“Even in chains we must ourselves complete/That orbit which the gods have traced for us.”
— Vladimir Solovyov
When we begin a discussion on the Artistic Vocation, a good early question is “What is it?” But perhaps even more basic is the question “Why ask that question?”
Why spend time discerning exactly what it is we are called to do as artists, if we are called to do anything at all, if there is a caller, if we should listen if there was, etc., etc., etc.? Why not simply do what we do as artists, and leave figuring out its significance to our patrons, families, gallery owners, or posterity?
I resonate with these questions greatly, because one of my largest forms of resistance to actually doing the work of art is asking myself exactly why I am doing it. Contemplating the precise nature of my doing often cripples my doing it. Some people refer to this as “paralysis of analysis” and it is a very real danger.
But how do I know it is a very real danger? Because I have not only experienced this paralysis, but I have contemplated it, and now understand it to be a danger. And once this danger has a name, I can more easily avoid it.
Nonetheless, we must resist the urge simply “to do” at the expense of understanding our doing. Socrates’ warning “the unexamined life is not worth living” extends to particular facets of our life as well, including our creative life. This is true most especially for those of us involved in so primal a life-activity as creation.
In his Nobel acceptance speech (a speech he did not go to Stockholm to deliver for fear the Soviets wouldn’t let him return to his native Russia), Alexander Solzhenitsyn quotes the poet and philosopher Vladimir Solovyov: “Even in chains we must ourselves complete / That circle which the gods have preordained.” He was speaking about his long trail to this Nobel award, one that led him through the darkness of the Soviet Gulag where he encountered many artists more accomplished than he whose work would never been seen or heard by the world thanks to their cold, satanic extermination. “In agonizing moments in camp, in columns of prisoners at night, in the freezing darkness through which the little chains of lanterns shone, there often rose in our throats something we wanted to shout out to the whole world, if only the world could have heard one of us.”
So why ask questions and contemplate our vocation? Because unlike those martyred artists of the Gulag, we can be heard in our art, and likely will be, if only by our neighbors. Because when we are heard, we owe it to those who can’t to present good answers, true answers, beautiful answers. Because Solzhenitsyn’s question “What do I now say?” is, and must be, our question as artists. It is a question is invariably linked with the question “What do I now do?” and, more fundamentally, “Who am I?”
And both earth and heaven await our measured reply.