Choosing Yourself

Rembrandt Self-Portrait completed 4 years before his death in 1665. Rembrandt may have died blind, poverty-stricken and largely ignored, but his work lives on 350 years after his death, his name now synonymous with the word genius. That’s not such bad a deal in the grand scheme of things.

“What you need is to free yourself from your own preconceived ideas about yourself. It will take a revolution to do it, and many times you will think yourself on the road only to find that the old habit has possessed you again with a new preconception. But if you can at least to a degree free yourself, take your head off your heart and give the latter a chance, something may come of it. The results will not be what you expect, but they will be like you and it will be the best that can come from you.” — Robert Henri

Here, we talk a lot about discipline, preparation, and balance. The reason is because it’s through such means that we make the life we lead truly our own. It is, as Robert Henri states, no easy proposition. But is there a better alternative? Would you prefer someone else tell you how you should live? We all know that governments and private industry are more than happy to fulfill such a role. If we want freedom, know that it comes attached to personal responsibility.

I was visiting a boxing gym recently and came across the above quote on the window. It’s true, if it isn’t hard it isn’t worth doing.

Positive change is hard. We all know it. But to be yourself, to live honestly, requires full consciousness and awareness. We must look and see, listen and hear. The senses are our tools and they must be well-maintained and our usage of them must be practiced. We cannot, unlike the majority of society, afford to be lost in the noise. It’s not healthy nor natural for the artist to chase things. Instead he pays attention, contemplates, and then responds. This ritualistic practice is what allows him to see and create beyond what is common or mundane.

As we enter into the Fourth Industrial Revolution — the fusion of the physical and biological spheres with that of Artificial Intelligence and Robotics — we shall witness a dramatic altering of our social and economic fabric. It’s a time when our artistic awareness is more valuable than ever. Our sensibilities to our environment and humanity allows us to see and adapt to change, even foretell the future so to speak. It’s not surprising that it wasn’t the scientists or industrialists who foresaw how technology would change how we live but the writers and filmmakers of science fiction.

A harrowing scene from Stanley Kubrick’s groundbreaking and prescient 2001: A Space Odyssey, a film created almost 50 years ago. 

Technology has always altered the world as it entered it. But modern technology has taken a giant leap from the cantilever or printing press; the power of digital media and its emergence as a way of working, living and socializing has altered the entire consciousness of our species. Or, as stalwart historian and media expert Marshall McLuhan states from his seminal work, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, it appears that only creatives have a chance at even accurately acknowledging what is happening:

“The effects of technology do not occur at the levels of opinions or concepts but alter sense ratios or patterns of perception steadily and without resistance. The serious artist is the only person able to encounter technology with impunity, just because he is an expert aware of the changes in sense perception.” — Marshall McLuhan

The city at night in current Shanghai, China.

The city at night from the movie Blade Runner (1982). Ridley Scott’s and Phillip K. Dick’s dystopian future world is not quite here nor are its flying cars, but the themes in question are becoming very much pertinent in our times. What will become of our world? What is it to be human?

Times are changing. The world in front of us, already doesn’t look much like the world we’re leaving behind. In a short 150 years, and more substantially, since the advent of computers and the internet, change is expanding in both size and speed — automation will bring unprecedented and even unforeseeable change. Even the great poets have acknowledged this transformation of our world:

“The visible world is no longer a reality and the unseen world is no longer a dream.” — W. B. Yeats

Hence the artist carries a very important role in society and in mankind’s evolution. Not only do we record our history more comprehensively (i.e. being inclusive of direct human experience versus just pure facts or data), but we can, at times, predict our own future and more importantly, even shape it. So it becomes paramount that any creative remain true and pure as he can be. He must be faithful to himself. This is what we want from him.

Study of a Horse by Leonardo da Vinci. Can you imagine our world without the great contributions from the artists of the Renaissance? Leonardi da Vinci’s contributions go beyond science or art because his work encompassed both.

It’s also important to maintain an optimistic outlook. Yes, it’s frightening what advancing digital technology will mean for jobs, social security and survival. But for every crisis, there lies great opportunity. If we, as artists, develop and access our acuity in our sensory perception, we won’t become “machines.” We may work with them or alongside them, but we can remain aware and sensitive to the social and emotional impact that our changing environment brings. Instead, we look for beauty, both in joy and in sadness. It’s the reason why this blog refuses to fall towards despair or complaint despite co-existing in an unfair world that is becoming more and more machine-like everyday. The business and scientific world is obsessed with numbers. The artist’s abilities and responsibilities lie in the intangibles, in the humane. We must continue to value and develop our very human sensibilities.

“When written in Chinese, the word ‘crisis’ is composed of two characters. One represents danger and the other represents opportunity.” — John F. Kennedy

But if we give away our freedom or our individuality, we kill what is the most human part of us — our unconscious and our soul — things that sense and see with greater precision than the rational mind. It’s well known, for instance in psychology, that a repressed soul leads to neurosis. Our society needs its writers, artists and poets to be healthy, free and true. The sane and lucid artist is one who chooses himself. He must ignore society’s current opinion of him. He serves it best by being imaginative and honestly expressive in his work. That’s where his generosity lies. He has to make a choice to be happy.

“Happiness is not an ideal of reason, but of imagination.” — Immanuel Kant

Even this humble blog has to make choices. It wouldn’t be hard to post daily quick anecdotes or secret tricks of the trade that will “vastly” improve skills or lead to “creative success.” That would certainly garner far more followers or “hits” to the website — to make it short and easy to read, a place that lures and promises with fast answers and quick witted humor surrounded by strategically placed advertisements to “monetize” my efforts. That’s what our society currently values, accepts, and expects. It’d certainly be easier to produce and less time-consuming than spending the many hours to put together what I have done here. Why write 1000 or 2000 word essays when 100 word excerpts would suffice? But then, the generosity and spirit of what I want to share wouldn’t surface. I’d be like everyone else — after a quick buck, chasing immediate attention to satisfy an insecure ego. To be different means to take a risk. To be true to oneself means to be different.*

“I think real artists are too busy with just being and growing and acting (on canvas or however) like themselves to worry about the end. The end will be what it will be. The object is intense living (and) fulfillment” — Robert Henri

*In the same generous spirit of this blog, I ask that you multiply the contributions here by sharing this free blog, whenever you can, on your own sites or social media platforms.