What Matters Most: Exploring Responsibility in Art

What Matters Most: Exploring Responsibility in Art

Inspired by Responsibility

I have been playing, lightly, this month with the idea of responsibility in my creative work.

Asking the question: To what and whom am I responsible in my art? Or, for what and whom am I responsible in my art?

That might sound paradoxical, to play lightly with something as weighty as responsibility.

What I mean by that is I am exploring these questions gently by touching down into the idea here and there, like a dragonfly alighting for a moment on the slick sheen of a river. I have been letting the questions of responsibility visit me like that dragonfly coming to rest on my forearm, where I can gaze a moment on its luminescent wings.

I am not trying to figure out the answers, but to feel my way into them and allow the questions themselves to illuminate me and my work.

I am not seeking to burden myself with a heavy weight of responsibility like some boulder I have to carry, but rather to let my sacred responsibilities inspire and lift me like a great hot air balloon.

Enlivened by Responsibility

I raised these questions about responsibility in art-making at the start of May as part of the monthly Creative Theme and Prompt I give to my patrons on Patreon. I shared there that these questions first came alive for me when I read Seamus Heaney’s essay “Crediting Poetry” many years ago.

I wanted to revisit the theme of responsibility in my art now to see what, if anything, has changed or deepened or newly arisen for me, and to see how these questions might enliven my work now.

I don’t have final answers to these questions. To me, they are generative questions, so they are meant to keep opening new vistas.

Delicious Responsibility

I do know that Beauty is very important to me.

To create things of beauty, to mirror the beauty in the world, to create art that stuns and shakes us with its deep beauty, a kind of painful beauty and truth commingled.

And also Heart, to create things that move our hearts, express the rich emotional landscape and truth of the heart.

As the great poet John Keats wrote, in one of my favorite quotes:

“I am certain of nothing but the holiness of the Heart’s affections and the truth of the Imagination.”

For me, it is vital to bear forth the wildness and truthfulness of Imagination, the wrenching and glorious realities of the Heart’s affections, and also the realms of Spirit and Soul that are so neglected in our everyday, commoditized, technological world.

I feel responsible to give voice to things that are not honored enough in contemporary society—the beauty and sanctity of Earth and all life, the primacy of Spirit moving in all things, our intuitions, dreams, visions, flights of fancy, our connection to Source and yearning for Wholeness, and the complexity of what it means to be truly human and to live a good life and a creative one.

I aim to honor all these in my work.

Resting in the Mystery

And too, to honor the uncertainty in the Keats quote above, the not knowing. To allow the poem, or whatever work of art I am making, to hold the Mystery.

Keats called this Negative Capability. Here is the passage in the letter in which he first named this quality:

“…at once it struck me what quality went to form a Man of Achievement, especially in Literature, and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously — I mean Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason… This pursued through volumes would perhaps take us no further than this, that with a great poet the sense of Beauty overcomes every other consideration, or rather obliterates all consideration.”

What I feel in me is this great love of Beauty, Mystery, Heart, Wonder, Soul, Spirit, Truth, Connection. These things I seek to bear forth in my art, to enlarge and help our world thereby, to keep us turning toward that which I prize above all else, to protect and defend the Essences that are most needed and also most endangered in our world today.

Because of my nature, I reflect a great deal of the internal and invisible realms in my work, and less of the concrete, visible and the known. That is because the internal, imaginal and invisible realms have always been more real, more vivid, more alive for me, while the sensate world occurs as a kind of lovely (and often also awful) haze or glaze over the deeper realities.

Musicality, play, invention are also vital to me. Surprise, radiance, and solace.

A Community of Responsibility

Solace brings me to the part of the question that asks to whom do I feel responsible in my work.

I feel responsible to those souls who are sensitive, deeply feeling, alive to mystery and spirit, hungry for beauty and truth, yearning for deeper connection, fed by wild imagination. To the “world losers and world forsakers” of Arthur O’Shaughnessy’s marvelous “Ode,” which begins:

We are the music makers,

   And we are the dreamers of dreams,

Wandering by lone sea-breakers,

    And sitting by desolate streams; —

World-losers and world-forsakers,

    On whom the pale moon gleams:

Yet we are the movers and shakers

    Of the world for ever, it seems.

I put this quote in my high school yearbook, and it’s just as alive for me today.

I feel a responsibility to use my gift with words to put into words that which others cannot articulate for themselves, or have not yet articulated. And to give speech to the unsayable, that which rests outside the bounds of language but which we can point to in some way.

I feel responsible, as well, to Earth and her creatures, to the wind, the rocks, Ocean, trees and more. I feel responsible to the Mystery.

How is it for you?

In whatever you do with love, whether that is some form of art or parenting or your job or something else, to what and whom do you feel responsible? For what and whom do you wish to be responsible in your work?

You might start by pondering, lightly as I have, some of the following questions:

  • What are your core values?
  • What do you love and cherish, what matters most to you?
  • What do you need in order for life to feel rich and full and beautiful?
  • What do wish to promote and protect in our world?
  • Whom or what do you serve or seek to be in service to?
  • What are you devoted to in your art, your work, your life?

You could take any of these questions and set a timer for 15 minutes and simply write freely without stopping and see what comes.

Or you could explore them, play with them, as you make art, in your painting, dancing, music-making or whatever creative expression you do.

Or you can just ruminate on the questions as you go about your day and notice what is important to you, what do you love, what lights you up, what feeds your heart and soul.

There is no need to arrive at answers, certainties, declarations. Rather, I invite you, to let the questions be generative, let them open things for you.

As the poet Rainer Maria Rilke wrote in his Letters to a Young Poet:

Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.”

To your unbridled life,

Maxima

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