Thursday, February 05, 2009

Original Sin

As an artist your best friend is self-awareness. You need to know your weaknesses as much and as well as your strengths just the same way that an athlete must. How else can you grow and get any better?

What am I talking about? Every field has some version of this idea that we are imperfect, and that only by paying attention to this imperfection can we not only function, but thrive. Catholics have original sin, the Greeks had the Achilles Heel, psychologists have normal neurosis, basketball has the weak side, the military has the weak flank, literature has Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, and environmentalists have the carbon footprint. Everybody has a carbon footprint; it is just a question of how bad it is. Everybody is neurotic, it is just a question of how neurotic. And here is the kicker; everybody has an asshole! 

The point about Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is that the more you fake it, the more you pretend that that asshole isn't you, the worse it gets. You will be an even bigger asshole!

Artists, unfortunately, are treated like children a lot of times. Creative creatures who know not what they do. Not only does this not have to be, it isn't in the artist's best interest.  I have a hard time believing that artists are better artists because they are more self-delusional. The notion that if an artist knew better they wouldn't either be an artist in the first place, or they would somehow be a lesser artist, is absurd.

The other day I had someone praising me for the good things I had done for them. It was a scary and sobering moment, for them and me, when I just told them I was just trying to follow the Golden Rule: treating other people they way I would like to be treated. By saying this two things happened. First I came down off some pedestal that this person was trying to put me on, and second, by coming off that pedestal and being just like them, I raised a second question, which was why weren't they thinking and doing the same thing. It was an icy moment. I knew it and they knew it, although I had never intended it, and they never acknowledged it. I didn't realize the implications of what I was saying until I said it. In an instant I made them look bad. In the process of being real and not letting them put me 0n a pedestal (a way of  distancing me and my good deed), I made them look worse. I was doing right by them, and the question then became, then hung in the air like a bad smell, were they doing right by me, and if not, why not?

This was an incredible revelation for me. It explains a lot. Like why no good deed goes unpunished and why half the time the first thing that happens is that the person pisses on you for doing right by them. I couldn't figure this out for the longest time. These things are connected. Do you see the connection? 

Running out the clock is not an option. If you do that in the Hindu world you reincarnate as a lower form of being. You go backwards. Denial makes that happen. Faking it makes that happen. Feeling sorry for yourself: being the victim when you're really the bad guy, makes that happen. Dressing things up instead of undressing them makes that happen. Undress them and you know what you've got, you know where you stand.

I have to say that some of my favorite people have been assholes. The kind that don't hide it. I felt I could generally expect better things from them. I could hear the truth from them. I could know where I stood. I think people in general like these people for this reason. Even Marilyn Monroe, who was so beautiful to so many, really got to people because she exposed her vulnerability. She was amazing, but she wasn't perfect, she showed us her weakness. 

The wheels are coming off the wagon these days, and maybe they will all come off. All of these "perfect" people have been or are being exposed. Regular people feel better for it. The genius Madoff is really a crook. Martha Stewart is a phony and a bitch. Oprah Winfrey has food issues. Barry Bonds took performance enhancing drugs. America has been exposed to the world. We're a mess. If we keep faking it or even worse, fake it more, we'll be an even bigger mess. We're becoming Dr Jykell and Mr Hyde.  Our cover-ups and double standards have not just widened the schism,  they have enlarged our collective asshole. Instead of the Golden Rule, we apparently live by something more like: what's in it for me.  When Jimmy Carter challenged us to be more self-aware as a country, we threw him out and hired an actor to take his place. It is clear this president intends to challenge us as well. 

Self-flagellation and regrets aren't the answer. Feeling bummed out about our weaknesses and mistakes just reinforces them. As artists we have to see what we do in the clear morning light. We have to think harder about the quality of the meal we are making, not just how it tastes, and how it makes us feel, but what it does to make us better. Tolstoy laid it out there: art is food for the soul. Yes, we are all sinners, we all have Achilles's Heels, we are all neurotic, we all have carbon footprints, we all have assholes. What are we going to do with that? Dress it up, fake it, or look hard at what we are doing as artists and do the right thing, what ever that may be.

So what are we doing as artists? Are we trying to be successful? Are we trying to be famous? Are we trying to carve out a piece of turf for ourselves and then hold on with all our might? Are we lashing out at an unfair and uncaring world? Are we goofing off? Are we waiting for the bell to ring/running out the clock? Are we sugar coating a dog turd? Are we wacking off? Are we moralizing/preaching to the choir? Are we keeping to what we already know? Are we trying to shock? Are we pandering? Are we hiding out? Are we sulking? Are we sheep, or worse, lemmings? Are we taking stuff for granted? Are we stubborn instead of determined? Are we in it for ourselves? Are we poison instead of elixir? Are we problem instead of solution? Just how much of an asshole are we? Are we wasting our time? Are we sharing? Are we using our gift for giving or are we just blowing our own horn? Are we making really good soul food? Are we?

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