Much of our uniquely lived human experience involves our capacity for subjective and self-conscious perception – our experience of the world, of ourselves, and of others, through a collage of ephemeral sensations and memories of a lived history, giving rise to a distinct self-awareness in the present moment of the first person perceiver. It entails a phenomenological plane of existence that denies access to others who might seek to fully understand its complexities or share in its experience. Though this subjective world of the self denies companions or visitors, we will often strain to transcend its limits through our use of language. Properly speaking, language is part of the shared cultural domain – it belongs to the public and pluralistic world of shared human subjectivity. In this way we are free to borrow from it, claiming descriptive words as our own, so that we might gain universal recognition in the community of other minds, and through it, a communal sense of meaning that might ultimately bear witness to and validate our solitary experiences.
With the prosthetic aid of symbolic language, we can now recognize the subjective minds of other self-conscious human beings. It is within this symbolic world that we are comforted to find ourselves surrounded by fellow travellers, though we nonetheless remain in the subjective sense, solitary travellers. Through language, for example, you may convince me that you know what it is to feel loneliness, but I know that you can never feel my loneliness; and though we may talk about love, we will never know if my subjective experience of love is the same as yours. Despite our efforts to transcend this subjectivity, such attempts are ultimately doomed to fail – we will never fully breach the walls of our existential isolation. And yet the solitary cry for subjective validation and our deep desire for human connection remain. The psychological struggles of the artist can often mirror the more general struggle to fulfill these human needs – to find ways of transcending the psychological boarders of our self-conscious isolation and discovering meaning in creative self-expression.
The Artist’s Isolation and the Birth of Creation
An artist’s mind may have taken shape for different reasons, but I want to restrict this discussion to a certain kind of artist – one born out of psychological unrest, metaphysical isolation, and cultural rebellion. But before I try to explain what this means, it is important to say a few words about culture.
The human world is full of cultural illusions that provide the masses with artificial sources of meaning and purpose, a sense stability and structure, and prescriptions for symbolic action that fulfill the emotional need for self-esteem. In the western world, for example, meaning is primarily attained through material possession and a process of consumption that is determined by a shifting array of culturally-defined objects that quickly go out of fashion, maintaining the never-ending desire to acquire more; all of this is based on the implicit assumption that following this program makes you a meaningful human being and will eventually lead to your happiness. Most of us will buy into these assumptions – our culture more-or-less demands it. We live our lives as actors on the pre-set stage of our symbolic societies – never daring to peek behind the curtain. To question reality means to disrupt our psychological equanimity – to awaken an existential anxiety that our culture has lulled to sleep before it had a chance to properly awaken.
The mind of the artist will at times grow from the seeds of a psychological unrest, initiated by an intuitive sense of estrangement from mainstream society, or an inability to fit within traditional cultural molds. This may result from the inability to find socially prescribed sources of meaning, purpose, and unity, or alternatively, from their having been rejected by cultural representatives or themselves rejecting traditional societal roles and values. Whatever the cause, the individual finds themselves in the psychologically discomforting place of living, either by circumstance or choice, as something of a social outsider, mentally estranged from the mainstream cultural world of meanings.
The individual I am describing is thus doubly isolated: not only in that phenomenological plane of existential isolation that we all experience, but also from the psychological comforts that otherwise accompanies a blind allegiance to an unquestioned cultural worldview. They instead become a kind of cultural spectator or outside observer, which has the interesting effect of allowing a more honest account of societal values. Since they are not fully submersed as an active participant of mainstream culture (whose psychological equanimity is dependent on not questioning the societal assumptions that offer illusory meaning and purpose), the individual thus described has a unique, though perhaps isolating perspective, that allows them to question and even challenge the assumptions of mainstream society, which in turn reinforces and maintains their partial exile from it. Refusing to be an unquestioning participant within mainstream culture, they use their unique outside perspective to emerge as one of its most ardent critics.
This process can often explain why many of the great poets, painters, musicians, and writers of their time, have most often been the first to challenge cultural tradition, while providing passionate force and insight that gave way to new revolutionary movements in human history. For example, the paintings of Joseph Wright embodied the spirit of hope, excitement, and renewed faith in human progress, which coincided with the enlightenment and the industrial revolution that followed. Lord Byron was a British poet that later pioneered a protest against what he saw as the scientific rationalization of nature, leading the Romantic Movement that thrived in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. We can also think about how more recent poets, musicians, and artists, from Andy Worhol, to Oliver Stone or Bob Dylan, have helped illuminate and at times challenge the cultural assumptions that we often take for granted.
