By Isaac Butler
Roughly a week ago while I was on the road, the wonderful playwright Mac Rogers and excellent critic Jason Zinoman (both friends of mine, duh) got into a discussion about how poisonous the myth of the individual artist is.
They didn't put it that way, of course. Instead, in response to talking about the "We Built This" GOP meme, Mac wrote "As a playwright, I feel automatically threatened at the idea that my scripts are collaborative achievements. My director Jordana basically deserves a co-credit on BLAST RADIUS, but I didn't offer her one.The need to believe that my scripts issue forth exclusively from my visionary brain is hugely untrue, and hard to let go of. This is my playwright's version of a widespread American feeling: 'There has to be SOMETHING that only *I* did, or who am I?'"
Jason chimed in to say that journalists (who of course work with editors) feel it too. And then mac hit on something really perceptive: That scarcity has something to do with this. When there are a huge number of people vyeing for the few slots availalbe in an industry, you want to be essential. You want to be the only one that does what you do, and the only one who needs to be relied upon to do it.
I really do feel that the myth of the individual artist is seriously damaging to our creative capacity and our humanity. People deny the influences that helped birth them, screw over their collaborators, and tell obviously BS stories to create a myth about themselves. And one of the reasons why people do this is that we want to believe that the individual is the core unit of creating art. But even in art with only one person's name on it, that's simply untrue.
I am writing a book right now. Should I be fortunate to have it published, it will say "By Isaac Butler" on it somewhere. But the list of voices that make up my voice in that book would go on and on. It would have to include at least twenty authors whose work was important to the book's creation. The interviewees who participated in the book. The circle of readers I get feedback from. And to some extent, the reader, as the work of art is actually created in their minds as they read it.
And yet, the idea that an individual artist-- and only an individual artist-- created this is still there. I feel that this is intertwined with another dangerous idea, the idea that artistic innovation is the highest thing a work of art can aspire to, the top goal, and if you aren't reaching that, you're just a hack.
I suppose on some level what i'm saying is that there are certain modernist conceptions of what an artist is that we still labor under and that I believe those conceptions to be both ahistorical and wrong. Or at least dated. Arists do not, as a rule, stand outside society, critiquing it and sanctifying it simultaneously with their creations. The audience is important to a work of art. Innovation isn't everything, Groups matter. Substance abuse rarely leads to good writing. Etc.
What are some dangerous myths about art-making for you? What are the myths you confront that get in the way of our own ability to get work done?