As someone who from an early age found writing poems, songs, and stories to be of great import, I have often struggled to provide a justification for my desire to create things that feed no one, clothe no one, and, truth be told, are known but to a handful of people and thus have little chance of impacting anyone.
Creating a poem or story that feeds me and my family would be easy enough to justify: such a rare animal would pay my way in the world, take care of those I love, produce rewards beyond the mere objet d’art. Alas. So far, my creative endeavors have been utterly amateur, meaning they have produced no income on which I can live: my poems, songs, and stories have netted me next to no cash, have not allowed me to earn a living in academia, and have otherwise failed to provide a revenue stream in the reading circuit or as a published critic or cultural commentator.
And thus I find myself struggling to justify what I do and why I do it. Why do I write? Why do I record songs? Why do I care so much that what I create be as good as I can possibly make it (with the attendant commitment of time and other resources such a concern implies) if so few people will ever be exposed to, and benefit from, my work? In the back of my mind, the suspicion lingers that everything I do creatively is but a privilege, a fancy way to waste time and resources that is not afforded to most people living in this planet.
Why spend energy on it, then? Why work so hard at something that so few will ever partake of and that will do so little for so few? Truth be told, pleasure is a large part of it. It feels good to write a poem, a song, a story. I love doing it. And if truth be further told, hope drives me on: the hope that (someday?) my work will find an audience who will be enriched by what I do and who will come back looking for more.
And let me not kid you: art for art’s sake is not enough for me. I wish it were. I wish it were enough for me to write simply for the pleasure of it, for they way in which writing songs and poems enriches my life (and that it certainly does). But that’s not enough for me, at least not yet. I hunger for an audience; I hunger to have my work mean something to SOMEONE ELSE. And because, thus far, I have not been able to accomplish that, I question my writing, my efforts, my time spent on something nobody but me really cares about. I fiddle while Rome burns and mourn no one is listening to my efforts.
And thus the question arises: is that not a privileged stance? When people are starving and dying in wars of someone else’s making, and baby girls are being mutilated, and boys are being conscripted as soldiers, and children are being born autistic, and men and women everywhere are suffering the deaths of those they love, what right do I have to feel pain when my “art” is not good enough, or distributed widely enough, or appreciated enough?
To put it another way, what right do I have to care so much for trifles and fancies such as poems and songs when there is so much suffering in the world? I feel like I want fine wine and lament the fact I can’t have it when so many can’t even get clean water. I feel like someone who can’t get over the failure of his privileged pursuit when so many people would be lucky just to not have been killed in a U.S. drone attack or a roadside ambush.
It ultimately comes down to life and death, does it not? Life is a privilege the living have over the dead. Why am I alive when so many people die untimely deaths every day? And from the perspective that staying alive while someone else was killed in a car accident is an inherently unfair privilege, life itself is a privilege that sets the whole chain of privileged events running.
The living are privileged over the dead. Those who live in industrialized democracies are privileged over those who barely manage to stay alive in Somalia and Darfur. Those of us who manage to get an education and leisure time to waste away writing songs and poems are privileged over those who have lived brutish childhoods in violent inner cities and are wasting away their lives in maximum security prisons. Why am I alive and writing a sonnet when Troy Davis was put to death on, at best, suspect evidence? And how can I justify my good health when so many are born with genetic conditions that severely hamper their lives or fall pray to diseases which will limit their achievements (though certainly not their human spirit)?
Privileged. Yes, I am privileged.
But the flip side is gratitude and responsibility. Let me ask not “What right do I have to write poems when so many can’t even stay alive” but “What right do I have to waste a chance to create when so many have never been given that chance?”
Such a gift demands gratitude. Such a gift entails responsibility. Such a gift can only be earned with an open-hearted determination not to waste the opportunity so many have, through no fault of their own, been denied.
With such an awesome responsibility on my shoulders, how can I shrink from it? How can I not put into action the gifts I have (such as they are) and the time and opportunity to create I have been given when so many can only dream of such a life as mine?
There is a calling in that. And yes, there is privilege in that. And to look down upon that privilege is to skirt an awesome responsibility that life has given me. So my work won’t be read. Many would give their right hand to create things that will never be read. So I am not as good as I wish I were. Many have died without a chance of ever getting where I am, skill-wise.
I accept that responsibility. I will not fail in attempting (simply attempting) what so many have never gotten and will never get a chance to try.
So very few of us get a chance to try to make art. What an amazing opportunity. And what an awesome responsibility.