Art as the Starting Point

Pretend you’re an Effective Altruist. Go put on some goggles and imagine what it would be like to evaluate every major life decision you make based on a utility calculation that assumes all beings are roughly equal in their importance to you. I’ll wait.

Are you still allowed to paint, or sing? How can you justify that when you, and maybe a handful of others, are the only ones who will ever see pleasure from it? At the very most, you could justify them as strategies for keeping yourself sane long enough to throw yourself back into optimising the distribution of malaria nets to people in developing countries or something. They aren’t allowed to be real, meaningful activities in their own right, of course.

‘All morality is aesthetics.’

Insufferable, yes, but this quote has something real to say.

How do you set goals? I don’t mean, how do you define the ones you think you already have, but how do you choose which ones to have or to consider at all? Do you, on New Year’s Day, get out a fresh white sheet of paper and empty onto it all of the things that feel important to you in that moment? Where does that feeling of importance come from? Who will notice if you achieve them?

What feeling would you get if you became the kind of person who either could achieve all those goals effortlessly, or for whom the act of even setting them at all became obsolete?

This has happened to me a few times in some ways. If I look back at old goal documents, things like ‘stop eating sugar’ and ‘wake up at 7am’ and ‘train 3x per week’ keep appearing over and over again. Like I had a little vial of willpower and I could squirt some onto each of these goals to water them and see them grow. For years I oscillated in how I ate sugar – ricocheting from eating quite a lot of sugar and feeling guilty about it, and eating no sugar at all, not even a tiny bit, and feeling sanctimonious about it. But that only ever lasted a month or two, then it would gradually fall back into the valley of guilt and make me feel guilty again.

Many things you want can be easy to get, but it requires going up a layer of abstraction and seeing what is holding the pendulum pattern in place. Like finding the one place you need to brace your straw bridge so that it won’t fall down, 90% of intelligent goal setting (of the ‘live a happy and healthy human life’ variety) involves working out what gets in the way of you ‘succeeding’ all the time by default, and then removing that specific part of the equation. Motivational acupuncture, rather than physiotherapy or weightlifting.

The funny thing about getting a handle on your relationship with sugar is that I actually eat sugar now. I ate a bunch of cupcakes yesterday when my housemate brought them home from work, because that was the thing that my whole body and soul felt was right in the moment. My diet right now doesn’t seem to make me gain weight and it mostly doesn’t make me lethargic.

It seems like the thing I wanted before, when I wanted to stop eating sugar, was actually relief from guilt. Turns out there are ways of getting that other than becoming a teetotaller and cutting a huge swathe of modern food out of your diet. Relaxed into a more sensible relationship with sugar and its after effects, I can actually pay way more attention to what is happening in my body before, during and after eating it, and all that information feeds back in to whatever loop in my brain triggers the desire or lack of desire to eat sugar. I can feel this loop working as intended – when I’m anxious and my body can’t deal with complex healthy foods with bitter flavours, eating something sweeter is actually a great option, and I endorse it wholeheartedly.

Nowadays, what I aim at is wholeheartedness – in the sense of having the whole of my heart pointing in roughly the same direction. So many of us are split and fragmented by our many allegiances and we never quite realise how fully this fucks over our ability to take any action at all. Being (or becoming) sane requires a constant and rapid re-knitting of new and upcoming parts of ourselves into something always approaching but never exactly becoming a coherent whole. And this brings me back to art.

For a long time art was the most splintered-off part of me. I had been an artist for a long time, but I couldn’t really understand why, and I felt kind of empty about it – about the idea of making art. I put off considering the question of why I did it at all, why I had spent so much of my life on it already for a few years by picking entirely different media – I started to write essays and poems, I learned to play instruments I never had before, and I studiously avoided picking up a paintbrush. I analysed the usefulness of painting with an idealistic lens, but every time I tried, I left with the feeling that the way I was approaching things was ridiculous.

Then, I connected deeply with someone who identified as an artist – who loved and valued art for its own sake as the core of their being. It triggered a wake up call to the fact that art -did- mean something important to me that I was ignoring and that part of me was cold and dying and maybe didn’t have to be any more.

At the same time I was struggling to find meaning in the work I was doing. Practical, slightly bullshit white collar work – the kind that only exists because some men somewhere have way more money than anyone else and want to pay you to work on their rocketship, like a giant distributed mechanical horse race between silver-spooned peers.

How could I know what work would feel meaningful to me? And how would I know how well the internal feeling of meaningfulness translated into actually meaningful work, or change, or ‘impact’ (to use the haughtily overused term)?

In a bookstore in the Haight, I picked up a book on a whim called ‘Art & Fear – Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking’. The authors took as a given – as an obvious and not-even-worth-questioning assumption – that you would direct your time and attention towards expressing what was most important and true for you, that that would likely happen through making art, and that this was at least -a- way of orienting a deeply meaningful life. This sounds obvious on the outside, but from nestled deep within the optimisatron techno-scale cult of the Bay Area, where people use spiritual practices as a way of improving their productivity to get better at their jobs, this orientation was one that in my life has been undervalued and sorely lacking.

And then, I kept reading, but everywhere I saw the word ‘art’, I replaced it in my mind with the word ‘work’.

Why was I so dissatisfied with my (paid, professional) work? Because it was misaligned with my values and sense of what needed to be put into the world. Why did I get disillusioned with my circus show? Many reasons, but the biggest, starkest one is that it felt like I wasn’t saying anything I wanted to say – it felt empty and meaningless.

This wasn’t about utility or ‘impact’. It was about me, and my sense of self, and how that tied in to what I wanted to make in the world.

