Many of the men and women in my extended family were public speakers, ministers, and educators — teachers from grade school through graduate school. My role models were always speaking and writing in public about their beliefs, values and opinions. It was clear to me in childhood that they were both praised and persecuted for those activities, and sometimes that spilled over into my life as a “PK” (preacher’s kid.) When my dad was the pastor of a small Midwestern church, and we sold our old church building to the 2nd Baptist African-American congregation, causing them to move two blocks farther into the white neighborhood, my bicycle tires and basketball were slashed, and death threats were phoned in to the parsonage. When we built our new church using a lot of volunteer labor from the congregation, some vandals came the night before our first church service and threw molten tar all over the exterior brick walls and on the cross. I was about 13. As long as I live I will never forget my father in the pulpit that morning, setting aside his prepared sermon and delivering an incredibly powerful extemporaneous address entitled “Tar on the Cross,” in which he asserted that Christians who don’t have some tar thrown on their crosses are not really doing their jobs. To this day you can visit that church and see some tar on the cross out front.
As an artist and writer I have learned that public expressions of all kinds have consequences. Everyone thinks they are experts about art, and people feel compelled to render judgments ranging from rave reviews to condemnation. A few people offer astute analyses and critiques, while many others have no idea what they are talking about. I try to accept both praise and blame with equal objectivity. But I learned early in life that reviews can also have serious consequences. When I was a senior in high school one of the English teachers asked me to bring a painting to his class and talk about the creative process. A student complained that there were stylized nudes in the painting. The school board confiscated my painting and fired the teacher who had to leave town. On the other end of the spectrum, Robert and I were lauded, featured, and praised in the newspapers and in a fancy formal banquet for 125 of the most powerful and influential people in our nearby city, for our exhibit of 65 canvases during the opening months of the new library. So… It can go either way, and any individual who wants to engage in public expression in the arts, education, activism, politics, or other forums, has to be ready for whatever comes, from honor to persecution. One has to develop a thick skin.
Regardless of the specific reactions that occur, it is clear that creative expression carries real, mysterious power to change consciousness, life and society. The power of speech and art is every bit as great as the power of money and position. In fact, there is a strong case to be made that speech and art are much more powerful than money and position, because words, images, music, poetry, dance, philosophy, and spirituality endure through the ages, whereas money disappears and position is often forgotten almost immediately when a wealthy, influential person leaves the scene. But it is a different story when someone leaves behind a creative legacy that lasts for generations or longer.
It is only natural when confronted by an opportunity to speak, write, perform, or exhibit in full view of the world, that many people feel somewhat daunted by the implications of “going public.” It is very human to feel inadequate to the task. It is normal to experience stage fright, anxiety and fear. Sometimes, a certain degree of nervousness heightens one’s energy level and concentration. But, of course, too much anxiety can have an adverse impact on our ability to do a good job and say or show what needs to be said or shown. When making and sharing art, writing, music, dance and creative public expressions of all kinds, and when engaging in public discussion about them, it may be useful to keep some basic principles in mind to alleviate fear within ourselves and in others:
ALLEVIATING THE FEAR AROUND CREATIVE EXPRESSION
- Be compassionate toward your audience. People who engage in creative public expression are often moved to do so because they see a compelling vision of how things are today and how they will become in the future. Their pronouncements, art, writings and performances, therefore, often take on a rather prophetic quality, predicting significant changes in life as we know it. That can be frightening to large segments of the public who are quite happy with the way things are now and more than a little resistant to change. In fact, for them, the idea that the world might change in directions that are revealed by artists, authors, speakers and thinkers, is frankly terrifying. This is not a cause to refrain from creative public expression, but rather a reason to engage in it. Society requires visionaries who will define its needs and suggest alternative futures. However, in doing so, the compassionate speaker, writer or artist will hold some private empathy for the individual who reacts violently and negatively out of fear that reality as they know it may be crumbling and that they will not be able to survive the change and adapt to new forms and directions. It is kind and effective to acknowledge their anxiety and offer empathetic support.
