“All great artists are amateurs.”
So said French composer Erik Satie to multi-talented artist Jean Cocteau, at least according to Cocteau’s essay Order Considered As Anarchy. But what did Satie mean by this?
I think he meant that a great artist is always pushing himself into new territory, to domains he has not yet conquered, where he is unsure of himself and, half-lost, struggles to find his way. Here, pushed to the edge of his talent, the artist tries to lasso the wild horses of his creative impulse. He is not content to ride the broken mare, to do what he has done before. He is climbing onto wild things bareback, falling off, picking himself up, spitting the blood from his mouth, and coming back with redoubled determination. He does not know what he is doing; he is learning as he goes. Each scar is a lesson, each broken bone a diploma.
The Artist is forever moving on, Byron’s “eternal pilgrim.” The frontier moves ever forward, and he –the Artist, the Poet, the explorer– gives chase. And as soon as he overtakes it, as soon as he subdues it, puts a boot-heel in its throat, stabs a claim-stake through its middle— it is no longer the frontier, but is on the way to becoming settled territory. The Artist has blazed the trail, and the others will come, and the trail will be paved, and the gas stations and fastfood restaurants and strip malls will follow. But the Artist has already moved on. He chases the butterfly, and the butterfly is not the thing that has been pinned.
Still, there is temptation for the Artist to linger, to re-mingle into the comfortable herd. “Close to the center, safety; toward the edges, danger,” said the American poet Adrienne Rich. It is dangerous on the leading edge– typically poverty-stricken and unappreciated. Why suffer this desolation, this Arctic of love, when if he stayed, the people would catch up to him and praise him? And what Artist in his heart does not crave applause? Even the most rebellious, the most disdainful artist would enjoy having his efforts recognized. So what keeps pushing the great ones forward?
Loyalty to self. The artist who stops pushing onward has turned traitor to self. He has become Cain craving approval, and so has murdered his other self, Abel, who sought the excellent. Society will not know what they have lost with the self-murder, but the Artist will feel it, and he will burn.
“The artist who goes backwards betrays nobody,” says Cocteau in The Cock And The Harlequin. “He only betrays himself.”
The adoring crowd waterlogs the Artist. Few works of lasting merit have been composed while surrounded by sycophants and admirers. Like the male Black Widow spider, an artist who pauses at the climax dooms himself to death. It is not enough merely to succeed. For the Artist, culmination is annihilation.
“The life of a poet who fulfills his promises is a perpetual Autumn,” says Cocteau in Professional Secrets.
Doubtless, there is joy in Autumn, but only the twin joys of fruition and the surpassing of the Summer. Without the full lifespan of the seasons, Autumn would be but a time of bloat, drop, and rot. The Artist –who wishes to continue being an Artist—cannot rest upon his successes, cannot balance one foot upon either side of the zenith. “Equilibrium produces inertia,” says Cocteau in A Letter To The Americans. “Lack of equilibrium produces exchanges.”
The Artist who has found peace is no longer an Artist; he is a tombstone. Still above ground, but representing the dead.
The true Artist will risk all with each throw of the dice. He will reinvent himself with every work. “It is this which enables one to turn one’s back on the preceding work,” says Cocteau in Order Considered As Anarchy, “and with each new work to enjoy all the risks of a debut.”
And, as Cocteau says in A Letter To The Americans, “in the long run, only risk is worthwhile.”
And there is, indeed, plenty of risk to the Artist’s endeavor. He is rooting beneath mere facts to find the deeper Truths running like underground rivers. An Artist is much more than some gatherer of raw data. The world is full of details for all to see— so full in fact, that trees blind us to the forest. The Artist must then not only rediscover truths we have stopped seeing, but must present them to us clothed in some way that will excite our attention. “Truth is too naked,” says Cocteau in The Cock And The Harlequin. “She does not inflame men.” And the Artist, if nothing else, aims to set fire to men.
One can think of the Artist as a bridge. A bridge between Truth and Falsehood, between Light and Dark.
“Man is inhabited by darkness, by monsters from the depths.” says Cocteau in A Letter To The Americans. “He cannot go down into them, but occasionally night-time will dispatch somewhat terrifying ambassadors, through poets.” We do not always enjoy meeting these monsters from within, for as Cocteau says in The Miscreant, “we are full of things which make us hate ourselves.” However, the Artist, by shedding light on what was only vaguely felt, can turn hate into understanding, and understanding can lead to acceptance and growth.
The Artist will suffer as much or more than anyone in wrestling with these monsters from the depths. Nevertheless, an Artist should never go so deep and stay so long that he allows the suffering to consume him. “Suffering never made anyone more beautiful,” says Cocteau in A Letter To The Americans. “The French have not been beautified by it, and since our wounds are ugly, they will grow scars.”
Like many people I, myself, have lived through times of difficult struggle, and take it from me –when all your being is focused on mere survival, when you’re never in a comfortable place with a moment of captured serenity to think, when you can’t obtain the resources you need for your work— not much Art will get done at all, much less good Art. True, if one survives, the time on the cross can serve as a reserve-well to draw from in the future, but it is a chancy proposition that what is gained during the suffering will outweigh the work-hours, practice & development, energy, health, and other experiences (such as travel and society and study) that were lost.
Above all, the Artist must absorb the world around him, for the phenomena and emotions of his environment are what will coat his painter’s palette with the myriad colors he will need to share his personal vision of the world with his audience. The Artist must be always opening doors, not closing them— must be understanding, not censuring— must be accepting, not rejecting.
Cocteau, who often refers to all Artists in any field as “Poets,” declares in Professional Secrets that “the Poet is a believer. In what? In everything.”
One trap that artists fall into in their search for experience is the alluring trap of the hedonist. In an effort to grab as much life as possible, they end up watching it slip through their fingers. In the mad rush into sex, drugs, partying, and making the scene— not only do they miss out on the deeper experiences of the human life (family, lasting friendships, true love, communion with animals and nature), but the focus of their lives shifts from their Art to themselves. At some point, the inflection point is crossed, and the lifestyle takes over the life. Cocteau says of the hedonist in Opium that he “does not seek to create masterpieces, he seeks to become one himself.”
The life energetically lived will not lead to great Art if the experiences gained are not channeled, if places and times are not set aside and serious life-hours dedicated to the Work. “The speed of a runaway horse counts for nothing,” says Cocteau.
For Cocteau, achieving balance between the audacity of a full life and the wisdom of restraint is a matter of tact: “Tact in audacity consists of knowing how far we may go too far,” he says in The Cock And The Harlequin. The Artist has multiple duties to juggle: duties to self and to world, to present and to future. Cocteau suggests that to satisfy these competing claims, Artists “should be men during our lifetimes and Artists for posterity.”