The socially-distanced artist


The virus is out there. We are quarantined. Dolphins, flamingos and deer are among those mighty pleased by our absence. Human contact is more valued now than it was just over a month ago.


What could this mean for artists? What purpose does social isolation serve them?


There is a word often misunderstood: 'solitude'. It has been long stigmatized, considered even a punishment. Psychologists like Freud who linked solitude with anxiety, noted that, “in children the first phobias relating to situations are those of darkness and solitude.” Such notions shaped ways in which we educated our children, applauded community engagements, and even designed open-floor office plans. Terms like "brainstorming" became part of the modern office parlance in the guise of fostering creativity. We forgot that the term originally meant “a violent, transient mental derangement manifested in a maniacal outburst; a transitory agitation or confusion of the mind.”* We created a world in which solitude was questioned, if not censured. Eventually we confused it with anti-social behavior and loneliness.


Contrast that to what artists say about solitude:


"Alone you belong to yourself only; with even one other person you are only half yourself, and you will be less and less yourself in proportion to the number of companions."

-Leonardo da Vinci (1412-1519)


"...when one is faced with a canvas, one is no longer alone, and the sense of solitude diminishes...In fact, solitude then becomes a kind of companion."

-Pierre Alechinsky (b. 1927)


Does this mean that artists are anti-social beings? Do they live in avoidance of the world or of the natural order of humankind? I would argue that the opposite is, in fact, true. Artists are curious creatures, acutely tuned in with their surroundings. Every sense-perception, emotion and thought is lodged away in their subconscious mind, to be summoned during the hours in the studio, or during a performance on stage. Let's not forget matters of love and heartbreak that most experience, but few acknowledge. It is the very grist of an artist's mill. Then there is the inner world that is often ignored or feared. The world of forbidden desires, anxieties and regrets that beget our demons, which can and do turn against us, if not harnessed. Harmonizing this inner chaos lies at the heart of the creative impulse. Making art is the artist's way of making sense of it all. However this transmutation of pain into beauty is a private affair, a far cry from the glamor of the theater lobby or the art gallery. In Carl Jung's terminology, it is the first step towards "individuation" and the confronting of one's own "shadow".


One need not glamorize suffering to express the benefits of solitude. Suffering comes from being lonely, while solitude is a state of inner contentment, of unraveling the subconscious self and tapping into the creative source from which stem works of timeless profundity. Consider any great artist, mathematician, poet, musician, philosopher, inventor or thinker. They work alone for prolonged periods. Because they know that the muse doesn't love company. Their best work pours out of them when they attain the state of FLOW, of which Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi writes in his books. In words of John Keats, it is the "sublime conduit to truth and beauty". Who wouldn’t want that?


Perhaps it's harder for those who are more socially inclined, who need the presence of others to feel connected, to feel alive or even validated. There is nothing wrong with being this way. But what we might not realize is that it fragments us into pieces, into shards of disconnected space and time units, each one demanding varying degrees of attention. Over time we tire of it, we subconsciously resent others, become unpleasant, and sometimes even succumb to physical illness. We let our calling languish in the anesthetic of daily affairs. And the worst of all, one day it stops affecting us!


The choice is this: do we have the courage to embrace solitude and be one with it? Can we capture this moment and pay heed to our calling and serve it? The lockdown has offered some of us that rare and precious opportunity. Lose it and we shall be the poorer for it.

I leave you with a few of my favorite quotes on solitude. -Mesma “I would rather sit on a pumpkin, and have it all to myself, than be crowded on a velvet cushion.” -Henry David Thoreau “The soul that sees beauty may sometimes walk alone.” -Johann Wolfgang von Goethe “How much better is silence; the coffee cup, the table. How much better to sit by myself like the solitary sea-bird that opens its wings on the stake. Let me sit here forever with bare things, this coffee cup, this knife, this fork, things in themselves, myself being myself.” -Virginia Woolf “We must become so alone, so utterly alone, that we withdraw into our innermost self. It is a way of bitter suffering. But then our solitude is overcome, we are no longer alone, for we find that our innermost self is the spirit, that it is God, the indivisible. And suddenly we find ourselves in the midst of the world, yet undisturbed by its multiplicity, for our innermost soul we know ourselves to be one with all being.” -Hermann Hesse * Unabridged dictionary, 1934 edition


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