Poesis:  the lost art of reverent production (what it really means to “be creative”)

Poesis: the lost art of reverent production (what it really means to “be creative”)

As someone who helps creative people try to make money with their produce (paintings, books, various products), and also someone working on a PhD in Literature, I am perhaps particularly aware of a devastating, but largely unrecognized, ideology of creative production that is entirely disconnected with the value of the thing being produced.

I first encountered this disconnect through my own struggles, first to exhibit and sell surrealist oil paintings, and later to write, publish and market my own books.

What I finally realized, is that there’s a distasteful hypocrisy in doing the work without thinking of whether it will matter to anybody, and then expecting it to matter to everybody.

And so I started measuring the worth of my projects by considering how I’m adding value. I began to see financial remuneration as a useful measure of how much value I was producing, and how many people’s lives I was helping or improving.

There is a trade-off, of course: it’s not as much fun to help others and make things people appreciate as it is to just do whatever the hell we feel inspired to do, the things that we enjoy and find exciting. Wouldn’t it be great to do only what we were passionate about and have people pay us for it? Sure: but it’s also narcissistic, self-centered and unlikely. It happens, and so self-help and spiritual gurus insist that you just keep persevering.

Even when you’ve done it for a decade, you’ve finished the book, the paintings, but nobody will publish or exhibit them. So you go direct and self-publish or hire out a coffee shop, but nobody will buy them. You finally learn you can’t even give your work away for free, because it’s unappreciated. Nobody wants it.

This leads to depression, frustration and a crisis of faith: you were told that listening to your heart’s desire and following your passion would lead to success, but it didn’t. Now what?

Poesis and Techne

“Creativity” is a modern word. The ancient world had no such idea, but the closest we can get is poesis, or techne, knowledge of how to make things, ‘creation.’

In the Symposium (a Socratic dialogue written by Plato), Diotima describes how mortals strive for immortality in relation to the craft of art. In all begetting and bringing forth upon the beautiful there is a kind of making/creating or poiesis. In this genesis there is a movement beyond the temporal cycle of birth and decay.

“Such a movement can occur in three kinds of poiesis: (1) Natural poiesis through sexual procreation, (2) poiesis in the city through the attainment of heroic fame, and, finally, (3) poiesis in the soul through the cultivation of virtue and knowledge.”

We might today call this passion. It’s that stirring in the soul, when we take one step into the unknown and seek to create that which is beyond our abilities. We feel inspired to do it, and also feel that the universe is somehow filling in the gaps and helping us realize our vision in unexpected ways.

On the other side is the techne:

The English aphorism, “gentlemen don’t work with their hands”, is said to have originated in ancient Greece in relation to their cynical view on the arts. Due to this view, it was only fitted for the lower class while the upper class practiced the liberal arts of ‘free’ men (Dorter 1973).

Socrates also compliments techne only when it was used in the context of epistēmē.

Epistēmē sometimes means knowing how to do something in a craft-like way. The craft-like knowledge is called a technê. It is most useful when the knowledge is practically applied, rather than theoretically or aesthetically applied.

“For the ancient Greeks, when techne appears as art, it is most often viewed negatively, whereas when used as a craft it is viewed positively because a craft is the practical application of an art, rather than art as an end in itself. In The Republic, written by Plato, the knowledge of forms ‘is the indispensable basis for the philosophers’ craft of ruling in the city.'” (Stanford 2003).

Techne is often used in philosophical discourse to distinguish from art (or poiesis). In other words, you have the creative passion and inspiration, and you have the practical know-how or “technology” – the right tools and wisdom to do the thing well.

People would pay artisans to make things, with their skillcraft. And there was an artistry involved, certainly, but it was functional. Art was decoration. It was rarely more.

“There is massive evidence that the ancient Greeks and Romans had no category of fine art.” (Shiner 2001 pp. 19–20)

The Modernist Fallacy of Creative Production

Then, about 200 years ago, everything changed.

By the 1800’s, 2000 years of tradition had crystalized into pristine institutions that demanded hard work, submission to rules of production, and technical perfection. Getting into the right school meant everything: if you didn’t get admitted, you had no chance of becoming a professional. There was no way to beat the system.

Adolph Hitler, who was actually a pretty good artist but still failed to get into his dream school, turned into an angry politician.

French painter William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825 – 1905) was one of the greatest artists produced by the traditional, academic system. He was a spokes-artist for the academic system of perfection:

“One has to seek Beauty and Truth, Sir! As I always say to my pupils, you have to work to the finish. There’s only one kind of painting. It is the painting that presents the eye with perfection, the kind of beautiful and impeccable enamel you find in Veronese and Titian.”

