Inspiration

Words of Encouragement by Chris Hall

Photo by Bob Mullen.

Photo by Bob Mullen.

“Artists are fiery, they do not weep!” - Ludwig van Beethoven

"What is to give light must endure burning" — Viktor E. Frankl


Life can be hard for artists, especially artists with an uncompromising vision.  But just remember who you are.  You are a force of nature, an artist!  Unlike others, you had the strength, the balls to pursue your artistic vision, irregardless of what other people think.  Many people wish they had your life, but they were cowards, and they followed other pursuits.  You dared to live, dared to fail!  Remember the poem “Self-Pity” by D.H. Lawrence:  

I never saw a wild thing
sorry for itself.
A small bird will drop frozen dead from a bough
without ever having felt sorry for itself.

You are that wild thing.  You are that rare bird who delights in singing songs in the dead of winter.  Keep making art, no matter what happens.  Art is your weapon against death in life.  Always remember why you make art.  As Nietzsche says, “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.”

Finally, take comfort in Charles Bukowski's poem, “The Laughing Heart”:

your life is your life
don’t let it be clubbed into dank submission.
be on the watch.
there are ways out.
there is a light somewhere.
it may not be much light but
it beats the darkness.
be on the watch.
the gods will offer you chances.
know them.
take them.
you can’t beat death but
you can beat death in life, sometimes.
and the more often you learn to do it,
the more light there will be.
your life is your life.
know it while you have it.
you are marvelous
the gods wait to delight
in you. 

Now get up, and get back to making more art!

Loneliness by Chris Hall

Vincent van Gogh,  Old Man Sorrowing - At Eternity's Gate , 1890.

Vincent van Gogh, Old Man Sorrowing - At Eternity's Gate, 1890.

“A great fire burns within me, but no one stops to warm themselves at it, and passers-by only see a wisp of smoke”  Vincent van Gogh 

Sometimes being an artist can be quite lonely.  There are the hours spent alone in the studio working.  Working, because you love it and because you feel compelled to do it, true, but this work also comes with the sacrifice of not spending time with family and friends.  A true friend will stick by you, but fair weather friends will forget about you after a while.  There is also the whole being misunderstood thing (cliché as it might sound, it is still a hard fact that can lead to feelings of isolation from society).  If the conditions are right, inevitably loneliness will set in, and if you are particularly susceptible to darker moods, such as Van Gogh, or myself even, depression might take hold.

Being misunderstood and marginalized by society is the worse of the two.  It can lead to ugliness and bitter feelings.  Consider Van Gogh's words, though:

What am I in the eyes of most people — a nonentity, an eccentric, or an unpleasant person — somebody who has no position in society and will never have; in short, the lowest of the low.  All right, then — even if that were absolutely true, then I should one day like to show by my work what such an eccentric, such a nobody, has in his heart.  That is my ambition, based less on resentment than on love in spite of everything, based more on a feeling of serenity than on passion.  Though I am often in the depths of misery, there is still calmness, pure harmony and music inside me.  I see paintings or drawings in the poorest cottages, in the dirtiest corners.  And my mind is driven towards these things with an irresistible momentum.

How did he do it?  How did he not fall into bitterness and avoid misanthropy?  Many people, including myself, would be tempted to boycott beauty, to purposefully make a bad art, but not Van Gogh.  Instead, Van Gogh redoubled his efforts into producing beautiful art.  How unimaginable that is to me.  Van Gogh had the remarkable patience of a Saint!

I've read Melville's Moby Dick more times than any other book in my life.  It has had a huge impact on my art, and on other artist's work as well.  Robert Motherwell championed it, as did Jackson Pollock.  Laurie Anderson called it “the Expressionist's Bible.”  In Moby Dick, Melville, who was himself no stranger to darker moods, writes the following:  

There is a wisdom that is woe; but there is a woe that is madness.  And there is a Catskill eagle in some souls that can alike dive down into the blackest gorges, and soar out of them again and become invisible in the sunny spaces.  And even if he for ever flies within the gorge, that gorge is in the mountains; so that even in his lowest swoop the mountain eagle is still higher than other birds upon the plain, even though they soar. 

