Thursday, December 14, 2023

Music, Creativity, and a New Ideal of Freedom

Music still has a special place in my life, my soul, and my imagination, even though I don’t seem to have the energy to play very often the instruments (cello and guitar) that were so important to my youth. But I still “feel at home” with musicians of all ages and the challenges they face in fulfilling their creative vocation, which entails the sonic articulation of beauty in the particular (even peculiar) ways that they perceive it. 

As I have said before, the realm of beauty is as vast and various as the whole universe of being (which we encounter through beings—in all their amazing diversity and fundamental harmony, with the latter not easily recognized amidst contrasts that may appear to be in conflict). This has nothing to do with the narrow reductions of relativism; rather it pertains to the complexity—and difficulty—of the human ways of engaging reality, and ultimately to beauty’s participation in the ontological mystery of the analogy of being.

When it comes to the particulars of beauty and creativity—especially those that are “closer to the earth”—we can learn a lot from young people. They have fresh intuitions of the wonder of reality, the dramatic character of life, and the radical risk entailed by their newly emerging, fragile, imperiled human freedom. Great creative intuition (particularly in music) often arises at an early age, and even if its initial expressions are flawed, many elements of a mature artist’s creativity are at work from their youth.

I’m still happy to be surprised by young people. Even more surprising is observing the (relatively rare) process of young talent, youthful intuitions of beauty, and youthful collaboration maturing over time and realizing its potential to fashion great works of music. There are many reasons why this potential may not be realized. Sometimes (perhaps most of the time) the ordinary responsibilities of adulthood don’t leave room for the singular dedication required for artistic growth. Many youthful dreams end up on the sidelines of adult life, as avocations, forms of recreation, or hobbies. There is nothing wrong with this; on the contrary, life is thereby broadly enriched. On the other hand the demands of creativity are relentless in themselves, and the effort to realize them “fully” can swallow the rest of the personality, or at least damage it significantly. There are various ruptures that can derail creative activity, or change its course.

Music involves various media that can be shaped individually or in various combinations, including composition, playing musical instruments, recording for audio or audiovisual media, and live performance with the various dynamics that arise in the exchange between performers and audiences. But in a society saturated with “entertainment” — a society that craves consumer products that can be used and thrown away, a society that measures everything according to its restless itch for immediate satisfaction of superficial and often artificially manipulated whims — musicians face pressures that have no essential relation to musical creativity or excellence in their craft.

Musicians and artists are too often diverted by the financial and legal entanglements surrounding creative work in the “music industry,” not to mention the vanities, preoccupations, invasive curiosity, inflated expectations, and inevitably crushing disappointments that come with celebrity status. Few artists have such power over themselves to be able to inhabit all the personae of their stage and screen performances and the shifting public image of celebrity life in such a way that they “make artout of themselves, in the sense of turning their external lives into a continual performance. Those who attempt this will inevitably push themselves too far, hollowing out their already-fragile human foundations and impoverishing their personality. Eventually, their creative sensibility wears out, and they are faced with deeply underdeveloped personalities that have been blocked off from the normal experiences of human maturity. Their inability to live without a role to play can have tragic consequences.

We need to have lots of compassion for those who “entertain” us, to make sure we give them “permission to be human,” so that they can step out of the spotlight, out of their own self-generated dramatic narratives, so that they can rest, contemplate their real lives, and make decisions where they invest their hearts. Their “next album,” or tour, or show can wait. Let’s not participate in the dehumanization of our artists. Rather, let’s support their humanity and be grateful for what they give us.

Artistic creativity doesn’t need the drama of our celebrity culture; it has enough intrinsic pressures, and tends of itself to “tilt” the balance of artists in their ordinary human lives. Insofar as their work demands a fine tuned sensibility, artists become more vulnerable to their environment, other people, and their own emotional states. Without a lot of psychological stability (which is difficult to maintain in our tumultuous era), artistic integrity and perseverance is extremely difficult to maintain. We shouldn’t be surprised that artists tend to be eccentric, peculiar, unconventional people. They need “space” in ways that other people are not likely to fully understand, and sometimes their need to focus can make them appear rude and antisocial, over defensive and self-absorbed. There is indeed the danger that they will become unbalanced and develop bad habits, neglecting personal obligations and taking up unstable and even dangerous behaviors.

Certainly, most creative people seek out ways to integrate their lives, even if it means deprioritizing certain particular ambitions. The circumstances of life call for all kinds of sacrifices, but they are never in vain if they advance people along the path of their more fundamental human vocation. They will find other avenues for their creativity, and share their gifts in ways and in places that would not be otherwise enriched.

There will always be people, however, who are stamped with remarkable natural gifts and energy, who feel “summoned” within the depths of themselves to work tirelessly and consistently to master the forms and media necessary to make works of beauty. Here, the mystery of our humanity is in play in a particular way that can shed light on the lives of everyone. The “artistic vocation” (as a dimension of the basic human vocation) can manifest itself in many ways, but here it has a kind of clarity that should be unmistakable. These people are human. They are not “natural-born geniuses” who have an inherent right to adulation. Rather, they are called and predisposed (this is what we mean by “talent” in the proper sense) to a particular kind of human work, a particular way of giving themselves in love. They need friendship, compassion, understanding, and constructive criticism. They need to be grounded, to be supported by a community. 

They will work very hard. Indeed, they will be relentless. They do not have a license to make their own moral rules; rather, they have a special need for real and authentic freedom. They need patience, encouragement, and “space” for their creative work, which takes time to develop and often unfolds along a messy, bumpy road that others would not want to navigate. They can get sidetracked, make mistakes, go off into dead ends. They need direction, advice, and attention in developing their craft and (like anyone else) in living and growing as a human person. They will continue to work, and they will work best in an atmosphere of human freedom. This does not mean they have some special “right” to violate the common good, or to do evil for the sake of what they imagine to be a “greater good.” Freedom flourishes within the mystery of interpersonal communion. Authentic interpersonal communion also has abundant space within itself for artistic creativity—it has space for the desire for the Infinite that constitutes every human heart, which (needless to say) is a vast space. Personalist-communitarian freedom is human freedom. It is the only real freedom, which means that it is far greater and more “open” than what is offered by the ideology of individualistic freedom that forms the dominant mentality of contemporary Western society. This ideology promises unfettered grasping at alleged “self-realization” but then offers only a range of finite (ultimately dissatisfying) “identity options” controlled by those who wield power. Art needs another kind of freedom; not the individualism that creates the illusion of freedom while making slaves who—at most—are “free to choose” their own master.

For art to flourish, for music to flourish, for humanity to flourish, we need a new ideal of freedom… a freedom large enough for the infinite longing of the human heart.