Great Art Is Made By Great People

The Art Itself Is Not An End, Only A Beginning, Portal Leading

As a young person I was impressed by virtuoso artists, individuals with Faustian technique. I imagined how it felt to take the stage, whether literal or metaphorical, and simply blow the audience away – dazzle them with something they had never seen, heard, experienced before. I felt then that it was the duty of art to smash through barriers, and open up new worlds. Only technical mastery, I believed, made this possible.

Much, much later I discovered that this mythology was just so much elephant dung, a young man’s obsession with ego, self-aggrandizement, and hostility – because that desire to blow the audience away was closely related to “killing” and “destroying” as stand-up comedians use these terms…it was all about demonstrating superiority, establishing dominance. More war than art.

I came to understand that technique is merely a starting point – of course one must master the technical aspects of one’s trade – but more technique won’t compensate for deficits in other key areas. Indeed, many mediocre artists hide behind technique, lots of glitz and razzle-dazzle, but very little content. In short, the missing ingredient is them. They do magic tricks for the audience, they don’t share what’s real.

Over-emphasis on technique is what magicians call “léger de main” – the artist distracts you from the lack of substance by drawing your eye to something “bright and sparkly” – and you leave the theatre thinking you’ve had an experience. But this is to art as cotton candy is to food. The true role of technique, and the reason why it must be practiced until it is second nature, is to reveal, not call attention to itself. The best writing is transparent, one sees through it to the meaning that dwells inside.

Many artists achieve technical mastery, but few are brave enough to use it as a tool for self-revelation, openly sharing their personal truth in a way that allows audiences to feel it and benefit from it. For these special, wonderful people, the audience is more important than the performer and the technique is simply a tool for doing important work. I do not for a moment want to deny the sheer beauty of a fugue executed exquisitely, a painting that captures light the way a child captures fireflies in a jar, or a poem crafted with such love that the words chime like bells – these achievements have value in their own right.

But technique itself is never the point. The works of art that last, the ones that lift us off our feet, are the ones where craft was used to create a portal through which we gazed another world, and having done so were inexorably enriched.

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A Life Of Crime Begins Inauspiciously

The World Is Not Fair For Most Of Us That's Good

I have failed in many ways, which helps explain my success. One of my most notable is crime. I’m not exactly certain which element of the criminal character I lack, perhaps if I’d thought about it first I could have studied. Certainly I have the sloth, entitlement, lack of ambition, and contempt for authority needed to excel, but for some reason life on the wrong side of the law never worked out for me.

Like many before me I dabbled in drug smuggling, which seems ideally suited to unimaginative slackers. A brief, and ill-fated, career began in Izmir, a Turkish city on the Mediterranean. My traveling companion and I secured a kilogram of hashish, neatly wrapped in transparent wax paper and ready to travel. We were on our way back into Greece.

Drug buys tend to be anxiety-ridden events, especially when they involve strangers; being in a foreign country just made it that much worse. So we were naturally relieved after the exchange was complete to be on our way back up the coast. Giddy with the elation of “getting away with it” we purchased a bottle of unbelievably nasty wine from a roadside vendor. Our route to Athens was a winding road that hugged the seashore and offered spectacular views as it did.

The two of us relished our gangster lifestyle, smoking hash, drinking wine, and enjoying the scenery. It got dark and we discussed pulling over for a while but, with signature manic intensity, I insisted on going until we were back in Athens where I believed we would be safer. We continued, my buddy drifted off to sleep and I struggled to keep my eyelids from drooping. Black night, black sea, no sound or lights to poke me awake, only the waving pair of parallel white lines.

Blubadubablubadubadub. The car was at rest in the furrows of a plowed field. We checked to see if it still moved and it did. We checked ourselves for cuts and broken bones; there were none. And so, we finally went to sleep properly, it seemed like the thing to do.

The next morning I surveyed the scene properly. We were only a few feet off the road. On the other side of the road was a long, sheer drop to the sea, certainly 70 feet. I looked at the waves slapping against the stony beach and realized – this was only the toss of a coin. My stomach tightened like a fist, I fell to my knees right in the middle of the road and kissed the pavement.