Wise words.

Technicians of Ecstasy - Shamanism and the Modern Artist by Chris Hall

I recently finished reading Technicians of Ecstasy – Shamanism and the Modern Artist, by Mark Levy.  In it he profiles 27 artists in three different categories, Seeing, Dreaming, and Performing, and gives details about various Shamanic techniques that contemporary artists can use to advance their own work.  I thoroughly enjoyed the book, and my copy is now marked up with underlined passages, asterisks, margin notes, and tea stains (I spilled tea on it on the day I finished reading it and had to dry out the pages).  I can not recommend this book enough to anyone who might be interested in the areas where spirituality, psychology, and fine art intersect.  In the final pages of the book, Levy advocates a return to spiritual values in art, and gives us a kind of call to arms.  The following quotes are culled from the Conclusion of Mark Levy's book.  I thought they might bear repeating here. 

“In the beginning, in prehistoric times, the roles of artist and shaman were not separated.  Shamans were, in fact, the most gifted artists in their community.”  

“Currently, in post-modern art where, in the words of Nietzsche “nothing is true and everything is permitted,” the task of re-valuing the world with spiritual meaning becomes especially urgent.”  

“I believe the role of the artist as shaman will become increasingly attractive for artists who are seeking to go beyond the idiosyncratic selfishness, commodity fetishism, adherence to fashion, and sterile appropriation that informs much of contemporary art.  Many contemporary artists simply borrow spiritual contents by appropriating images and styles from a wide range of cultures, including tribal art.  The result is a simulacrum of meaning which lacks depth.  Art that uncovers authentic truth requires difficult and sometimes dangerous journeys.”

“Shamanic techniques, when used properly, offer essentially non-destructive means for artists to invite visions and gain knowledge about themselves.  Works of art evolving from these visions continue to nourish their audiences.  The opportunity for artists to make positive contributions to their communities also eliminates their own feelings of alienation and exclusion.”

“In shifting attention from common sense or “consensus reality,” artists as shamans succeed in expanding their consciousness and the consciousness of their communities and offer blueprints for spiritual development.”  

I Am An Artist by Chris Hall

John Walker,  Oceania - My Dilemma III , 1983

John Walker, Oceania - My Dilemma III, 1983

I am a Giant, a Brute, a Savage Force of Nature.  You try to deny me with your skepticism, bind me with your pessimism, erase me with the shallowness of your intellect, sedate me with the tranquilizer darts of mundanity, forget me by relegating me to the margins and footnotes of history . . . but I always come back, and I always triumph in the end.  I am a life force and I only grow stronger.  I experience death, only to learn its secrets and return, reborn in another body.  I insist on the authenticity of my wounds.  My paint brush drips red with the fire-blood of inner passion.  My words are the winds of wisdom that blows, chilling you to the core.  

I am a vessel for all that is vital in this world.  I am a channel for all that is hidden and ubiquitous.  I know the distance between the North and the South, the East and the West, the Upper and the Lower Realms, the Past, the Present and the Future.  My experience is electric and moves at the speed of light.  My nervous system reaches to the other side of the world, to the Moon and back.  I know the Universal Void.  I see colors impossible for you to see.  I can take myself apart and put myself back together again.  I can hear a pin drop on the bottom of the cold seas.  I feel things that you do not even have words for.   I am an artist.  What do you do?

Outrage by Chris Hall

Dr. Martin Luther King in 1963.

Dr. Martin Luther King in 1963.

"Anger is an energy."  John Lydon.

Forcing yourself to be happy, to always look at the bright side of life, while living in the midst of social and economic injustice is the mentality of the slave.  Outrage, when deserved, is healthy, proper, and fitting.  I will never choose to purposefully put blinders over my eyes, or let life's indignities steam-roll over me.  I will always fight for justice, for what is right.  And you, too, have every right to be outraged.  Expressions of outrage are healthy for society.  It is how things get changed in this word.  If no one speaks up, the status quo will continue.  

