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My music is deeply embedded within the European tradition and my love for the
music of the past.  My organic creative process – constructing a musical
architecture from the initial statement to the final gesture – comes out of my
preoccupation with how one musical moment flows into another and the
resulting overarching musical narrative. My musical language is characterized
by a very personal approach to harmony, the importance of contrast and
surprise, and music that doesn’t shy away from being highly emotive.  Coming
from my French-Hungarian background, my music emphasizes French color,
harmony and texture and Hungarian rhythmic vitality and modal inflection.

These days I am exploring music that emanates from the inner life. I have most
recently completed “Nocturne to Quiet the Childish Heart,” the first movement
of a solo piano piece entitled Two Nocturnes and am presently at work on its
companion, “Nocturne to Quiet the Child’s Heart.”

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My music favors rhythmic fluidity, relishes shifting textures and moods, and prizes instrumental color. It emphasizes rich, resonant harmonies and a careful attention to harmonic rhythm and transposition. It is fashioned into structures that are clear, yet ephemeral, and accents the unpredictable without neglecting continuity. In these qualities exists a search for the uniqueness of each moment in the music, a search for a way to observe and understand the present as both a singular event and as part of an ongoing whole. This is part of an artistic and existential desire to understand the inner truth of the moment, the particularities of the now and its existence within our sense of time. Music must happen in time, and yet, it can remind us how we are accessing something beyond constructed time, beyond our own limited understanding of the nature of time.

The work of the composer is perplexing because, while I actually manipulate musical materials to create the moments I describe, I am equally the vessel through which the music speaks and tells me what it is to become.  The dialogue I have with the music that comes through me is a process of discovery and an unveiling of the inner truth of each moment that is both humbling and everchanging.

 

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THE ARTIST’S INTERNAL BEACON
(2015 Essay for the Art in War, War in Art conference, Niš, Serbia)

Abstract:

In the midst of perpetual crisis in our world, with the ever-present influence of social, cultural and historical values, and with art’s seeming powerlessness next to the economic/business models of our world, how does an artist make art? Must personal artistic choices be understood within this larger context? Is an individual artist required to be an agent of change in our world? In this paper, I propose that it is not the artist’s task to understand his/her significance, nor his/her place in the social and cultural present. Rather it is finding and refining one’s inner beacon that is the artist’s primary responsibility. While this may lead to political or social art, it comes out of introspection and not from a need to fulfill an external role or to cater to current tastes. The very act of looking inward serves to counterbalance the potential destructive values that give rise to our global crises.

Key words: artistic practice, artistic vision, introspection, the individual artist,
socio-economic climate

1. Introduction

A quick scan through historical time reveals that humankind has perpetually been in crisis, be it between tribes and nations, religions, economic models, social capital, social roles, culture, science and technology, or in our relationship to the natural world. For those of us living in the twenty-first century, the crises seem particularly plentiful. We are at war; we are acutely divide politically, religiously, racially, economically, and socially both at the global and local level. We live in a time of great inequality. Even more threatening, we live at a time when we may soon no longer have a planet able to sustain us.

At the base of all crises is the fundamental question of what is to be human. If we believe that being human means belonging to a tribe, we create conflict between tribes. If we decide that humans are separate from nature, we destroy our habitat. As we continue to redefine ourselves, our crises change form. And these crises persist until, perhaps, one day our definition of humanness evolves to encompass interrelatedness as its central tenet.

Whether or not this time comes, many of us as artists continuously ask ourselves the question, “Does the artist have a role in the crises of the world?” To answer this question, it is necessary to understand that the primary responsibility of an artist is to his or her internal beacon.

If a beacon is “any light for warning or guiding” or “a person or thing that warns, offers encouragement or guidance,” (Guralnik , 1986: 122) what then is an internal beacon? As I define it, it is a person’s own inner guidance system; the individual’s inner compass; his or her North, South, East, West.

The American poet Jack Gilbert alluded to this in an interview when he said, “you have to have something inside. You can’t make a poem out of something that’s not there.” (Fay, 2005: 455) Not only does he speak of a “something inside,” but he also speaks of the connection between this ephemeral thing and the creation of an artwork. Creativity is not, as has been said through the ages, “an ability to contrive and think things up.” (Anthony, 1988:127) On the contrary, creativity, Gilbert suggests, is an inward journey. In it, the artist engages in a process of discovery and maturation with their internal beacon. It is a continual process; not something accomplished once and never again, nor a period one passes through and forgets. Aligning with the artistic self requires the constant commitment to connect to one’s core.

