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advice from Bukowski's grave,

applied to Contemporary Art

“DON'T TRY” - that is all there is to Bukowski's epitaph.  An entire life's philosophy summarized in two words, his final advice to aspiring poets.  A message of fatalistic optimism, implying that what is yours will find you;  that you cannot rush in nor stave off the creative flow;  and that nothing great is created by playing it safe.  Taken outside of context these words ring like as a cynical forewarning to give up on the idea of developing a new artistic vision in the world where so much has already been done.  Yet contemporary artists defy the timeless bard, for better or worse, attempting to always outperform their predecessors and themselves.  They suffer the labor pains of the creative process; they constantly question their worth as artists and human beings.  They bargain and plead: “But he [Bukowski] also said ‘go all the way’”.

Contemporary art is facing a monumental challenge.  We live in a time of tectonic shifts in collective consciousness: we are questioning the way we live, the way we relate to each other, the fundamental things that make up the fabric of our society.  We have to integrate the rapidly changing reality and make sense out of it.  We have to find ways to preserve our humanity at a time where our existence seems to be defined by our economic usefulness.  And we need ART more than ever now to help us do that. 


Unfortunately, our society has lost appreciation for the role of the arts and humanities in making us human.  This is why artists are the most courageous people out there: they carry on their rebellious agenda despite not being rewarded economically (or socially) for it.  In a time when anyone could be making art, almost no one is doing it.  It is just not practical: there is so much that has been done already, how can one create something new?  Overwhelmed by the multitude of opinions and perspectives, drowning in the endless stream of information, the artist has to distill beauty out of chaos, truth out of confusion.  They have to dare to look the ugly reality in the face to paint a portrait of the time. 

If you’re going to try, go all the way.

Otherwise, don’t even start. 

Charles Bukowski


RHYTHM NO. 2 (RHYTHME II) Robert Delaunay, 1938

Seattle Art Museum

It is a hard lot to be an artist.  You resign to a life of poverty, in most cases;  you forsake stability and the satisfaction of getting small rewards for completion of assigned tasks;  you sign off your right to mediocrity and instead agree to suffer perpetual self-doubt, mental exhibitionism and creative angst that this masochistic work demands.  The cathartic and elating experiences of art making are as rare as the mythic “orgasmic birth”.  Yet, this is all the artist seems to remember after job is done: as soon as they lay down the tired brush, they eagerly consent to do it again, overtaken by the lust of creation. 

Today there is an added challenge of standing out from the crowd.  Artistic professions have historically been limited to few: either ones born into the trade (as many medieval performers were) or those belonging to the upper class and having the privilege to choose which noble occupation to devote their life to.  Today, when the possibility to dedicate one’s life to creative pursuits is open to almost anyone, many attempt to summon the closeted artist within.

Yet, with the option to live the vita creativa clearly within reach, the competition and historical context make it harder than ever to realize these aspirations and make a mark in art history.

So, what does it take to be an artist in today’s world?  The fate is not for the faint-hearted: contemporary art requires taking risks and making personal sacrifices.  It compels you to explore the unknown, to dive into the depth of your soul and bring to the surface whatever it is you may find there.  So much has already been done, so many rules and barriers broken, that it takes extraordinary insight to grab the attention of the saturated market.  No one needs more Dostoyevsky or Flaubert, as beautiful and timeless as the classics may be.  Similarly, you cannot get away with claiming a black square or splattered paint is your way of challenging the art tradition.  It only works the first time around. 


The modern art critic, alive in all of us, is thirsty for something fresh.  We need constant stimulation, our appetites revved up by endless Instagram feed scrolling.  We want novelty and entertainment, thrills and shocks.  The competition for our attention can lead to an abusive relationship:  what gets a reaction is often art that is based on personal tragedies and emotional turmoil.  This requires the artist to cut open their wounds, to reveal past trauma to evoke a response.  It is exploitative, and in a sense, devalues the trauma and distorts the art that springs from it.

There is also the elusive task of making art that is actually contemporary.  As consumers of art, we want it to reflect the world as it is evolving in front of our eyes.  And this is what makes the creative process so difficult.  Reflection, analysis and synthesis are easier in retrospect.  But to write/paint/dance about the present?  It invokes an almost supernatural ability to grasp the zeitgeist, to surf on the leading edge of the time and not be afraid to crash with it if the waves get too rough. 

To transcend everyday life, to look critically at the contemporary world and see what most fail to see - this is what distinguishes a great artist from an ordinary person.  Like independent journalists writing stories that no one commissioned, the stories that might get you poisoned or locked up in an embassy somewhere, they set out on a mission that will unlikely earn gratitude.  They risk not only reputation under public scrutiny, they risk their own sanity and sometimes life to gain access the collective pulse, the shadow side of humanity which we try to hide away like a deformed cousin bred through our lecherous deeds. 


Despite all this, the artists of our generations continue to transform the apparent and unconscious themes running through our time into imagery that can reach our minds through our hearts.  These same big abstract concepts are also dissected by scholars; yet presented in rationalized, dry way, they often remain inaccessible to perception.  But once you feel it - through art - then you can understand it.  And, as Bukowski said, you cannot choose not to participate in it if you are one of those people keenly attuned to the changes of the tides, suffering the pains of restructuring of the entire backbone of reality.  You cannot stifle the creative impulse, it will always find its way out, even if you don’t consciously try.  And when you finally succumb to it - go all the way, do not hold back.  For this is what sets apart great art. 

Bukowski had a gift for translating feelings into words. The full poem is here and it's worth a read:

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