I am reminded of Dr. Martin Luther King, when he said, "Human salvation lies in the hands of the creatively maladjusted."  As artists, we often see injustice before others, because of our sensitivity and also the fact that the world can be outright hostile and prejudiced toward us.  It is our duty to speak up, to defend ourselves and others.  

Sometimes I think I thrive on being pissed off – (though I do worry that it might someday consume me), but most of the time I have to find strength to tell truth to power and to do what is right.  I do not like conflict, argument, or fighting.  It is not in my nature.  I am all too susceptible to outrage and anger, but it is not my preferred state of mind.  But someone has got to speak up, to do what is right.  And if others more adept will not do it, then I must. 

On the Proper Use of Art Materials by Chris Hall

“Art – my slats!  Guts!  Guts!  Life!  Life!  I can paint with a shoe-string dipped in pitch and lard.” George Luks.

In art is good to use the right tools for your project, and to use the best quality material possible, but this isn't a hard rule, and we shouldn't let some notion of the proper use of materials prevent experimentation.  Art products can become so specialized in their application and use that it is sometimes difficult to keep up with the latest innovation.  At times it is good to remember that the cave artists of long ago managed just fine with spit and clay pigment.  Some artists can be quite dictatorial and will insist on specific art brands when there are many other viable options.  I favor a more democratic approach to using materials.  If today you can not afford the cadmium red, go for the cadmium red hue.  If today you can not afford the Rives BFK, go for the Stonehenge.  So long as it doesn't cause your project to physically fall apart, I am fine.  What matters is that you are making art today, and not waiting until tomorrow.  Art needn't be made of fancy materials for it to be successful.  Nine times out of ten, the artist makes it or breaks it, not the art materials.  A real artist, after all, can transform a pile of trash into a masterpiece.  Art can be an physical and material inquiry just as much as an philosophical, psychological, or spiritual inquiry.  So remain open minded in your use of materials and experiment a little.  Go ahead and search, and discover something new.  Who knows, you might just produce something really fucked up and interesting!

You Can Not Live Without Art by Chris Hall

You can not live without art.  Perhaps you might think otherwise, because you have never purchased a painting or you have never attempted to make a piece of artwork on your own.  But you pass by art in the doctor's office and maybe outside the elevator at work.  I'm sure you go to movies, listen to music, and read.  We are so much surrounded by art, that sometimes we take it for granted.  

But I insist, you can not live without art.  Even the dullest of minds would, if they were shipwrecked on a barren isle, eventually create a crude work of art to express their torment, or to keep themselves company.  Art is what makes life worth living, worth suffering for.  It eases life's burdens, educates, provides spiritual sustenance.  In this sense, art is just as much a practical value as anything else in this world.  You can not live without art.

Dealing With Fits Of Inspiration by Chris Hall

You can never predict when inspiration will come; sometimes it can be decidedly inconvenient.  Inspiration can come at strange hours. It can happen while in the middle of work at a menial soul crushing job.  Your boss might get upset, even if you record just a short sketch or idea.  It can also wake you up in the middle of the night when you desperately need to sleep.  The urge to create is that strong.  Inspiration can come in flood torrents or it can abandon you completely for months at a time.  Currently I’ve been very busy dealing with more inspiration than I can properly handle.  There just are not enough hours in the day!  Because I do not have an art studio to work in, I have been devoting my time to my second love, writing. 

Here is the conundrum.  I am unemployed and desperately looking for work.  I spend on average about 4 to 8 hours a day looking and applying for jobs.  I also spend an average of 3-4 hours a day researching and writing, much of it for this blog.  My family feels this time would be better spent looking for work.  I whole heartedly understand their perspective, and I am aware of the inconvenience I am placing them in, but my family does not understand the inward drive and the necessity I and other artists feel for writing and creating art.  Inspiration is comes when it comes, and it simply must be dealt with.  I simply have to do it; it is a compulsion.  Sometimes I feel like I will become physically ill and die if I do not deal with it, like a shark will die if it does not continue to swim.  Just last night I woke up in the middle of the night and had to immediately write down some words, phrases, and ideas for future writings.  I knew that if I did not write them down, my mind would not be at peace, and I would not fall back asleep.