When artistic production is done through the external self – the way we position ourselves in the world – and with the demands of external values, we end up contriving. “Contriving generally produces only contrivances.” (Anthony, 1988:127) To access true creativity, the artist must align their internal beacon. This is an incredibly personal process unique to each individual.

2. External Pressures

If this is an artist’s primary responsibility, why is it so difficult to engage one’s internal beacon? The simple answer is that there are so many external pressures, so many things that weigh upon and distract the artist. Not only are these pressures corrosive to the artist’s inward journey, but they remind us of art’s inability to directly impact a crisis.

I identify four overall pressures, all of which may have differing impacts depending on the individual artist’s background, value system, and socio-cultural reality. There is the economic/business model of our world, art’s inability to address basic human needs, the pressure for art to be an “agent of change,” and the weight of social, cultural and historical norms. Clearly, some of these pressures might seem contradictory – such as art’s ineffectiveness in specific circumstances and the demand that art function as an agent of change. However, rather than these pressures being mutually exclusive, they function within a spectrum, at times overwhelming the artist and at others receding into the background. The first step to clearing the way to our internal beacon is awareness of these potential pitfalls. So I will discuss them in greater detail.

2.2. The economic model

Presently, we are entangled in a model of the world based on economics and business and have been so for quite some time. In fact, so much so that many of us have lost the ability to see this system objectively, believing that it is immutable and permanent. “The way of the world,” we believe. Its supremacy is in great part due to the United States, whose mass consumer culture pervades much of our world.

Seen through this lens, art itself must make money. It is measured by its economic value. In addition, art can be “useful” in this model if it, independent of its own material worth, has measurable monetary impact. So, for example, a company derives economic benefit through the prestige of supporting art, or by using it directly or tapping it for marketing purposes. Or a person’s investment in art lines their pockets.

Similarly, when educators argue for the benefits of art in education, art is rarely valued for its own intrinsic qualities, but rather for its ability to create better workers, better thinkers, better scientists, more creative business people. Art is a means to an economic end and its influence is determined by market forces.

2.3. Art’s inability to meet basic human needs

There is a stark and disconcerting reality that art can’t save us. Art cannot meet a person’s basic survival needs. It cannot feed. It cannot shelter. It cannot clothe. Art alone cannot directly stop conflict or discrimination. It cannot stop war. It cannot directly change human rights, equality or prejudices, or deplorable socio-economic situations. For an artist who is trying to choose a path in the world, it can be extremely discouraging to realize that art doesn’t have this power. For those of us looking to contribute more immediately, perhaps humanity would be better served as a human rights lawyer or as a doctor or in other more directly consequential professions. For those of us who have, notwithstanding, stayed the course, this reality can be dispiriting.

2.4. The pressure to be an agent of change

Then there’s the opposite pressure to be an agent of change. The artist is caught in a double bind: powerless, yet called to make change. When this is taken up as the raison d’être of the artist, he or she becomes an exclusively social, political, or cultural crusader and art becomes his or her vehicle. Art is created to fight for a social cause, for example; or for an ideology. And art’s value comes from quantity and impact. How many people’s minds have you changed? How much attention on social media? How much money did it raise for a cause?

2.5. The weight of social, cultural and historical norms.

Finally, there is the pressure of conformity. This is the pressure to follow specific social, cultural and historical norms, which all humans face. In the arts, this may be observed as an obligation to a certain school of thought; in the mentality that upholds the superiority of ‘my art over your art;’ in the need to view artistic expression as an inherent competition. Accompanying these ways of thinking are attitudes such as ‘one must be in the avant garde.’ ‘The novel is dead.’ ‘Classical music is passé.’

When art is made for the external purpose of serving a political, social or cultural system it is subject to pressures of conformity. This is not to be confused with art that moves in distinct political, social or cultural spheres, which speaks to the work’s larger context. But making art to serve a system is a different thing.

3. The Artist’s Responsibility

With these debilitating pressures and stark realities, with externals determining value and worth measured in financial terms, how does an artist make art?

