Artists are dramatic sorts, and in the strangest of ways. They claim – if you catch them at a weak moment, and most of the time you will – to be sensitive creatures. To be over-filled with human emotion. As if that were unique to them. It isn’t, and I think artists are much colder than they feign to be.
I grow tired of artists who, having contorted themselves across a rack, cry out for us to observe their martyrdom in awe. It is like the false saint who asks us to bow before his holiness – which he has made sure to help us see as if he were posing for a picture – only worse: at least a false saint must be nice to our faces. An artist can be cruel and call it art. And they weep. They weep as if we ought to weep for them. I think, rather, they ought to weep for us. The real artist, whether he knows it or not – and most of the time, he will not – knows us better than he knows himself.
An artist barely knows himself at all. None of them do. They know us. They walk down streets, or alone in a field, and they imagine that they feel with such depths. But I think, rather, their depths have been all hollowed out. Artists are made of glass, to be filled with reflections of the things they move amid. The self they know, the self they think is “self,” is a sieve of memories – other people’s memories, and other places, other times – forgotten futures, and buried pasts. It is not their own depths they feel. It is everyone else’s.
In the introduction to Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne describes his job working at a custom house. He is at pains to describe the faces in the paintings along the walls, the faces that begin to haunt him with the history of his town and his own family. And he is grateful to have been fired from the job. “My imagination was a tarnished mirror,” he says, until he was fired. Then he could sit alone at night and imagine those old faces, make them move and live. It is strange how the artist must, necessarily, be alone. In order to be populated with other people.
Jane Austen’s novels are great because she knows what people are – their strange weaknesses, and flaws. And what makes them great. Her characters endure because she knew this. So do William Shakespeare’s characters – the weak and great and flawed. The innocent and the damned. He knew who we are.
“When I write,” said Flannery O’Connor, “I do what I have to do with what I can. You are always bounded by what you can make live.” The artist is bounded on all sides by a sympathy for others, and is great to the extent that such a sympathy is great. That is what they can make live. But sometimes (oftentimes), they bear this sympathy without knowing what it is. Their hearts are greater than they know, and never in the way that they know.
They think it is their own greatness. It is not. It is the greatness of others.
The artist carefully arranges a hundred pieces – fragments that are not really their own possessions – into a seamless garment in which we may finally see the shape of what we had thought to be bare shards. They were never bare shards, never, but it is only the artist who knows that. The artist who can make that obvious, to us. The artist who shows us what it is like to sorrow, to love, to delight, to yearn – showing us because the contours of these experiences are filled with meaning, a meaning that the artist instinctively grasps.
We do not grasp the contours. How can we grasp the storm while in the middle of it? Our hearts are darkened. But not the artist – the glass heart, the cold heart. Cold because it must observe these things, all these things, in such a way that what is seen can be said again. The artist is built of razor-thin ice: smooth, capable of reflecting what passes in front of it. And capable, of course, of shattering. Artists do not lie when they claim that they are weak.
Imagine the terrible admixture: a heart that must be built like a delicate instrument, and made more delicate the greater the skill. (The greater the sympathy.) And that must be cold. A receptive heart, receptive to all things. Receptive, in order to shape. To take what has been received and bend it according to its inner form – that is what makes art cold. If the artist has done it right, he will not seem so chilling. We will feel only the heat reflected in the ice. But the artist – the artist is still made of ice.
Artistic intelligence is, I think, a seismographic intelligence. When moved, it records the observations. Charts them out, so they can be seen. Artists are painfully observant, yet distracted by what they see. The needle is always swaying. There is calculation here, you see. Tight control. And an unremitting yield to the seismic shifts of every moment. A vulnerability.
Artists are delicate, and cold.