Even in this wretched unemployment state I’ve found myself in, I simply must have my time to create art and write!  Right now I am swimming in a sea of inspiration, and I have to do my best to record all my ideas for future use, as it is impossible to get it all done now.  So much gets lost, forgotten, or neglected over time, but it is my duty to work on all the ideas that I can, and while they are still fresh, as you can never count on inspiration always being there for you.  Would you believe that I have about 60 or more ideas sketched out for future blog posts!  And about 3 or 4 are Christmas related, so there is a rush to get them out in a timely fashion before the 25th!  I am working really hard, but I love it and wouldn’t’ have it any other way.  I just wish my family could better understand the position I am in, not as someone who is unemployed, but as someone who is unemployed who is also an artist having to deal with sudden fits of inspiration!  

Sometimes I get worried, for my own situation, of course, but also for the trouble I am putting my family through.  Thankfully, I have my creativity to distract me right now.  Working on and completing a creative task always puts me in a better mood and gives me a sense of satisfaction.  

King Missile's "Sensitive Artist" and Learning to Laugh at Yourself by Chris Hall

It is incredibly important to be able to laugh at yourself when the occasion calls for it.  I’ve always been a fan of self-deprecating humor.  When you are able to laugh at yourself, you express a level of maturity and humility that is that is the cornerstone of our humanity.  When you are able to laugh at yourself, you can forgive yourself, and if you can forgive yourself, you can forgive others.

Today I was reminded of the old King Missile song “Sensitive Artist.”  For better or worse, those lyrics are describing me on certain occasions!  

Sensitive Artist by John S Hall

I am a sensitive artist...

I am a sensitive artist.
Nobody understands me because I am so deep.
In my work I make allusions to books that nobody else has read,
Music that nobody else has heard,
And art that nobody else has seen.
I can't help it
Because I am so much more intelligent
And well-rounded
Than everyone who surrounds me.

I stopped watching tv when I was six months old
Because it was so boring and stupid
And started reading books
And going to recitals
And art galleries.
I don't go to recitals anymore
Because my hearing is too sensitive
And I don't go to art galleries anymore
Because there are people there
And I can't deal with people
Because they don't understand me.

I stay home
Reading books that are beneath me,
And working on my work,
Which no one understands

I am sensitive...
I am a sensitive artist..

Yes, I love books and music by people you’ve never heard of.  Ever hear of “Les Chants de Maldoror” by Comte de Lautréamont or the Avant-garde experimental band Dead Voices on Air?  It alright if don’t, just making a point.  The thing is that I try not to be pretentious about it.  I try to remain humble and I try to remain human despite not always feeling comfortable amid the crowds at art galleries (I’ve always been an art world outsider because of this, and it has effected my networking skills).  Yes, I suspect a good many of these people will never understand me, but that is OK.  It doesn’t mean that I should stop trying to connect with people.  

Perhaps the lyrics for the King Missile song are a bit mocking in its description of a “sensitive artist,” but if you own up to it, and maybe even celebrate it a little, at least then you can change the more negative aspects of it (arrogance and pretension) and reach an understanding with those other people who are not “sensitive artists.”  If you are like me and fall into the, God forbid, “sensitive artist” category, it is important to remember all of those other humans who inhabit this planet, if for the simple fact that they considerably outnumber us and could kill us all in an instant if they wanted to, but also as a way to promote peace and understanding.

The Great Mystery by Chris Hall

The older I get, the more comfortable I've become with the mystery.  I used to rage inside like Ahab, out to destroy the symbols of our suffering.  Not so much anymore.  I still ponder and ask the unanswerable questions, such as why mankind is inflicted such unrelenting and undeserved misery and sorrow, but I don’t torture myself over it anymore.  There are some things that we are not meant to figure out.  We have to get over it, we have to get comfortable with ambiguity, else we’ll destroy ourselves.