- Learn how to harness your ego to useful purposes. The individual who even conceives of engaging in creative public expression has to have, of necessity, a big and healthy ego. Otherwise s/he would never consider opening herself / himself to the inevitable praise and blame, support and attack, success and failure, that come when one makes oneself vulnerable in all kinds of public expression. The successful writer, speaker and artist learns by trial and error that ego is both an asset and a liability. One must have a strong ego in order to believe that s/he has something worth sharing with the world, and to survive all manner of responses. But one must also learn how to suspend ego attachment to outcomes and do the art, the writing or the speaking for the joy of the process regardless of worldly success or failure. Moreover, it is essential to banish all thoughts of ego gratification and get completely out of the way while creating, or the result will be stilted, didactic, and lacking in authenticity. The expression is not about you… It comes through you. The creative individual practices, studies and prepares to become a receptive and open channel through which the expression flows. Authentic creativity requires its own intrinsic balance between intentionality and spontaneity, which are both destroyed by egoistic desires for success, notice, praise, power and monetary gain.
- Look at both praise and condemnation as two sides of the same coin. Human responses and behaviors are ever unreliable until anchored in Ultimate Love and Wisdom, and how many of us have achieved that lofty goal? So it is essential that the presenter of creative public expression must not take himself / herself too seriously, nor the praise or criticism that comes inevitably. In fact, it is wise to develop an internal attitude that receives both commendation and condemnation with equal skepticism, as one and the same thing. One is not better than the other, because they are both founded on flawed human likes and dislikes, based on both lowly and lofty motivations from fear and anger to understanding and wisdom. At one of my first one-man shows, over 40 years ago, I overheard a man say to his wife, “This artist is insane and should be committed to a mental institution!” I instantly thought “Eureka! I got to him.” I have always thought that the most devastating reaction is not rage or condemnation, but apathy. Lack of reaction means that the work had no impact. But the creative must become his/her own ultimate critic. It is only the authentic inner vision and voice that can finally render judgment regarding creative expression. Having said that, every creative seeks and finds trusted private critics to whom s/he turns for evaluation, advice and an objective opinion. We all get too close to our work and need that outside perspective from time to time. But the final decision belongs to the creative alone.
- Be courageous. Creative expression, especially if it is prophetic, can have very serious consequences as history attests in the tragic lives of scientists, artists, writers, performers and other creatives who have been imprisoned and even executed for their public expressions. For 20 years I wore a decorative T-shirt sporting the slogan “Art Can’t Hurt You!” Of course, that’s not true today. It’s an unrealized goal for the future. Today art can hurt you, the artist, and you, the audience, because we have not yet learned the art and science of civil discourse. So it is essential for the creative to be certain of his/her convictions and think through the specific expressions of those convictions thoroughly before going public with them. If the courage of conviction to withstand persecution in defense of a public creative expression is not there, then cultivate it! Go public when you are so full of the courage of your conviction that you cannot any longer repress its expression. Then you will be able to accept the assault of condemnation and commendation with equanimity anchored in the essence of your very identity.
- Accept your role as an educator and welcome attacks as “teachable moments.” Persecution is often rooted in ignorance. If the public presenter who is attacked can suspend ego and remain calm and objective, it is often possible to use that occasion to gently engage in a dialogue to educate and inform both the perpetrator of the attack and those who are watching, listening or reading. In this way we have an opportunity to educate the public not only about the specific subject at hand, but also about civil discourse in general. A few years ago Robert and I hosted a two-man art exhibit at our studios and grounds in the woods. One man complained to me that he simply could not comprehend Robert’s abstract expressionist paintings and he said that they looked like infantile scribblings to him. We happened to be standing by one of Robert’s paintings entitled “Wildfire.” I asked him whether he saw any connection between the title and the painting. It took him a little while, but eventually he said that the brush strokes looked like flames. I asked what he felt when he looked at those flame-like marks. “Hot!” he said. I asked if there was any sound, and he said that he could hear the crackling of a fire. Then I asked him where he was relative to this fire – what was his vantage point. Slowly his eyes opened very wide and he gasped, “I’m right in the middle of the fire looking up through the column of heat!… Now I’m going to have to go back and look at every single one of these paintings again. I have been missing the point.” Admittedly not every “teachable moment” dialogue ends up being quite that gratifying, but when we remain calm and make the effort, both parties walk away richer for it.