So in a way, the artist that I am describing is an individual that has been able to step outside of mainstream culture – to at times view it as an observer. But again, culture is the source of symbolic meaning and where we derive a sense of purpose – it fills a psychological need, but it loses much of its power when its assumptions are challenged or questioned. A self-conscious human being, who does not have a secure psychological tether to a meaningful worldview, risks falling into nihilism, despair, or even insanity. We have all heard of artists whose psychological burdens appear to have been especially heavy – Mozart, Monet, or Van Gogh, for example. A full disjointing from our cultural meaning systems threatens a societal isolation and even social death. But this is part of what also drives this kind of artist down the path toward creation. For while the untethering from cultural illusion risks mental disharmony through the death and destruction of meaning and the sacrificing of one’s solid footing in the realm of stable and comfortable ideas, it also offers the possibility that something new may emerge. If the human mind can withstand residing in the isolation of this psychological desert, it may find the most fertile ground for unique creation. In the words of Rollo May:
“Every original thought requires that I let something in myself go; it is to some extent a death. I cannot have a new idea except that something in my old way of thinking dies which has been tied to my security … recognition of death is essential to the creative act and the creative act in itself, from human birth on, is the capacity to die in order that something new may be born” – May, Existential Psychotherapy, 1966, p. 57
And here this kind of individual emerges into the artist. Unable to find validation of their subjective conscious existence in mainstream cultural prescriptions, they find meaning in their rebellion against it, and in the intuitive urge to create. And it is through this expressive creation that they give thought, voice, or image to their human experience. Descartes’s “I think, therefore I exist,” became Camus’ “I rebel, therefore I exist,” which in turn explains the artist’s: “I create, therefore I exist.”
Subjective Validation through Artistic Creation
The artist, through creation, expresses their subjective interpretation of the world. This may involve an uncovering of what exists, a highlighting of the beauty or viciousness of the world, or representative of a more humanistic statement, a profound contrast, a feeling, or of a longing or nostalgia for hope or unity. Until now, the artist has been isolated and partially estranged from mainstream culture, and consequently, from ways of attaining meaning, validation, or unity. But the act of symbolic creation offers a means through which one might reify this experience, which becomes even more real through the mutual recognition and validation by other subjective minds.
In this way it has the capacity to touch the unconscious feelings, needs, and desires in all of us. The artist, by projecting some part of their subjective experience into their symbolic creations, speaks to our own subjective experiences. With a poetic lyric in song, or in a melodic combination of notes, it touches some part of our own subjective reality, where it may cause us to experience a chill down our necks, our hair standing on end, or a tear forming in our eyes. It has the capacity to evoke various feelings, to heighten awareness, and our promote insight and self-reflection.
Through the act of creation, the artist is in a way attempting to heal him or herself… to bring something of themselves or their subjective experience into existence, and by doing so to find validation, meaning, and reconciliation. Art can also be healing to the rest of us, in the same way that psychological therapy can be healing – by evoking a powerful feeling that was hitherto unknown to the self-conscious individual. In this way it speaks to our unconscious – allowing us to reconnect to parts of ourselves and with something that validates this experience or feeling. This is sometimes called intersubjectivity – our feeling felt by some other self-conscious creature, touching some essence of our own subjective conscious existence, thus allowing us to temporarily transcend the limits of our isolation. It allows us to know that someone else felt like we do now – to sense that we are not alone in the world. But art, like language, has its subjective limits – which is why some people will feel something very different hearing the same piece of music, reading the same poem, or looking at the same painting. Or why someone experiencing some form of art may be moved in a way unintended by the artist who created it.
It is important to recognize that the artist gains something in this process as well – feeling heard, felt, validated, and at times understood, through their creation. They escape their own loneliness, and perhaps acquire some sense of meaning in having touched others with their work. The artist gets a taste of what they had forgotten they wanted – to escape their isolation and find connection with others. But to do so, they may have to leave the isolated desert from whence they came – where the initial struggle led to their artistic creations.
Mainstream society may accept the artist with open arms, but not its dissenting tone – it wants conformity, or else it risks true rebellion and a revision of our cultural assumptions; while this is often desirable from an objective perspective, it would threaten our psychological homeostasis. Though we are often unaware of it, we often work to maintain the societal values and assumptions – even if they are in many ways problematic.
Art may have started as a criticism of mainstream culture, but in order for the message to be acceptable to the masses, it needs to be re-packaged in a way that assimilates the message in a more diluted form that diffuses the threat. The artist is now faced with an implicit choice between sticking to their initial source of rebellion – their morals, principles, or values that have up till now run counter to mainstream culture, or in their exhausted isolation and desire to find comfortable meaning in the conventional system of ideas, they compromise themselves. Since our present culture is one based on production and consumption, we call this process “selling-out.” The artist thus falls comfortably into the cultural fold and the one-time threat to mainstream society, now becomes one of its passive constituents, or worse, an unknowing accomplice.
I want to conclude this piece by stating again that it is little more than a rough sketch about a certain kind of artist, how most artists have at least an inkling of rebelliousness, how meaning can be found in art, and how our need for subjective affirmation can be partially reconciled through art. No other creature creates for the sake of personal satisfaction – there is something about a healthy society that needs art; that it represents an ability to critique what exists, to affirm our human experiences, and the capacity to heal a fractured human mind.