Absolute Narcissism and Crippling Self Doubt by Chris Hall

Sometimes it might seem to outsiders that artists can be egotistic and narcissistic creatures.   Sure, artists must be selfish with their time, and many artists require a strong, singular vision in order to produce work, and pride often comes with that, but egotism and narcissism?  Well, that serves a purpose, too.  The egotism and narcissism is a self-protection measure, a constructed shield to buffer against the inevitable criticism of the artist’s work, and by extension, the artist’s life, which is often intrinsically connected to the work by their personal philosophy and world view.   It is good for an artist to have thick skin.  Often, though, this constructed shield hides a more sensitive soul that needs protection, and this sensitive soul is necessary if one is to produce good art.  

Although some would argue that the very act of producing artwork is a generous act, that someone who would share themselves with the world shares a gift, I do not think this is always true.  The artist creates for many reasons, many not so generous.  This is why it is important to remember that no good art can be created out of egotism and narcissism.  The result would be decadent, ungenerous, and selfish.  The trick is to present a bit of an ego to the world, project confidence, while remaining humble in the studio.  Good art can only be made in that blurry zone between egotism and self doubt.

Sometimes, however, the protective shield breaks down to a point where there is crippling self doubt, and this happens more often to artists than you would think.  In this state no art can be made, no true art, anyways.  Sylvia Plath would write in her journal, "The worst enemy of creativity is self-doubt."  She is deadly accurate.  Inspirational writer Melissa Ng tells us, “Self-doubt is greedy. When it’s loose, it devours your confidence, strips logic and reason from your mind, and steals happiness from your heart. In return, it leaves you with only fear and insecurity.”   Self-doubt can persuade us to stop creating or keep us from sending our work out into the world.  It can effect the creative process, too, as an artist must always be confident and self-assured in their vision if they are to capture inspiration along the way.  But how does an artist recover from crippling self doubt?  

There are many self doubts and fears that can prevent an artist from working.  One fear that haunts me is the question, “what if I’m not good enough?” Other self doubts include “my work isn’t as good as I had imagined it to be,” or “people will steal my work and ideas.”  Toss in “people won’t take me seriously as an artist,” or “I’m not original enough” for good measure, too.  

“When you doubt your power, you give power to your doubt.” Honore de Balzac

Some people will give you the pat answer to just think positive.  This, sadly, is often not enough.  If you want to get past self-doubt, then you need to get back into the studio and work it out.  There is no other solution.  Getting back into the studio can be hard, though. Thankfully there are some tools you can use to get back into the studio and defeat self doubt.

1.  Remind yourself of what you want to do and why you want to do it.  Perhaps there is some inner longing in you that needs to be addressed, or maybe a sense of mission. 
2.  Find ways to value the creative process as much as the end product.  When you value the creative process, you inevitably spend more time making art, and the more time you spend making art, the better you will become at it, and the better the art product will be, too.
3.  Spend sometime around the work that inspires and motivates you.  Look over the work of your heroes and reignite the passion to create again.
4.  Spend sometime talking with someone you trust.  Having an objective, sympathetic, and understanding mind to look over your block can help get you out of a rut.
5.  Make use of your inspirational tools, maybe it is writing, or perhaps a particular song.  Do whatever it takes to get back into an environment where creativity and inspiration can thrive.

Once you are back into the studio, just start working again.  Take small steps if you have to.  You will find that one mark will inevitably lead to another and inspiration will begin to multiply exponentially.  It is good to remember Van Gogh’s words, “If you hear a voice within you say you cannot paint, then by all means paint and that voice will be silenced.”  

Art: The Uncommitted Crime by Chris Hall

“Behind every work of art is an uncommitted crime.” 
Theodor Adorno

What does Adorno mean by this?  Is crime a metaphor for an action or protest against the state?  If so, then is he implying that we should put the paintbrushes away, and instead work using more practical tactics toward making a change in society?  