The first step is a conscious understanding of these pressures. The second, as countless artists remind us, is to look inward.

In speaking about his creative process, the American writer James Baldwin said, “When you’re writing, you’re trying to find out something that you don’t know. The whole language of writing for me is finding out what you don’t want to know, what you don’t what to find out, but something forces you anyway.”(Elgrably, 1984: 242) The French artist Henri Matisse cautioned, “an artist should never be a prisoner of himself, a prisoner of style, a prisoner of reputation, a prisoner of success.” (Elderfield, 1978: 8) These two statements, each in their own individual way, remind us that there is something intangible to access, something beyond externals. It’s a responsibility to an inner essence that finds its outward expression in the work of art. An artist’s entire life’s work is, in fact, honoring and accessing our internal poles, our polarity, our compass.

3.2 Aligning with one’s internal beacon

But what does it mean to align with one’s internal beacon? While impossible to give one answer since each alignment is uniquely personal, there are guideposts. Introspection, observation, curiosity, and self-awareness (and this means real self-awareness, the ability to look inside or to be self aware so that one sees the difference between the external and the internal) are critical to this process. Nourishing the inner core, feeding it intellectually, socially, spiritually, and culturally, is equally important. And accepting that this process happens over time – a lifetime – without expectations for how it will unfold, allows for an unimpeded relationship with one’s internal compass.

As I have suggested by describing the externals pressures above, I believe that if an artist makes art for external reasons, they are not being true to their artistic self, nor to what they have to bring to the world. Can an artist make money on his or her art? Of course, but this is the tangential result of an artistic alignment with one’s core. To making money on one’s artwork because it has value since it makes money, implies that something is not internally aligned.

To argue for the “starving artist syndrome” or to somehow imply that there exists a “good” path versus a “bad” path is furthest from my intention. There is no formula. But what does remain essential is the internal process.

3.3. The role of the work of art in the discovery process

There is one more step in the process of creation; not just accessing the internal beacon, or nourishing it or allowing it to blossom in time, but uncovering the work art. While emanating from the artist’s internal beacon, the work of art is a separate entity. Jack Gilbert explains that”the hard part for me is to find the poem, a poem that matters. To find what the poem knows that’s special.” (Fay, 2005: 465) He speaks of finding, not doing, not constructing. He’s not imposing himself upon the work. He’s discovering it. He reminds us that it is up to the artist to approach the work with the humility required to hear, touch, sense, see, the work’s own inner polarity; its own essence. It is a process which complements the artist’s own internal process of discovery.

4. Possible Answers

With the idea of the internal beacon in mind, how do we now answer the following questions?

Does an artist have a specific role in society? To make art is it necessary to belong to a movement? Must the artist work for social and political change? To answer these questions, each artist must use their internal beacon. And each answer is unique.

Externals will always exist. In our three dimensional reality, these externals have a profound impact on us. They even help us to define and understand ourselves. But more profoundly, there is the ever-present capacity to access our inner reality. And acknowledging this aspect of ourselves is to understand that what one artist might find insincere, making political art, for example, might be at the core, at the essence, of the work of another artist and their need to create.

It is not one category of artist that will more fully respond to the questions of an artist’s role in the crises of the world. To argue that there is a good or bad way to respond as an artist is counterproductive to the very idea that I’m trying to propose.

5. What is the impact?

If every artist stays true to his/her inner core, doesn’t that lead to diffusion, the lack of focus, and a minimal impact on the world? I would argue to the contrary. Global impact does not only come from mass unity behind social and political movements, but in modeling, in demonstrating, in showing choices, and being faithful to different versions of the world. Thus by the very fact of being an artist, an artist has a profound impact. As Oscar Wilde reminds us, “no great artist ever sees things as they really are. If he did, he would cease to be an artist.” (Saltus, 1917: 20)

Whether an artist sees the world darkly or brightly, there is an idealism in human creativity that expression, no matter the perspective, is necessarily human.

6. The Contribution

How do artists contribute?

They are a counterbalance to the predominant values, the modes of thought and the ways of living in our world, country, or locality. They represent difference. They show us that there are a multitude of paths to choose from. They demonstrate that a person can align their life with entirely different set of values than those accepted as the norm. In their very difference, they are a model for the rest of the world.

