Friday 1 June 2012

Passion and Principle

It's not uncommon in the arts to find artists condemning critics. Here's Dr Johnson, for example
 "Criticism is a study by which men grow important and formidable at very small expense. He whom nature has made weak, and idleness keeps ignorant, may yet support his vanity by the name of a critic."
But Goethe got it just right..
"The person of analytic or critical intellect finds something ridiculous in everything. The person of synthetic or constructive intellect, in almost nothing."
Critics are usually borne of universities. Artists rarely are - and this has started me thinking about my own practice in writing papers, doing this blog, writing software, but failing artistically (on the whole) to express myself. It is my own failure which interests me most. Of that failure I can only be a critic... yet I would always rather be an artist.

There is something about passion here. Passion is a virtue for the artist, yet a failing for the critic. For the critic, the cold, analytical, rational tearing-apart, rendering ridiculous, dismissing (or sometimes valuing) of something is the principal modus operandi. If a critic isn't analytical, they aren't any good as a critic. An artist on the other hand, may be encouraged to be rational by critics and academics (and praised for being so), but if their work is devoid of passion, few good critics will find room to praise it. Critics seek a bridge between the cold world  of analysis and the warmth of passion, over which they might hope one day to pass. But raw passion many can't abide - where the style overflows with feeling and may be seen to lack structure or coherence (in their view). Such is the academic view of much 'outsider' art, or the music of some of my favourite composers (particularly Delius).

Recently, I blogged about the difference between improvising and composing (see I argued that the difference between the two was a difference in the approach to meaning: that improvising was an active search for something meaningful, whilst composing was a process of constructing a frame for something meaningful. This led me to think about why I find it relatively easy to write papers and improvise music, whilst I find it difficult to compose music, and fairly difficult to write larger things like my PhD.

I want to add something to this argument. I have composed in the past, and I managed to finish my PhD - but only when I unlocked a passionate involvement with what I was doing. It was only when my feelings in the process of doing this became rather 'unsafe' that it was possible to see the project through. Yet, the passionate side of creative action is frightening: with the passion goes vulnerability and something that borders insanity. Yet, and I think this is the main point, it is absolutely essential if anything of real beauty is to be achieved (not that my PhD had much beauty in it!). Whilst passion is locked away, all that will come out will be sterile.

This, I now think, is a principle: that the richest use of any life is to do something beautiful. This can only happen with the unlocking of passion, but the unlocking of passion presents the greatest dangers too. Some degree of temperance, even of some degree of criticism, is necessary if the world is not to fall into chaos. But we are in great danger of over-doing temperance in the form of 'expedient living'. That way lies a creative failure not only in not creating beauty, but in failing to appreciate it.

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