Most folks, day in day, out don’t care if they’re creative or not. Their need for self-expression is satisfied by sports (playing or watching), planting a rose, evaluating wines, shopping, downloading tunes or hundreds of other activities. They don’t even think of all this energy as “self-expression,” and they’re they’re certainly not foolish enough to spend hours contemplating whether the shoes they bought were valid and valuable manifestations of their inner being. That kind of idiocy is left to artists, just one of the pantheon of elements in their psychology that makes them what they think of as special.
Humans outrank beasts, they say, because humans are conscious of being conscious. Many amaze about the idea source for the painting or the novel, and the artist tries to explain and ultimately can’t. Artists, of course, are generally just as amazed at the human who do something scientific–like manipulate quantum theory. Because of intelligent or unintelligent design, there’s not much genetic or psychological crossover in the population. Generally, quantum theorists are not much interested in or talented at exploring the angst of mathematical/scientific discovery. They won’t execute a painting, write a novel, shoot a movie. They’ll author a scientific journal article, perhaps, which will be short on plot and long on equations but will not fire public imagination. The few odd ducks such as William Carlos Williams who are able to keep one foot in science and the other in the arts, are rare enough to highlight the dominant trend.
That leaves the field wide open for artists to indulge in rank solipsism. A few are lucky/good enough to sell some of their wares. Fewer still get rich and famous. Whether they make a dime or not, however, nothing can stay the artistically inclined from their narcissistic rounds.
The romantics started all this. Before the nineteenth century, writers had at least a pretense of detachment, of hiding behind the scenery while actors acted and spoke in the guise of people other than the playwright. Freud finished the corruption by making it plausible for artists not only to express their own feelings but to pretend they were allowing audiences into the very wellsprings of those feelings, to drink the water at the source so there would be virtually nothing between the artist and the audience except whatever protoplasm nature provided.
Stories and poems about writers writing jam snail and electronic mails; painters produce endless self-portraits, and not because they’re trying to save money on models. And why not? The artistic life is supposedly more meaningful or spiritual than a plumber’s or a teacher’s. The real-job part of the world (a part which includes most artists most of the time, but they like to think of themselves as “in it, but not of it” and fantasize constantly about getting rid of the “in” part.) is fascinated by lives that seem not to have to submit themselves to a regimen. The idea of making your living out of your head or your imagination, of getting paid to reproduce that “I” movie that runs through your head twenty-four hours a day seems like making money just for being alive, which seems both easy and unfair to those who have to come by their meals honestly, but nonetheless something to aspire to–or at least read about.
Artists, on the other hand, are convinced that everyone else wants to be an artist, that everyone wants their tortured life of alternating ecstasy and despair and uncertainty–about money, about their capricious muse, about the judgement of Philistines with money and power enough to thwart the immortal–”He would have turned down Shakespeare, for Christ’s sake.” And They’re so certain everyone that they endlessly write about it. Or paint about it. Or dance about it.
Or maybe that’s not the artistic essence at all. Maybe that’s all they have. Maybe their world is in truth much smaller than the carpenter’s or the loan officer’s, but they just can’t shut up about what most people have the decency to keep to themselves.
James Joyce, who wrote probably the most famous example of this introspective genre A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, was quoted as saying he expected his audiences to spend their lives studying his work. In other words, not only is he expecting readers to be interested in his internal landscape, but to wander there till death do they part. The artist as tyrant. Like the slave who turns master, his cruelty knows no limit.
All speculation aside, one thing is certain. Whoever has been grabbed and shaken by this artistic urge is condemned to or blessed to live some form or fragment of the artistic existence. Whether the artist or the world is better for it is an even bet, but either way, it is the truth.