Tuesday, February 04, 2014

The War of Art - Steven Pressfield

Steven Pressfield is a favorite living author.  I enjoyed his Gates of Fire and The Virtues of War very much.  I am always looking for inspiration, stimulation, and instruction on how to improve my skills in art.  I love art and long to produce it – not just drawings and painting but the art that is my contribution to the world. 

I encourage anyone striving to create something beautiful, whether it is a family, a business, a book, a drawing, or any other dream; to read this book.  I have snatched 42 quotes out of the 172 pages in this great book.  They are best read in context – but here they are to consider and to contain.

1. On Resistance:  “What’s hard is sitting down to write. What keeps us from sitting down is Resistance.”  p. iii

2. Resistance described:  “Resistance is the most toxic force on the planet. . . Resistance is faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, harder to kick than crack cocaine.”  p. v

3. Hitler failed against Resistance:  “You know, Hitler wanted to be and artist. . . Ever see one of his paintings?  Neither have I.  Resistance beat him.  Call it overstatement but I’ll say it anyway: it was easier for Hitler to start World War II than it was for him to face a blank square of canvas.”  p. vi

4. Resistance as “Start Up Fatigue”:  “Resistance cannot be seen, touched, heard, or smelled.  But it can be felt.  We experience it as an energy field radiation from a work-in-potential.  It’s a repelling force.  It’s negative.  Its aim is to shove us away, distract us, prevent us from doing our work.   p. 7

5. The more important – the more Resistance:  “Rule of thumb: The more important a call or action is to our soul’s evolution, the more Resistance we will feel toward pursuing it.”  p. 12

6. Every day is a new fight:  “The warrior and the artist live by the same code of necessity, which dictate that the battle must be fought anew every day.”  p. 14

7. Fear is the little death:  “We feed it [Resistance] with the power of our fear of it.  Master that fear and we conquer Resistance.”  p. 16

8. The great artists serve as our examples:  “The best and only thing that one artist can do for another is to serve as an example and an inspiration.”  p. 20

9. We can always change:  “There never was a moment, and never will be, when we are without the power to alter our destiny.  This second, we can turn the tables on Resistance.”  p. 22

10. Resistance and Fundamentalism (the whole chapter):  “The artist and the fundamentalist both confront the same issue, the mystery of their existence as individuals.  Each asks the same questions: Who am I?  Why am I here?  What is the meaning of my life? 

At more primitive stages of evolution humanity didn‘t have to deal with such questions.  In the states of savagery, of barbarism, in nomadic culture, medieval society, in the tribe and the clan, one’s position was fixed by the commandments of the community.  It was only with the advent of modernity (starting with the ancient Greeks), with the birth of freedom and of the individual, that such matters ascended to the fore.

These are not easy questions. Who am I?  Why am I here?  They’re not easy because the human being isn’t wired to function as an individual.  We’re wired tribally, to act as part of a group.  Our psyches [souls] are programmed by millions of years of hunter-gather evolution.  We know what the clan is; we know how to fit into the band and the tribe.  What we don’t know is how to be alone.  We don’t know how to be free individuals.

The artist and the fundamentalist arise form societies at differing stages of development.  The artist is the advanced model.  His culture possesses affluence, stability, enough excess of resource to permit the luxury of self-examination.  The artist is grounded in freedom.  He is not afraid to it.  He is lucky.  He was born in the right place.  He has a core of self-confidence, of hope for the future.  He believes in progress and evolution.  His faith is that the humankind is advancing, however haltingly and imperfectly, toward a better world. 

The fundamentalist entertains no such notion.  In his view, humanity has fallen from a higher state. The truth is not out there awaiting revelation; it has already been revealed.  The word of God has been spoken and recorded by His prophet, be he Jesus, Muhammad, or Karl Marx.

Fundamentalism is the philosophy of the powerless, the conquered, the displaced and the dispossessed.  Its spawning ground is the wreckage of political and military defeat, as Hebrew fundamentalism arose during the Babylonian captivity, ad white Christian fundamentalism appeared in the American South during Reconstruction, as the notion of the Master Race evolved in Germany following “World War I.  In such desperate times, the vanquished race would perish without a doctrine that resorted hope and pride.  Islamic fundamentalism ascends from the same landscape of despair and possesses he same tremendous and potent appeal.

