The difference between courage and recklessness, writes social scientist, musician and columnist Arthur C. Brooks, is using your conscious brain to reason, not just your amygdala reactivity, or your fight-or-flight response, to feel the thrill or fear of the danger. “If you don’t know how to climb, don’t try to free-solo El Capitan,” says Brooks. Instead, visualize going for your white whale, and what will be the worst thing that could happen. Unlike falling off a rock wall, in most cases, it’s not a dirt nap.
You might begin by really pinpointing the thing you want. Perhaps the feeling it conjures is terror. Or at least uncomfortable scenarios. For artists, it’s often a creative risk that feels at first off-course or messy or painful or terrorizing, and then there’s the element of one’s identity being at stake, or the risk of being judged or measured against others with more experience in that lane. Social scientists call it “status quo bias” – a type of cognitive bias that involves people preferring that things stay as they are – a kind of irrational resistance to possibly better, but personally unproven systems. It is a type of fight response, but can also hinder growth. What we need to strive for here, is a kind of threading a needle: an appropriate and purposeful pushing through. The kicker is that it is not the fantasized-about result that’s going to make you happier, but rather, the act of courage itself that holds all the magic.
And the thing is, as an artist, this is the zone you really want to be in, all the time. “If you feel safe in the area that you’re working in, you’re not working in the right area,” said David Bowie. “Always go a little further into the water that you feel you’re capable of being in. Go a little bit out of your depth and when you don’t feel that your feet are quite touching the bottom, you’re just about in the right place to do something exciting.” This push is the very essence of creativity. In my experience, it’s also the access point to happiness. In painting’s daily meditation, excitement is criminally underrated. I’ve found a way to summon it by simply trying something terrifying within my own technical and idea pursuits. Depending on how things go, I hit the pillow either crestfallen and consumed with problem-solving, or floating on a cloud.
Between technical danger and idea danger, the heavy hitter is ideas. Technique, style, presentation, even medium are moveable parts in a long game of natural development that you should be able build incrementally over time with some organic predictability. Ideas, however, are those ineffable imaginings that need to be struck out at; chased and captured in order to know if they’re any good. All the while, there’s a search for a clearer truth in whatever it is you’re trying to give the world. “I was demanding of myself a deeper and greater honesty; more and more revelation in my work in order to give it back to the people, where it goes into their lives and nourishes them,” said Joni Mitchell. “It strikes against the very nerves of their life and in order to do that you have to strike against the very nerves of your own.”
PS: “I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it.” (Nelson Mandela)
Esoterica: In a recent interview, singer-songwriter Phoebe Bridgers revealed that what was most important to her was making stuff she liked, even if that meant it didn’t stand the test of time, or it wasn’t commercially marketable. “I’m trying to look back at some of my earlier music with radical acceptance – instead of looking at my songwriting with the critical eye that I have now,” she said. “At the time I meant it 100 percent. Everything I was saying, I meant. That’s a cool map of the way that it’s changed over time.”
“I am not afraid of storms, for I am learning how to sail my ship.” (Louisa May Alcott)
We live in a fractured world. Wars, famine and power games are forcing people to abandon their homes and their way of life in hopes of finding peace. For lack of education or specialized skills, the poor are not accepted into our northern communities. They stay in the camps on the borders of turmoil, separated from local community. Animals are caught in the crossfire. Even the trees and the rocks suffer the agony of imbalance. This chaos is evident in my work. In between the rivulets of paint and the textural accidents I choose colours and forms to suggest a landscape where beauty continues to reign. We can still change the tide and build a new world harmony. Certainly, contemporary will focuses on gold instead of beauty. Yet, beauty is essential to the wellbeing of the planet. She is essential to the survival of humanity.