- Avoid strong emotion in public discourse and business. Put all the intensity of your passion into the private creative work. Then when expressing yourself in public, strive for a more neutral tone. Corporate experience has taught me that one can say almost anything if it is uttered in measured, professional tones, with a neutral expression, and without emotion. Strong public expressions of emotions such as grief, rage, or euphoria are almost always immediately discounted as being hysterical in some way. But when one says the very same words in a professional tone with a neutral manner, the very same ideas are received and considered. Rage, grief and euphoria are at the root of the concept, process and ultimate form or performance of many creative expressions. That is as it should be. The emotion belongs in the art. But when the time comes to talk about the art or creative work, dialogue is best served by cooler heads.
- Do your work thoroughly and with integrity. Work hard with an attitude of pure enjoyment. If any piece of work makes you feel dead inside, abandon it, for it is not an authentic part of you and you will not be able to stand by it. Do all the required research. Be disciplined in your creative output. Do it every day and do not work by default, but by intentional conviction and design. Be deliberate and mean it. When you work diligently with joy, self-discipline and rigor, opportunities to share your work in meaningful ways will simply materialize out of the ether. Even so, do not rely on magic, but be bold and make your opportunities for public sharing even while you produce the work. Bake the cake and invite the world to eat it with you. Too many would-be artists, writers and other creatives live in a fantasy world in which they imagine that some benefactor will discover them and coax them into creativity with support and money. That is not how it works. Do the work with excellence first, last and always, and then push yourself to go beyond what you believe to be your limits. The opportunities will emerge from the work, not visa versa. If all else fails, and everything overwhelms you, forget it. Just do the creative work! The rest will come.
- Never show works in progress to anyone except your most trusted advisors. Respect the difference between the very private and personal creative process as contrasted with public sharing and dialogue about your finished work. Do yourself a big favor and make it a rule to keep your work private while it is in gestation. The embryonic form of any creative effort is extremely vulnerable and can be severely damaged when exposed to external influences. Your personal creative acts from conceptualization through completion are as private and sacred as your love life or your spiritual practice. Do not discuss them or show them to anyone other than your long-term trusted creative counselors, and even then it may be wise to set boundaries regarding what kinds of reactions and comments you will entertain. Some creative projects involve highly collaborative phases. Be certain that your private preliminary creative concept and preparation work are completely finished and solid before opening the project to collaborators. Then consider any worthwhile changes that they recommend. Flexibility emerges from strength and conviction.
- Let your public art or statement marinate for a day or two before releasing it. It is smart to sleep on a creative public expression at least overnight before publishing it. I always find that I edit my initial statements and artworks considerably before publishing them. It’s like counting to ten. A little cooling off time and perspective are the better part of wisdom. I have sat on this very article for well over a month, because I knew it was not quite ready to hatch. Even after going public, be willing to suspend ego and make some improvements and changes or corrections when it becomes apparent to you that you can make the piece stronger by doing so.
- Honor and value your own work and the work of others. Creative work is a precious gift to the world, especially when it is shared in public. Such gifts must be nurtured if civilization is to thrive and grow. Cultivate an attitude of pure gratitude and respect for your own creativity and for the creativity of others around you. Thank and support anyone who is willing to take the risk of becoming vulnerable by presenting creative expressions to the world and inviting comment. Support and encourage your fellow creatives as you would like them to support and encourage you. They are not your competitors. They are your collaborators in the grand creative design.
To close the circle, let us return to the beginning and ask, “Where does the impulse for creative public expression come from and why does it happen at all?” I can only respond with another question: Why do we feel moved by another human being to know and fall in love with them? As we live and move through the world, one of the most fundamental and natural human reactions to everything we experience around us is to attempt to “know” it with such a thorough understanding that we merge with it. As with the merger that takes place in some kinds of interpersonal love, this “knowing” leads to offspring – children, in the case of some couples, and art or other creative expressions when individuals attempt to achieve unity with All That Is. Just as it is natural and desirable for us to present our children to the world and to ask them to play a role in making it a better place, so it is right and proper for us to present our creative expressions to the public. We believe that the motivating desire behind our art, to overcome separation and merge with Creation, will in some small way inspire people to overcome their alienation from one another and from Nature. It is humanity’s fond hope that our children will find a way to save the world. Creative expressions are our children as well. We send them forth to lead their independent lives and do their work. And if we are lucky, sometimes, now and then, they make us proud of them, and we smile alone, privately.