I introduced the term “splendid isolation” with a sense that the two words/concepts making up the term seemed inherently incompatible…that the shining forth of splendor and the attention drawn to such shining forth might undermine the notion of isolation, thereby making the term internally contradictory. Upon thinking about the components separately and, in this post, in relationship one to the other, I have come to a much different conclusion. Far from being add odds, the terms need each other, creatively speaking. I think that my error was to associate both of the words with the same object…the artist. The artist is the source of splendor as he/she as his or her genius radiates forth in the work. So too is the artist the bearer of the isolation…an isolation which creates the conditions necessary to be said genius. But, my experience tells me that this is the wrong way to look at all of this.
The artist does not pursue his or her own genius. That is a romantic notion that has received intellectual and critical support from those oftentimes orbiting the arts but not working within them. Instead, the artist pursues the making of the work. The work thusly well made utters forth its being-madeness with a burst of splendor. The artist does not pursue his or her genius. The artist makes according to how he or she makes. Anything that comes from that is purely secondary. Oftentimes, the secondary usurps the primary, especially in the popular imagination. Sometimes, because of the association with the splendor and the relationship to it, the secondary becomes understood (even by the artist) as the primary. St. Anthony of Egypt sought out the desert as a means to union with the divine. He did not search out the title or the fame or the biography. The splendor radiating from the pursuit brought all of that along with it. So too with the true artist.
I think part of the difficulty is simply that it is much more alluring for the young artist to pursue genius as a goal than to pursue the discipline of making according to his or her own being. It is much more interesting to write biographies about the inner struggles of genius (a genius often defined at its core as one who scoffs at the notion of discipline and assumes genius precisely in the ridicule of said discipline) than the technical innovations and manipulations of making. And so the cult of genius ascends. The simple notion of making…wherein the maker seeks to allow the work to shine forth at the risk of his or her own disappearance…seems cold, clinical, almost inhuman…to serve a thing. That reminds me of a story. I had a couple of works in an exhibition in Cleveland when I first moved back to Akron. A local professor of fine arts from a local university approached me with a self-assurance akin to arrogance…his position and customary role as imparter of wisdom to the uninitiated fully exposed like the tail feathers of the male peacock. He said to me: “I find your work cold.” I said: “Thank you.” Set aside what I thought of his work and of the arts as instructed in the university setting, my mind instantly flashed to a quote that I recalled from Emily Dickinson: “If I read a book and it makes my body so cold no fire can ever warm me, I know that is poetry.”