The kitchen in this communal house is often trashed and smelly. I’m pretty sure I clean up after myself. Doubtless, everyone else says the same thing, but the place just won’t stay clean. The mess is everyone’s—and no one’s.
The cultural landscape is the same kind of boarding house. Crowded, vying for space and an audience, we artists brazenly put the pots and pans of our artistic creation wherever is most convenient at the moment. Our carelessness clutters up this communal place of cultural experience that is the arts. The resultant mess—of mediocre self-published novels and lackluster indie albums—is everyone’s, and no one’s.
What can we do? After a few well-meaning attempts at cleaning up after others, we find that the burden of our own survival is too heavy to allow us to bear a triple or quadruple load. We leave other people’s dirty dishes and try to focus on our own. We try to clean up after ourselves and do our part. But other people just keep on cluttering up the kitchen.
Making art is most assuredly a survival act. If the young child’s creative catharsis is not cut off by a derelict public education system hellbent on social control, if it is not cut off by parents who find strange paintings and invented worlds embarrassing, the young child will carry his personal window view on the fields of creativity with him into adulthood. He will find solace in the release of making. The act of creation will nourish him, and it will therefore become his own. It will become his personal medicine for his personal condition. This is wonderful.
However, the artist’s internal place of pleasure hides carries with it a great intrinsic danger. Endless indulgence of personal catharsis, with no consideration of how the community experiences that catharsis, is just as bad as leaving one’s dirty dishes in the kitchen. Everyone needs to eat, and cooking is the way to do it; but there is more than one cook in the kitchen—especially now, after the Internet and the indie revolution—and taking care of this limited space that we all share is more important than ever.
The artist must remain mindful of the size of her act. A complex meal requiring three pans, some spoons and spatulas, knives and cutting boards, not to mention plates and forks, requires an even more prompt cleanup than the simple leftover lunch eaten out of a bowl. The kitchen, like the collective cultural consciousness, is a limited space. It graciously hosts great cooking projects (and great art projects), but it can only bear so much at any given time. Recognizing the kitchen’s capacity for cooking (and the culture’s capacity for digesting) is critical; and that knowledge must be coupled with restraint.
This is not to say that we shouldn’t undertake gigantic creative projects. Rather, it’s to say that we should study our surroundings. We should only broadcast our projects when the time is right—and we must check ourselves to ensure that our projects are things with the culture really must see. But in times of crowding in the kitchen, we must settle for simple, economical cooking projects, or for no cooking at all.
Of course, we don’t have to cook for ourselves alone. We can make dinner for others. We can even make dinner with others. For some of us, this is not terribly natural. But why not pool our resources? I’m out of rice, and you’re out of vegetables. Why not put our fridges together and make something greater than the sum of its parts? In this kind of sharing, there is no offensive clutter, because the mess remains everyone’s, and no one can disown it. The food that results is everyone’s, too. There’s no measuring of portions to determine how much food matches a given contribution. There’s a big pot, and hungers of all sizes have equal rights to be satisfied.
While artists need to eat, just as everyone else does, the commercialization of creativity has wrought great damage to the creative process and even to our culture’s process of enjoying art. Cranking out the next novel to try and put bread on the table may or may not produce the best version of the novel that is possible; and while the fire of economic need gets us off our behinds to do something, it also easily moves us into a degenerate view of what art is and why we should seek an audience. It’s been said a million times, but art is not a commodity. Art does not participate in the laws of supply and demand in the same way that a can of beans does. While there may be times of famine and times of plenty in a culture’s creation and appreciation of art, artworks tend to last, when given the proper care. Indeed, the greatest works of art feed us again and again, as if that can of beans had turned bottomless.
An artist has bills to pay, same as everyone else; but you can’t put a price on that work of bottomless plenty. This is why society desperately needs great art—because it blows up the bottom line.
There’s no telling when the next great cooking project will spring up; but if it’s something that could feed our souls for generations to come, we need to keep the kitchen (and the marketplace of cultural experience) uncluttered so that we can recognize the genesis of great art and get out of its way.