Let’s get one thing straight: This conversation we’ve begun about how to define and defend the imaginative, creative life in our modern world is not just a topic for tea parties and polite poetry circles. It doesn’t belong in the “Lifestyle” section of the Sunday papers—but on the front page, above the fold, big letters.
Certainly, the subject matters a lot to individual artists who must constantly swim upstream against the relentless current of our cultural belief in profit, prudence and responsibility as the highest possible ideals. (We have our puritanical heritage to thank for that.)
As Julia Cameron wrote in The Artist’s Way, “For most of us the idea that the creator encourages creativity is a radical thought. We tend to think, or at least fear, that creative dreams are egotistical, something that God wouldn’t approve of for us. After all, our creative artist is an inner youngster and prone to childish thinking. If our mom or dad expressed doubt or disapproval for our creative dreams, we may project that same attitude onto a parental god. This thinking must be undone.”
Yes, it must. But not just for the benefit of solitary creatives who deserve the psychological and emotional freedom to be who they are and do what they do—to say nothing of a little cultural encouragement along the way!
This is also a liberation movement that matters to the health and wellbeing of our society as a whole. Our collective relationship to creativity matters a lot, because it is the wellspring of vision and inspiration, without which no nation thrives for long. Here is an excerpt from an essay I wrote years ago called “Where Are the Poets?”
I once read a story about the leader of a revolution whose lieutenants asked him on their day of victory, “What would you like us to do first?” Without hesitation he replied, “Round up the poets.”
That’s because any tyrant knows, before there can be opposing armies or mass uprisings there must be ideas that inspire and unite the people. The basic building blocks of our world are ideas. Only later do we pour the concrete, or design software or form parliaments. Control the ideas and you control the world.
True change – social, political, spiritual – falls like rain when the time is right, but only if it has some nucleus to form around. Poets and artists of all kinds are the rainmakers of the world. We seed the clouds with stories that offer new ways of seeing things. We look into the shadows and behind forbidden doors and then scatter what we see in poems, songs, novels, paintings, plays, dances, films, symphonies or sculptures. We pull back the veil of collective denial and hypnosis to examine ourselves as we really are.
Often, true art reminds us how beautiful we are and that the ancient story of love is alive and well, transforming everything it touches. Sometimes the story is not so pleasant, and it forces us to face cultural luggage we’d rather leave in the basement.
So to all those timid artists out there, to all the repressed artists who listened to the nay-saying critics and took their daggers to heart, to everyone with a story to tell in a painting, a play, a book, a poem, a sculpture, a film, a dance, a puppet opera, a song, a skyscraper mural…or any other form yet to be imagined…
We need you! Rise up and make your art, out loud, on purpose, in defiance of gravity, with joy in your awesome artist’s heart. Have courage! See the world as only you can, then tell us the truth about it. Write on the back of napkins, paint on discarded pizza box lids, sing on the subway, dance wherever you go.
Wake up to the amazing gift you are—and pass it on. As Judy Garland said, “Always be a first-rate version of yourself, rather than a second-rate version of somebody else.”