What exactly is this despair?  It is the despair of freedom.  The dislocation and emasculation experienced by the individual cut free from the familiar and comforting structures of the tribe and clan, the village and the family.

It is the state of modern life.

The fundamentalist (or, more accurately, the beleaguered individual who comes to embrace fundamentalism) cannot stand freedom.  He cannot find his way into the future, so he retreats to the past.  He returns in imagination to the glory days of his race and seeks to reconstitute both them and himself in their purer, more virtuous light.  He gets back to basics. To fundamentals.

Fundamentalism and art are mutually exclusive.  There is no such thing as fundamentalist art.  This does not mean that the fundamentalist is not creative.  Rather, his creativity is inverted.  He creates destruction.  Even the structures he builds, his schools and networks of organization, are dedicated to annihilation, of his enemies and of himself.

But the fundamentalist reserves his greatest creativity for the fashioning of “Satan, the image of his foe, in opposition to which he defines and gives meaning to his own life.  Like the artist, the fundamentalist experiences Resistance. He experiences it as temptation to sin.  Resistance to the fundamentalist is the call of the Evil One, seeking to seduce him from his virtue.  The fundamentalist is consumed with Satan, whom he loves as he loves death.  Is it coincidence that the suicide bombers of the World Trade Center frequented strip clubs during their training, or that they conceived of their reward as a squadron of virgin brides and the license to ravish them in the fleshpots of heaven?  The fundamentalist hates and fears women because he sees them as vessels of Satan, temptresses like Delilah who seduced Samson form his power.  To combat the call of sin, i.e., Resistance, the fundamentalist plunges either into action or into the study of sacred texts.  He loses himself in these, much as the artist does in the process of creation.  The difference is that while the one looks forward, hoping to create a better world, the other looks backward, seeking to return to a purer world from which he and all have fallen. 

The humanist believes that human kind, as individuals, is called upon to co-create the world with God.  This is why he values human life so highly.  In his view, things do progress, life does evolve; each individual has value, at least potentially, in advancing this cause.  The fundamentalist cannot conceive of this.  In his society, dissent is not just crime but apostasy; it is heresy, transgression against God Himself.

When fundamentalism wins, the world enters a dark age.  Yet still can’t condemn one who is drawn to this philosophy.  I consider my own inner journey, the advantages I’ve had of education, affluence,  family support, health and the blind good luck to be born American, and still I have learned to exist as an autonomous individual, if indeed I have, only by a whisker, and at a cost I would hate to have to recon up. 

It may be that the human race is not ready for freedom.  The air of liberty may be too rarefied for us to breath.  Certainly I wouldn’t be writing this book, on this subject, if living with freedom were easy.  The paradox seems to be, as Socrates demonstrated long ago, that the truly free individual is free only to the extent of his own self-mastery.  While those who will not govern themselves are condemned to find masters to govern over them.”  pp. 33-37

11. Resistance and Love:  “Resistance is directly proportional to love.  If you’re felling massive Resistance, the good news is, it means there’s tremendous love there too.  If you didn’t love the project that is terrifying you, you wouldn’t feel anything.  The opposite of love isn’t hate; it’s indifference.

The more Resistance you experience, the more important your unmanifested art/project/enterprise is to you—and the more gratification you will fell when you finally do it.”  p.42

12. How time flies when you’re having fun:  “It is a commonplace among artists and children at play that they’re not aware of time or solitude while they’re chasing their vision. The hours fly.  The sculptress and the tree-climbing tyke both look up blinking when Mom calls, “Suppertime!””  p. 45

13. What matters is what works:   “For two hours I made myself sit there, torturing out some trash that I chucked immediately into the shitcan.  That was enough. . . Do you understand?  I hadn’t written anything good.  It might be years before I would, if I ever did at all.  That didn’t matter.  What counted was that I had, after years of running from it, actually sat down and done my work.”  pp. 49-59

14.  Defeating Resistance is like giving birth:  “Defeating Resistance is like giving birth.  It seems absolutely impossible until you remember that women have been pulling it off successfully, with support and without, for fifty million years.”  p. 57

15. On having not been a warrior:  “It is one thing to study war and another to live the warrior’s life.   –Telamon of Arcadia, mercenary of the fifth century B.C.”   p. 61

16. Professionals and amateurs:  The word amateur comes from the Latin root meaning “to love.”  The conventional interpretation is that the amateur pursues his calling out of love, while the pro does it for money.  Not the way I see it.  In my view, the amateur does not love the game enough.  If he did, he would not pursue it as a sideline, destine form his “real” vocation.