With the beginning of Romanticism, some artists and writers rebelled, preferring to focus solely on emotion rather than technique. William Wordsworth claimed, “all good poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings.” Precise formulation of rhyme and meter, crafty and expansive vocabulary, become dispensable.

With the rise of Modernism, this trend led to bizarre, almost grotesque experimentations. French poet Baudelaire, who wrote poems about decaying flesh, and his printer were successfully prosecuted for creating an offense against public.

In Vienna of 1897, Klimt was one of the founders of the Vienna Secession movement. Basically a rebellion against the art academies and their definitions and rules, they re-defined the purpose of art, through heated discussions on form vs. function. Anything practical or useful was terrestrial and mundane.

True Art was revolutionary and challenging. It was not beautiful (just a piece of decoration). It was not meant to be enjoyed. Artists also began experimenting wildly, breaking all rules of form, perspective, finality – creating quick, rough and exciting works.

During this period, classical traditionalists like Bouguereau became defiled and spurned. His work was seen as dead, devoid of life and spirit, all technique and no fire:

“William Bouguereau is unquestionably one of history’s greatest artistic geniuses. Yet in the past century, his reputation and unparalleled accomplishments have undergone a libelous, dishonest, relentless and systematic assault of immense proportions. His name was stricken from most history texts and when included it was only to blindly, degrade and disparage him and his work.” (Damien Bartol on artrenewal.org, 2013)

Art was beyond skill and technique, it was all about passion and inspiration. This manifesto caught on like wildfire, because it meant that, in effect, anybody could be an artist regardless of training or skill. For the same reason, our artistic heroes today are the painters who tell us what we want to hear: that quality doesn’t really matter:

Picasso: “To finish a work? To finish a picture? What nonsense! To finish it means to be through with it, to kill it, to rid it of its soul, to give it its final blow the coup de grace for the painter as well as for the picture.”

Vincent Van Gogh: “if you hear a voice within you say “you cannot paint,’ then by all means paint, and that voice will be silenced.”

Salvador Dali: “have no fear of perfection, you’ll never reach it.”

Klimt and his gang in Vienna decided ‘To Hell With Profit’; we are no longer going to learn the skills of academic painting. We’re just going to explore and do whatever we want. Those artists learned very quickly, however, that art painted for oneself with no consumer in mind was very hard to sell.

They single-handedly invented the expression “starving artist” and “art for art’s sake.”

Rainer Maria Rilka, a contemporary of Klimt, offers the following beautiful passage on the creative process:

“Go into yourself. Find out the reason that commands you to write; see whether it has spread its roots into the very depths of your heart; confess to yourself whether you would have to die if you were forbidden to write.

“This most of all: ask yourself in the most silent hour of your night: must I write? Dig into yourself for a deep answer. And if this answer rings out in assent, if you meet this solemn question with a strong, simple “I must,” then build your life in accordance with this necessity; your whole life, even into its humblest and most indifferent hour, must become a sign and witness to this impulse. Then come close to Nature. Then, as if no one had ever tried before, try to say what you see and feel and love and lose…”

His vision, true to the radical call of Modernism, was pure interiority and instrospection:

…Describe your sorrows and desires, the thoughts that pass through your mind and your belief in some kind of beauty – describe all these with heartfelt, silent, humble sincerity and, when you express yourself, use the Things around you, the images from your dreams, and the objects that you remember. If your everyday life seems poor, don’t blame it; blame yourself; admit to yourself that you are not enough of a poet to call forth its riches; because for the creator there is not poverty and no poor, indifferent place. And even if you found yourself in some prison, whose walls let in none of the world’s sounds – wouldn’t you still have your childhood, that jewel beyond all price, that treasure house of memories? Turn your attentions to it. Try to raise up the sunken feelings of this enormous past; your personality will grow stronger, your solitude will expand and become a place where you can live in the twilight, where the noise of other people passes by, far in the distance. And if out of this turning-within, out of this immersion in your own world, poems come, then you will not think of asking anyone whether they are good or not. Nor will you try to interest magazines in these works: for you will see them as your dear natural possession, a piece of your life, a voice from it. A work of art is good if it has arisen out of necessity. That is the only way one can judge it.” ― Rainer Maria Rilke

Beautiful and moving. Inspiring. Motivating.

This is what most writers love to hear (I myself was much moved by quotes like this). We are very much still in the thrall of Romanitic idealogy. But there’s a darker side. The futurist manifesto; Mao’s little red book; world wars I and II. There was a vicious and revolutionary call to burn our past, destroy our museums, topple monuments and Start Fresh! It was intoxicating and liberating. It led to pure absurdism, then after the wars, a depressing sort of recognition that nothing mattered (Post Modernism).

