was raised in and lived in to be so difficult. I thought I had already let it go. I had rejected Capitalism and Consumer Culture and I had embraced Simple Living. At first I was elated to be free and told friends how great it felt. Fairly soon after the initial elation I had a health crisis that was nearly debilitating. My entire body was covered in a rash, a terribly itchy uncomfortable rash that lasted almost two years. During this time I buried myself in work and distanced myself from friends. I established strong boundaries, many of which were healthy and necessary, but for awhile I built a wall around myself. I spent hours in solitude and lived a quasi hermit’s life and had a love/hate relationship with my own existence. (I need to add I did this with a caring partner on a similar path) Without the distractions of the world and work I had once buried myself in, I found new distractions, everything from Netflix series about aliens to the strange new world of social media marketing. I was painfully aware of the emptiness of these new distractions. The biggest distraction was still so firmly rooted in me I didn’t see it for another couple of years, the addiction to work, productiveness and the dream of success. But, despite how hard I worked, I was not all that successful, just scraping by.
I started feeling frustrated and lost. I felt a range of emotions from hopelessness to jealousy. As much as my rational brain told me otherwise, my feelings told me I was a victim. I experienced mild depression and that was new for me, and scary. I mentally chastised myself for every missed opportunity in life, leading me to a place of emptiness. I felt like a failure and still, at this point, did not realize the emptiness I felt was just the temporary emptiness that results when you empty your life of the things that no longer fulfill you.
That depression grew into discontent and longing. I literally drove and walked all over Door County (and the state of Wisconsin) wishing I had a different life. Every house, farm or commercial building that was for sale could take me on an imaginary journey into some dream existence… sometimes lasting days or weeks.
Sometimes, while driving around and looking at old farms and shops for sale, I saw myself through the watcher’s gaze and I saw the desperation in this search. I have no money in the bank. I knew this search would have to stop. I could see it for what it was, another attempt to validate myself. In the sheer transparency of my desperation I finally saw it, what I was beating myself up about, what i was perceiving as failure, what I was desperately trying to fill. The Void.
And then came the real grieving. The tears. That process that may look like the worst to someone looking in, but is really the best. The new me that emerged from all this pain of letting go reconnected with my deeper self. All the parts of me that had never fit into this culture flooded back into my consciousness, orphans from unfinished chapters in the life of a outsider. I was successfully making it through my difficult journey. The tears, which now I see to be the true release, freed me from the guilt of perceived failure and the fear of a perceived lack of belonging and the longing for something that I didn’t need.
I had learned what I needed most to learn, that the simple concept of consumption isn’t just about buying and selling; those are simply the forms that dominate our economy. They overshadow the way in which the mentality of consumption destroys our spirit and our humanity. I think it was a dramatic lesson for me only because as a solitary artist and social outsider my life had been kidnapped by the concept of my art as a product and my purpose as a producer. In this new cottage industry economy it is easy to fall into that trap. I confused my artistic journey with the journey of the many “makers” in this new economy, but that is not who I am. Just as I had to come to terms with the realization that i do not fit into the world of academia, nor into the commercial art world, I am not a “maker” in this new economy, one which pushes artists to be slickly marketed production machines. (Note there are many people who fulfill the role of “maker’ and remain true to their artisan values and I am not referring to them. Being a new field, it is pursued with passion by many but is also manipulated by larger forces.) What I finally awakened to is the realization that my journey as an artist has to be absolutely authentic and tireless, and like no other journey that has ever come before me. Success, whether measured by money, production, or social acceptance, should have no role in the motivation of the artist. The only success is to be alive and to continue to create something for the world that reflects ones true existence in the world. There are no models or templates or guidebooks, only hard work and intuition. I have no intention to stop working. But my work no longer depends on the narrow definitions of “productivity” and worldly success. I am working even harder, because I have come to realize it is my soul’s work.
I have something new to bring with me for the steps and leaps ahead. A sense of peace like none I’ve ever experienced cropped up in the emptiness left my my “dropping out.” The only thing I feel I need to fill the space with is love and the work of love, which is different for every person. We are all here fulfilling an individual path that can’t be separated from the whole of the paths, the movement of the world and its beings. All each of us needs to do is answer that for ourselves, not letting any one person or system or culture tell us what that is. What an energizing truth. It fills us with the energy we need to do the work that must be done. We need to be in service to bring forth love rather than drain love from the world. Because this is where the REAL WORK begins.
I will try hard to never forget how awful the rashes, the anger and angst and depression felt each time I am tempted by distractions, lulled into sleep or seduced by false dreams of “success”. Because I am in the culture and cannot drop out. That is the lesson. I have been in it all along and now I feel whole enough to be in it without being seduced or sickened. I envision myself walking through it with my head held up and my back straight and my eyes wide open, in a direction that I have never headed before. As the true artist I have always been.
That is my Manifesto. An artist in the Age of Unenlightenment.