The professional loves it so much he dedicates his life to it.  He commits full-time.”  pp.  62-63

17. Sumerset Maugham and doing the work:  “Someone once asked Somerset Maugham if he wrote on a schedule or only when struck by inspiration.  “I write only when inspiration strikes,” he replied.  “Fortunately it strikes every morning at nine o’clock sharp.”

That’ a pro.

In terms of Resistance, Maugham was saying, “I despise Resistance; I will not let it faze me; I will sit down and do my work.”  p. 64

18. Marines love misery:  “In my younger days dodging the draft, I somehow wound up in the Marine Corps.  There’s a myth that Marine training turns baby-faced recruits into bloodthirsty killers.  Trust me, the Marine Corps is not that efficient.  What it does teach, however, is a lot more useful.

The Marine Corps teaches you how to be miserable.

This is invaluable for an artist.

Marines love to be miserable.  Marines derive a perverse satisfaction in having colder chow, crappier equipment, and higher casualty rates than any outfit of dogfaces, swab jockeys, or flyboys, all of whom they despise.  Why?  Because these candy-asses don’t know how to be miserable. 

The artist committing himself to his calling has volunteered for hell, whether he know it or not.  He will be dining for the duration on a diet of isolation, rejection, self-doubt, despair, ridicule, contempt, and humiliation.

The artist must be like that Marine.  He has to know how to be miserable.  He has to love being miserable.  He has to take pride in being more miserable than any soldier or swabbie or jet jockey.  Because this is war, baby.  And war is hell.”

19. A pro also loves:  “To clarify a point about professionalism:  The professional, though he accepts money, does his work out of love.  He has to love it.  Otherwise he wouldn’t devote his life to it of his own free will.”  p.73

20. Pride is the unforgivable sin – think Milton and Hawthorne:  “To the gods the supreme sin is not rape or murder, but pride.”  p. 74

21. Delayed gratification:  “The professional, on the other hand, understands delayed gratification. . . The professional arms himself with patience, not only to give the stars time to align in his career, but to keep himself from flaming out in each individual work.  He know that any job, whether it’s a novel or a kitchen remodel, takes twice as long as he thinks and costs twice as much.  He accepts that.  He recognizes it as reality.”  p. 75

22. Art and fear:  “The professional knows that fear can never be overcome.  He knows there is no such thing as a fearless warrior or a dread-free artist.”   p. 79

23. Mastering the techniques:  “He [the artist] recognizes the contributions of those who have gone before him.  He apprentices himself to them.

The professional dedicates himself to mastering technique not because he believes technique is a substitute for inspiration but because he wants to be in possession of the full arsenal of skills when inspiration does come.”  p. 84

24. The Bhagavad-Gita – we have only labor weather warrior or athlete:  The Bhagavad-Gita tells us we have a right only to our labor, not the fruits of our labor.  All the warrior can give is his life; and the athlete can do is leave everything on the field.”   p. 88

25. The need for a true critic:  “The professional gives an ear to criticism, seeking to learn and grow.   But she never forgets that Resistance is using criticism against her on a far more diabolical level.”   p. 88

26. Eye on the doughnut:  “The professional keeps his eye on the doughnut and not on the hole. “  p. 90

27. The false critics:  “The professional learns to recognize envy-driven criticism and to take it for what it is: the supreme compliment.  The critic hates most that which he would have done himself if he had had the guts.”  p. 93

28. To do list:  “I have one of those meeting with myself every Monday.  I sit down and go over my assignment.  Then I type it up and distribute it to myself.”  p. 98

29. Work every day:  “Because the most important thing about art is to work.  Nothing else matters except sitting down every day and trying.”  p. 108

30. Pray to the Muse:  “The last thing I do before I sit down to work is say my prayer to the Muse.  I say it out loud, in absolute earnest.  Only then do I get down to business.”  P. 110