“Art for Art’s Sake” left a legacy that has stuck with us, but from the beginning it has also confused the link between an artist or writer’s ability to make money. Ugly, revolutionary art was either praised and sold for much higher prices than ever before, or was virtually worthless, since nobody wanted to hang it in their houses. With the popularity of Impressionism, Expressionism, and later Abstract art, the bar was lowered so that anybody could become an artist, even with no technical skill. In 1917, Marcel Duchamp presented a urinal as art.

Some of these works of art were truly beautiful, others hideous – but who could tell what they were worth? For the first time in history, people could make a living being curators and owning galleries – their job was to convince people of a work’s value, because it wasn’t obvious. Many artists (famously, Van Gogh) couldn’t get the kind of support they needed in their lifetime to make any money and led tragically frustrated lives.

The identical trends were happening with literature. Hemingway wrote novels in plain, common language, with very little plot. His books were burned in Berlin in 1933, “as being a monument of modern decadence”. His parents disavowed his literature as “filth”. But they caught on and changed the face of English Literature.

Suddenly Art and Writing were no longer about technical skill, but about Ideas and Emotion. Creativity should be internal, and uninfluenced by anything else. No learning was better than years of training. Artists and Writers tried to “unlearn” everything, to get back to a pure, natural state.

“Creativity” began to mean only “do something new and different from anything that’s been done before.” It doesn’t matter if it’s useful, or if people like it, or if it is nice to look at, or if it took any skill or effort to make.

While art and writing used to be about making something better,  something of high quality that people would enjoy, it became merely doing something bizarre and crazy.

Thus, we had half a century of “modern” art, which has now become mostly abstract. If you go through any art school’s exhibitions, you’ll find confusing displays that aren’t very interesting. One of the most famous artist in the world mostly does publicity stunts. Banksy sold a painting at auction that instantly shredded the artwork as soon as it was sold. The new buyer, so I hear, is auctioning off each shredded piece of the original as individual NFT’s.

Sadly, it’s hard to be daring and innovative anymore. Now quality counts for next to nothing – skill, aesthetic beauty, completely forgotten, as artists compete to produce a representation of an abstract idealism.

This hit home as I toured Italy in 2013. In the Ufizi and Vatican, countless mind boggling, soul inspiring paintings upstairs. Gleaming with gold and jewels, extremely precise proportions and perspective, hours and hours of painstaking detail work, colors that stirred the soul. Downstairs, the ‘contemporary art’ categories with a few random items spread out on the floor: a movie projector on a pane of glass; some truly awful non-representational drawings (pencil scribblings on scraps of notebook paper; a pile of rocks. Devoid of color, subject.) Putting them into the same gallery seemed like a joke, like we as artists had devolved since the Renaissance from masters to cavemen.

According to Bansky:

“The thing I hate the most about advertising is that it attracts all the bright, creative and ambitious young people, leaving us mainly with the slow and self-obsessed to become our artists. Modern art is a disaster area. Never in the field of human history has so much been used by so many to say so little.”

Ezra Pound’s 1934 injunction “Make it New!”  that became the mantra of the Modernists – is just as valid today. What gets shared, liked, saved, is always and almost only the new, provocative, innovative. The quality is not important. Nobody needs any training or education. They don’t need any skills. They just have to write or paint something new.

(Although, in art at least, Abstract paintings have gone out of style because they aren’t new anymore, so fine artists today general paint something figurative, but bizarre, strange or funny.)

There are some good things, and some bad things, about this.

The illusion, is that you don’t have to learn or study or care about quality. And this can be true in some cases. A mediocre book properly marketed will outsell a fantastic book with no support. This is especially harmful for writers, who are trying to figure how to get better: but if there are no rules or formulas and traditional structures are to be shunned, all authors have is navel-gazing introspection nobody else cares about.

In All Things Shining Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly try to find “meaning in a secular age” by restoring the idea of art as reverent production. And I like that phrase, but it doesn’t go far enough. It doesn’t matter if we revere what we’re working on, or that we fill our art with passion and poetry.

I drank that Kool-Aid for decades, as a starving artist, who could never seem to make it work. Finally I got angry, that I so deeply believed these relatively modern ideas about the value of art, when the truth was nobody owed me a living, and I was tired of begging all my friends and family to “support” my hobby.

There’s nothing wrong with having a hobby that brings you pleasure. But when you want to make it a business, sell your work, scale your platform, and use your inspiration to create real world-changing value… that’s not something you can just figure out or that happens to you. You won’t get discovered. You have to be seen, in the right context, with the right message, to the right people.

Your art needs purpose for it to have value.

I’m not there yet, and have stopped painting weird surrealism to focus on writing fantasy novels, but I do have a lot of practical tips for authors and artists who are ready to make the very big shift from poesis (passion) to techne (mastery).

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