In the year nineteen forty-million years ago, Tennessee Williams wrote in a New York Times book review that because success and public attention in America “operate as sort of a pressure cooker or freezer, there has been a discouraging tendency for the talent to bake or congeal at a premature level of inner development.” A timeless critique. In this case, the first-time novelist that T-dub was writing about was 38 years old, which T-dub welcomed.
I wonder, though, when a young artist’s maturity, or the maturity of their art arrests in development, how much of that is a function of “success and public attention”? Maybe this person was destined to not grow further regardless. Or, maybe it’s their art that had reaches its developmental zenith regardless of circumstances.
What freezes in time? The man or his art? Or both? Is it a chicken or egg thing?
I wonder if I ever achieve “success” and “public attention” for my writing, will I feel so much pressure to repeat the success that I crumple under the bombing light and not try anything new?
If my art doesn’t progress, can I? And vice versa.
I think I have something of an answer but let me quote T-dub a little further before I get to that.
“In America,” he says, “the career almost invariable becomes an obsession. The ‘get-ahead’ principle, carried to such extreme, inspires our writers to enormous efforts.”
In general, it seems to me great efforts can sometimes reveal great results regardless of the motivation. A giant task, an imminent deadline, and more than a touch of a self-interest can yield beautiful work. Sometimes.
Though T-dub does clarify, regarding the rate of production he is referring: “A new book must come out every year.” Which does indeed sound like a lot, but, maybe OK? “Otherwise they get panicky,” he continues. But panic is not necessarily a sign of stunted artistry either?
He concludes with this home run of a couple of sentences (italics his): “I think that this stems from a misconception of what it means to be a writer or any kind of creative artist. They feel it is something to adopt in the place of actual living, without understanding that art is a by-product of existence.”
And, with that, I have a robustly stated, yet tentative conclusion. Our internal wisdom can express itself in our work, even if we haven’t lived it externally yet. But, art is limited by that wisdom. The artist may create something that is beautiful because it is within them, though they may not live a beautiful life. However, if the artist doesn’t have access to this understanding internally, it can only be faked in their art. So, I should say, speaking for myself: man first, artist second.
The man’s life is bigger than his art, not always as good, sometimes better.
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