31. On the Muses:  “The Muses were nine sisters, daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne, which means “memory.”  Their names are Clio, Erato, Thalia, Terpsichore, Calliope, Polyhymnia, Euterpe, Melpomene, and Urania.  Each Muse is responsible for a different art.”  P. 113

32. On the Gods:  The Greek way of apprehending the mystery was to personify it.  The ancients sensed powerful primordial forces in the world.  To make them approachable, they gave them human faces.  The called them Zeus, Apollo, Aphrodite.  American Indians felt the same mystery but rendered it in animistic forms-Bear Teacher, Hawk Messenger, Coyote Trickster.”  p. 114

33. William Blake on Eternity and Time:  Eternity is in love with the creations of time (William Blake)  means to me, that in some way these creatures of the higher sphere (or the sphere itself, in the abstract) take joy in what we time-bound beings can bring forth into physical existence in our limited material sphere.”  pp. 116-117

34. God didn’t write the 5th, Beethoven did:  “By Blake’s model, as I understand it, it’s as though the Fifth Symphony existed already in the higher sphere, before Beethoven sat down and played dah-dah-dah-DUM.  The catch was this: The work existed only as potential—without a body, so to speak.  It wasn’t music yet.  You couldn’t play it.  You couldn’t hear it.

It needed someone. It needed a corporeal being, a human, an artist (or more precisely a genius, in the Latin sense of “soul” or “animating spirit”) to bring it into being of this material plane.”   p. 117

 35. From Homer’s Invocation of the Muses:  Sustain for me.  Homer doesn’t ask for brilliance or success.  He just wants to keep this thing going.”  p. 120

36. Self-revision and correction:  “This process of self-revision and self-correction is so common we don’t even notice.  But it’s a miracle.  And its implications are staggering.”  p. 125

37.  Dreams are real things:  “The eagle was telling me that dreams, visions, meditations such as this very one-things that I had till now disdained as fantasy and illusion-were as real and as solid as anything in my waking life.”  p. 130

38. Know thyself – through art:  “The instinct that pulls us toward art is the impulse to evolve, to learn, to heighten and elevate our consciousness.”   p. 140

39. The artist and the mother are vehicles:  “The artist and the mother are vehicles, not originators.  They don’t create the new life, they only bear it.  This is why birth is such a humbling experience.  The new mom weeps in awe at the little miracle in her arms.  She knows it came out of her but not from her, through her but not of her.

When the artist works territorially, she reveres heaven.  She aligns herself with the mysterious forces that power the universe and that seek, through her, to bring forth new life.  By doing her work for its own sake, she sets herself at the service of the forces.

Remember, as artists we don’t know diddly.  We’re winging it every day.  For us to try to second-guess our Muse that way a hack second-guesses his audience, is condescension to heaven.  It’s blasphemy and sacrilege.

Instead let’s ask ourselves like the new mother: What do I feel growing inside me?  Let me bring that forth, if I can, for its own sake and not for what it can do for me or how it can advance my standing.”  pp. 56-57

40. From the Bhagavad-Gita and beyond:  “When Krishna instructed Arjuna that we have a right to our labor but not to the fruits of our labor, he was counseling the warrior to act territorially, not hierarchically.  We must do our work for its own sake, not for fortune or attention or applause. . . We were put here on earth to act as agents of the Infinite, to bring into existence that which is not yet, but which will be, through us.”  pp. 161-162

41. The artist is not the source but the instruments of creation:  “They know they are not the source of the creations they bring into being.  They only facilitate. They carry.  They are the willing and skilled instruments of the gods and goddesses they serve.”   p. 163

42.  Why we are here:  “It may help to think of it this way.  If you were meant to cure cancer or write a symphony or a crack cold fusion and you don’t do it, you not only hurt yourself, even destroy yourself.  You hurt your children.  You hurt me.  You hurt the planet.

You shame the angels who watch over you and you spite the Almighty, who created you and only you with your unique gifts, for the sole purpose of nudging the human race one millimeter farther along its path back to God.

Creative work is not a selfish act or a bid for attention on the part of the actor.   It’s a gift to the world and every being in it.  Don’t cheat us of your contribution.  Give us what you’ve got.   p. 165


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