Artists teach us all to align with our inner core because this is what an artist does. Through his or her internal beacon, the artist changes ways of thinking and questions our social, cultural and historical norms. The artist values expression and creativity over production and economic impact. She focuses upon the individual human experience and exposes us to lives other than our own. He proposes new ways of seeing, hearing, touching and sensing — sensing also as emotion and compassion. And the artist, maybe most importantly, celebrates the mysterious and the ephemeral.

By honoring his or her internal beacon, the artist teaches us to value each other. This – in and of itself – is social and political. It is a compelling social and political contribution.

7. Fostering the Artist

How do we foster this? How do we as a community cultivate a social climate where the artist can focus inward?

Firstly, we can remove our obsession with placing externals expectations on art. Art does not exist to serve a specific purpose or to achieve a certain following or to gain monetary value.

Secondly, we should openly discuss the creative process, especially when teaching younger artists.

At present, the creative process is treated like a secret that each individual must take a lifetime to uncover. It seems strange to hold on to this so jealously. All artists, especially composers who are often the stingiest, should recognize that sharing this knowledge will only expand creativity and the presence of art in our lives.

Thirdly, rather than continuing our habit of teaching movements, historical periods, and schools of thought and we need instead to focus more on individuals and their uniquely personal artistic journey. In the end, it is those individual voices that remain to speak to us. Romanticism doesn’t speak to us. Beethoven does; Schumann does; Berlioz does; Brahms does; Wagner does; Liszt does. As teachers of history and theory we have to be careful not to teach budding artists that they must find their group; that they must follow something. There is no formula to being an artist. There is no fixed path. We do a grave disservice, then, if we teach as if there are such things.

Finally, we must do our best to eliminate our obsession with time. In his Letters to a Young Poet, Rainer Maria Rilke wrote, “being an artist means not numbering and counting, but ripening like a tree, which doesn’t force its sap, and stands confidently in the storms of spring, not afraid that afterword summer may not come. It does come. But it comes only to those who are patient.

Who are there as if eternity lay before them, so unconcernedly silent and vast.” (Rilke, 1986: 24)

Neither youth nor production is the measure of a great artist. Rather, like a tree, it is growing in your own way.

8. Conclusion

As I have proposed, coming to know one’s internal beacon is a process of inner awareness.

Awareness is both the constant work of an artist and his/her life’s work. It is not the artist’s task to understand his/her significance, nor his/her historical context, nor his/her place in the social and cultural present. Rather it is the very process of finding and refining the inner beacon that is the artist’s responsibility. This very act, the act of looking inward, counterbalances the destructive values of our world that have led to crises.

If impacting a crisis means direct action and measurable outcomes, this is not what art does.

Crisis, as I suggested at the beginning, occurs as a result of our definitions of what it is to be human. Artists help us to redefine this.

The act of acknowledging, respecting and nourishing the internal beacon, leads directly to honoring each person’s unique voice and cultivates a world where ideas can reflect off of each other, can intermingle, and can inspire. It is, therefore, by honoring the internal beacon, by this very act, that the artist teaches us to value each other. As the American poet Walt Whitman tells us in the beginning of his poem Song of Myself, “I celebrate myself, and sing myself, and what I assume you shall assume, for every atom belonging to me as good, belongs to you.” (Whitman, 1992: 25)

 

Bibliography

Anthony, Carol K. 1988. A Guide to the I Ching. Stow, Massachusetts: Anthony PublishingCompany.

Elderfield, John. 1978. The Cut-Outs of Henri Matisse. New York: George Braziller.

Elgrably, Jordan. 1984. James Baldwin: The Art of Fiction in The Paris Review Interviews, Vol.2. New York: Picador, 436-472.

Fay, Sarah. 2005. Jack Gilbert: The Art of Poetry in The Paris Review Interviews, Vol. 1. New York: Picador, 237-271.

Guralnik, David Bernard, ed. 1986. Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language. New York: Prentice Hall Press.

Rilke, Rainer Maria. 1986. Letters to a Young Poet, trans. Stephen Mitchell. New York: Vintage Books.

Saltus, Edgar. 1917. Oscar Wilde, an idler’s impression. Chicago: Brothers of the Book.

Whitman, Walt. 1992. Leaves of Grass. New York: Barnes and Noble Books.