There’s an underlying assumption in a lot of conversation about meaning and purpose in Western society that implies something like the highest good is service, or being selfless, and working for the good of other people. But this seems a little dysfunctional when you pull it out and stare at it like that, because if everyone did it, we would all kind of be standing around waiting for someone else to tell us what they wanted, but no one would, because they would all be selfless too. This stance negates how brutally interconnected we are naturally, without doing anything about it. A lover helping their lover or a mother serving her child are all in a pretty meaningful way being selfish – because they would personally feel the pain of not doing so.

Another book I’ve been reading (maybe one should pair books to read at the same time, the same way one pairs meals with wine) is called ‘The Guru Papers: Masks of Authoritarian Power’. One of the authors’ main arguments is that the authoritarianism of religious leaders is dangerous when they demand someone place higher trust outside of themselves than inside of them. Self-trust becomes replaced by ‘trust in X’ where X is a guru or deity or belief structure (like science). They argue that any sort of social structure that convinces people en masse that they are not fundamentally worthy of their own trust becomes easy pickings for corruption and abuse by those in power.

They also argue that such structures are embedded deeply into many broader aspects of our society than just explicit high-demand cults and fundamentalist religions, and that ’embedding in society’ takes the form of powerful beliefs in the minds of individuals who participate in that society.

It’s not too far of a jump (and it’s a jump the authors of the Guru Papers make) to see the tyranny of ‘selflessness as the highest good’ as a continuation of this embedded societal authoritarianism. This structure says ‘you do not care enough about others to trust your own desires in order to behave in a caring way towards them; you must submit to a demanding set of rules that defines how important different people should be to you and let that override what you personally know and feel’. I started to wonder would happen if we didn’t treat this structure as the automatic highest good anymore.

So how does this relate to art?

In Art & Fear, the authors frame the act of artistic creation as aligning with the deepest needs and desires of your self and who you are as a person, and then turning those desires into something manifested in the world. Humans have a lot of need and desire for beauty, and for connection, so it isn’t surprising that when we listen to this part of us that we want to make beautiful or loving things, and experience beauty and love.

But we also have needs we like to acknowledge less, and the one that I was ashamed to look at but that is probably a big driver of a lot of my so-called ‘altruism’ is power. This makes simple sense if we think about it from the perspective of an individual. If we trust ourselves and our view of the world, we think our worldview is basically good and we want to see it flourish. In order for our visions to flourish we need to have the ability to turn them into reality.

Beyond some baseline of safety, power allows us to demand that the world adhere to our idiosyncratic visions of how things should be. The fact that we want this is neither good or bad, although it invariably creates conflict (which in and of itself can be good or bad). But by wanting to create powerful things, or have power by creating things, we expand the scope of what artistic creation is much further than only explicit pieces of art. One could see a highly realised artist simply as someone who has a deep connection to their internal vision of the world, deep trust in that vision being good (that is borne out of experience and effort), and the power and fluency to transmit that vision into the external world via whatever media necessary.

At this point, the difference between an artist, or an entrepreneur, or an activist is kind of moot. They’re all really doing the same thing.

One of the more beautiful and simple points the authors of Art & Fear make about this relationship to vision/internal self is that most of the time what happens is that the vision gets corrupted by the process of making the envisioned thing. This is a failure of both the act of envisioning and the act of enacting or creating. The shortfall between the vision and reality is the thing that causes deep pain to the artist (or activist/entrepreneur), and was something I used to believe was deeply wrong, but in Art & Fear they understand it as literally just the price of admission of truly being alive. The act of envisioning always can and should outpace the ability you have to create – anything less is probably a failure of vision. Similarly, envisioning without creating at all is stunted, a form of intellectual masturbation that only acknowledges the optimistic, naive part of the process and ignores the part that takes the vision from empty to meaningful.

So how does one set goals then?

If altruism is mostly authoritarian selflessness plus a normal need for power plus a normal need for love and beauty, then acknowledging the deeply selfish origins of altruism is necessary and, to be honest, actually fine – and pursuing altruist projects is a fundamentally creative act. From this perspective, a totalising value-framework like EA or the modern cult of productivity is a hack that is likely both suppressing our innate, worthwhile desires and offering us security via some kind of ‘right answers’, that might be useful as training wheels, but not when we are courageous and trying to express the best and deepest parts of ourselves.

This gives us some pretty good guides to get a sense of when we might be going off the rails, AND gives us a way of balancing wildly divergent kinds of work and kinds of projects against each other. Potential guiding questions:

  • Is this the thing I most deeply, deeply want? Are there other ways of getting what I want that would be richer, more meaningful, or more straightforward?
  • If doing this thing were suddenly taboo or seen as immoral by others or ‘society’ would I still want to do it? How much of my desire to do ‘good things’ is driven by controlling forces outside of myself?
  • Am I actually implementing my visions? Am I actually making work? Or am I using envisioning better things as a pacifier to soothe myself from the pain of how life is right now?
  • Is the form of the work I’m doing the truest way to create what I want? Is this a painting but it should be a song? A company but it should be a manifesto?

Each of these are the kinds of questions you could ask yourself regularly for the rest of your life. They are guiding question, opening questions, not stopping questions. They open up directions and deepen certainly rather than coming to a ‘right answer’ that stops the asking from continuing.

As I wrestle with how I relate to things as diverse as singing a song, analysing an economic system and taking a job at a company, this is the kind of ship I consider myself steering now. Of course, you still need to do what you need to to survive (whatever that means to you) but if, like me, you’re one of the lucky ones, you don’t have to orient all of your attention focusing on that. You can look at what you pay attention to and what you make and be curious about what it is you’re really trying to express, and then become the person whose vision you would be excited to bring into the world, in whatever medium you choose.

(Incidentally, this wonderful essay by Joe Edelman tackles the same kind of idea but from a different frame, looking at it from the lens of values rather than self-expression.)

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