Years ago, when I first started my never-to-be-finished PhD, I had one simple belief: everything is artifice.
I suppose it’s a natural enough conclusion to come to when you’re twenty-two years old and reading Lyotard’s theories on the post-modern condition during the bulk of your waking hours, and it certainly seemed to explain an awful lot about the things I didn’t quite understand about the world. That any attempt at authenticity was but a carefully constructed stratagem to create the illusion of authenticity made sense to me. After all, I lived on the Gold Coast. Trying to deal with the concept of authenticity on the Gold Coast is fucking confusing, since the whole damn city embraces artifice as its default state. You make sense of it as best you can, or you get the get the hell out.
These days I’m older and dumber and I have about thirteen years of additional experience to process, and I’m still not entirely sure that my twenty-two year old self was wrong. The performance I put on for the world is less involved than it used to be – there’s fewer feather boas and trenchcoats and nail polish, more writing and submitting and getting things done – but there’s a part of me that’s consistently aware that there’s a performance going on.
This is one of those things that dominates my decisions to embrace the kinds of art I embrace: I distrust any art that offers up authenticity or meaning as its primary virtue, unless it’s coupled with a self-awareness about the artificial nature of the work. Serious cinema – by which I mean big, Award-winning dramas about big and serious things that are primarily naturalistic in their approach – sets me on edge. I’d much rather watch noir, with its obviously artificial camera angles designed entirely to evoke mood. I’d rather watch cartoons, which embrace their lack of realism with a fervor that few other mediums could match. Hell, I’d rather watch soap operas, ’cause at least they looked like they were having fun.
The moment a film takes itself seriously, it’s dead to me. What I want is a sense of fun. What I want, more than anything, is the ability to see the performer inside their performance, and get a sense that they’re both enjoying themselves and they’re willing to let their audience in on the fun. In the argument between style and substance, I’ll go with the work that has a sense of style every time. At twenty-two I had serious, deathly art-crushes on David Bowie, Andy Warhol, and Oscar Wilde. On William Gibson and Kathy Acker and Poppy Z. Brite. At thirty-five I still have serious, deathly art-crushes on those same people, and more yet who have come along since.
Everything is artifice.
This has been on my mind a lot this weekend because I’ve been re-reading Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art after having a discussion with my friend Kevin about it’s relative flaws and merits as a guidebook for artists. I have enormous amounts of problems with Pressfield’s book – it’s a core of good advice wrapped up in a package that’s so “authentic” it makes my teeth hurt. Pressfield believes in things, and he believes in them strongly. He suggests that creating art can cure cancer. He suggests that teaching the world to avoid procrastination will result in a drop in crime, sickness, domestic abuse, and other unpleasant things. It’s the kind of po-faced, manipulative “authenticity” that appears in self-help books everywhere, and it fills me with rage.
Big, unpleasant, bone-gnawing rage.
The weird thing about all this is that I do believe there is magic in art. I didn’t for a long while; for about ten years I was firmly in the camp of those who wanted writing to be craft, something that can be taught and respected and disassociated from myths about muses and the magic of creativity. These days, though, I’m back in the camp that says there can be a space where art is transcendent. Where it can take you and reshape you and make the world a better place. Where it can make you feel and recontextualise the world in exactly the way you needed it recontextualised.
I just don’t believe the magic of art is a big magic anymore. It’s smaller and quieter and it affects each person differently. Ordinary, everyday magic. Ordinary, everyday miracles. Quiet moments where art makes your fingers tingle.
Everything is artifice, but that’s all magic has ever been anyway. Ritual. Mis-direction. The world given context by performance.
And so we keep writing, keep creating, keep doing the things we do. And we hope it finds the people who need it in the times when they need it most.