Is painting doomed to only produce feelings of catharsis or nostalgia in the artist and viewer?  

Is art but a release of pressure from a steam kettle?  

Can art ever change the world?

No, art can not change the world, not directly anyways.  Art can not force change, it can only influence change.  Art changes people, and people change the world.  

So the question is, how effective is art at changing people’s perceptions?  

I haven’t an answer for that, yet.  I’m still hopeful that art can have some kind of impact on people, inspiring them to action, to work towards the good of all humanity.  This is why I still paint.  

The Politics of a Flower by Chris Hall

I’ve written a lot lately of the intersection of politics, philosophy, and art.  I am a little tired of it.  

A flower by nature is not political or philosophical, it just is.  It exists only to be beautiful.  I like that.  

So it must be with art and artists.  I try to use theory only to justify and support my work after the fact, not to determine its course or control its creation.  I believe most artists are the same way:  art before theory and not theory before art.  

If you are a caring and decent human being with a sense of social justice, the art and the message will come naturally, no need to force it.

Just be, just create.  That might be enough for now.  The rest will come later.

“Aesthetics is to artists as ornithology is to birds.”  Barnett Newman

Christopher Hall, Blue Splendor, 2001

Who Do you Serve? by Chris Hall

It is not enough to know how to paint, we must know why we paint, or rather, if you will, why we create.  

Do you create to please other people's sensibilities?  A kitten, an Easter Egg, a calendar page?  

All bourgeois expectations.  I will not create to placate your expectations.  I will not be your easy chair.

I create as to be a constant thorn in the side of the man.  Yes, you know, that man.  

I also create to cheat Death.  Fuck Death.  

Who do you serve? 

Are You Concerned? by Chris Hall

Most people are content with life's little pleasures.  A chocolate chip cookie, a cigarette butt, a football game.  I'm not.  Would I that I could be so lucky.  But no, I'm concerned.  I'm concerned about a great many things, and it is this concern that drives my art.  I'm concerned about the present, I'm concerned about the future, and for some damn reason I'm even concerned about the past, though I know there is nothing I can do about it (eyes in the back of my head, forever haunted).  I'm concerned about the spirit of mankind, about all things good and evil within ourselves, about redemption, hope, those all too rare instances of beauty, and the ugliness that pervades.  I'm concerned about our post industrial, post-lapsarian, post modern condition, and I am concerned that we might not be able to escape it.  I'm concerned about this world, and the next.  I'm concerned about the hegemonic hierarchies and the visible and invisible power structures that enslave.  I'm concerned there are no solutions, even as I continue to never conform or compromise, always fighting the good fight.  

"Human salvation lies in the hands of the creatively maladjusted."  Dr. Martin Luther King

Who or What is Your Enemy? by Chris Hall

"What do you think an artist is? An imbecile who has nothing but eyes if he is a painter, or ears if he is a musician . . .? Quite the contrary, he is at the same time a political being, constantly aware of what goes on in the world, whether it be harrowing, bitter, or sweet, and he cannot help but be shaped by it . . . No, painting is not interior decoration. It is an instrument of war for attack and defense against the enemy." Pablo Picasso

And who or what is your enemy?  

The power structures and artificial hierarchies that enslave the spirit?

Public and Privatized Fascism that threaten your freedom or human dignity?

Or is it something more metaphysical, something like Death?

Keep fighting and never give up.

Pablo Picasso, Guernica, 1937

Pablo Picasso, Guernica, 1937



The Mission by Chris Hall

Painting Must Die: With its privileged historic status, granted by a patriarchal bourgeoisie society, it must be identified as anachronistic, and removed from consideration by progressive humanists as a medium unworthy of democratic intellectual investigation.   Loren Munk.

I learned that a lot of people feel this way about painting while at school at Tyler.  I vow not only continue painting, but to revel in it for the rest of my days, and this, with a backwards barbarian's glee.  Anachronism, forward march!

Christopher Hall,  Modern Art , 2007

Christopher Hall, Modern Art, 2007