By Katie Anne Mitchell
I recently read an article discussing generational inertia and the importance of preserving tradition in folk music. It struck a chord with me. We in the Art of the Song office have recently been in discussion about the transference between generations of music and the importance of not only recognition of previous generations’ impact on music, but the vitality of the build-upon process in art. There seems to be a current movement toward celebrating the uniqueness and self-derived nature of art. There is a certain hubris in the way we approach our art—that it is solely our creation and to say otherwise is discounting the blood, sweat, and tears that went into it.
A friend recently alerted me to a Ted Talk with Elizabeth Gilbert in which she talks about the current preoccupation with self-generated creativity. She contrasts this with ancient Greek and Roman cultures in which the artists relied on their daemons, geniuses, muses and general outside sources of creative inspiration. Consequently, the artist would “show up” and however their art turned out, it could be attributed to the capability of their muse. It seems the current method of attributing creative writing to the self is dangerous not only for the resulting hubris that arises when we accomplish something but the extreme self-deprecation that occurs when we don’t. I am not proud to say that I have found myself in constant oscillation between the two extremes, often to be reflected upon later in moments of overwhelming sense of shame. So I decided to adopt this approach and quickly donned two ‘muses’ in the form of a portly redheaded mischievous leprechaun named “Dandry” and an elegant and sympathetic woman called “Danielle”.
While this method of talking to these ‘muses’ did and has been useful to not taking the burden all on my shoulders of both my successes and failures, I’ve still felt something missing. Recently, I’ve reached out to our producer, Tim, for a number of creative collaborations in both film and music (he’s got knowledge, expertise, and focus in places I just don’t have). These collaborations, along with the synergy from the conversations we’ve had at Art of the Song lately have led me to one fundamental conclusion: that art and creativity is not a solo endeavor. I recently wrote lyrics and Tim was kind enough to indulge my songwriting attempts without reliably playing an instrument and put chords to it (he’s been a longtime musician and is brilliant with that). The fact is, the song would not exist without Tim putting the chords to it. But, to go further back, it wouldn’t exist without the heartbreak that inspired it. Or, without Viv and John pulling me into the Art of the Song and, as a result, basically spoon-feeding me creativity for two years…as part of my job! Or, even further back, without the memory of watching my mom’s deep love of music—she plays multiple instruments but always had a particular brilliance with the violin, flute, and piano.
If you listen to the Pat McGee interview this week you’ll hear him emphasize the importance of doing research on your inspirations and paying respect to your influences. In fact, his new album is a tribute to the sounds he was influenced by because he sought out the very musicians who inspired him in the first place. It seems art is a celebration of past and concurrent creativities of others, the building blocks which led us to what we are. All this is to say, once again, that art is not singular. Art is community.
Perhaps instead of relying on the holy self or looking to the mythical realm of muses, we can embrace the concept that art, while it can be both lonely and divine, can and does come to us from collaborative creative works of people. At the end of the day, the art would not exist without our contributions to it, and we can and should be proud of that. But recognizing and appreciating that art is a communal effort doesn’t degrade our part in it, recognizing this infuses more life, more meaning, more humanity into it–we get to be so much more than just ourselves when we let others in to our creativity. And that’s pretty spectacular.