“Originally and properly within I am still alone by myself: in my freedom in relation to the whole cosmos; with my poetry and truth; with the question of my needs and desires and loves and hates; with my known and sometimes unknown likes and dislikes; with my capacities and propensities; as my own doctor, as the sovereign architect, director, general and dictator of the whole, of my own earth and heaven, my cosmos, God and fellow-men; as the incomparable inventor and sustainer of myself; in first and final solitude.”
—Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics III.2, 231, describing here a “Nietzschean” perspective on human relationship
In 2010 Forbes magazine placed Lady Gaga at #7 on their annual list of the World’s 100 Most Powerful Women—just two spots behind Hilary Clinton and thirty-four spots ahead of Queen Elizabeth II.
The World of Donquixotry
I have just gotten off the phone with an artist. I can’t think of a better incitement for this essay than the anecdote that he relayed. He returned yesterday from a gathering with other artists in the Northwest. He described the atmosphere that marked their gathering as the plaintive bleating of lonely, wounded sheep.
I confess to being baffled by the strange obsession with loneliness that marks much of the art world. On the one hand, artists are known for perpetuating a kind of cult of loneliness, while on the other they rue the lonely life that many of them, due to the confused circumstances of art in modern society, find themselves forced to live—even in their own homes, even in New York City.
Lady Gaga, who, as I type this sentence, has amassed a mind-boggling 28,946,681 “friends” on Facebook, offers this curriculum vitae for her artistic calling:
“We are nothing without our image. Without our projection. Without the spiritual hologram of who we perceive ourselves to be or rather to become, in the future. When you are lonely, I will be lonely too. And this is the fame.”
Two things strike me about her statement. One, it represents the kind of donquixotry of ideas, vaguely thrilling but ultimately damaging, that I readily hear rolling out of the mouths of artists. And two, her statement reminds me of a similar epithet that Nietzsche used to describe himself: “I am no man; I am dynamite.” The Swiss theologian Karl Barth noted that Nietzsche’s life could be aptly summarized in the phrase “azure isolation.”
Nietzsche was the man, according to Barth, who wanted to be “admired and honoured and loved,” yet who also wished to live “six thousand feet above time and man.” This concurrent need and repulsion for other people, this relational schizophrenia, this sense of being “special” yet also feeling intensely, insecurely ordinary describes to my mind a great number of contemporary artists. In personal conversation, I hear artists confessing their struggle with loneliness, and it grieves me. I feel often helpless. But it stirs me to ask how the church can respond.
In her splendid book, Putting on Virtue: The Legacy of the Splendid Vices, Jennifer Herdt offers the church the kind of help we sorely need. In it she explores (among other things) ideas about social formation. How should individuals conceive their relationship to the community? What does it mean to act in a way that is “properly and uniquely” our own, to use Charles Taylor’s language, while also happily recognizing our indebtedness to others? What does it mean for an artist to have “good friends”? Why does it matter? And what are we protected against if we follow Herdt’s advice? I would like to connect some of her ideas about friendship to the life of an artist.
But before Herdt, let me take a quick detour to Andy Crouch.
The Virtue of Good Friendship
In his book Culture Making, Crouch proposes the idea that all of us have three kinds of relationships in our lives: a 3, a 12, and a 120. At most, Crouch writes, I will have three close friends, folks with whom I share a tightly knit, vulnerable, loyal, and cherished relationship. I’ll have 12 reasonably kindred friends. And I’ll have around 120 acquaintances who comprise a loose association of like-minded people.
With whatever magical powers of observation he possesses, Andy gets it right. I do in fact have a 3, a 12 and a 120! I would like to propose that artists need three good friends in order to truly flourish in their calling. But sadly, most barely have one—which, as I have witnessed up close, is cause for considerable distress. Compelled by compassion, we must keep praying for artists to find good friends. Compelled by truth, we must keep seeking to think rightly about friendship.
As Herdt explains (and here I am adopting her general observations on human behaviour to the lives of artists), an artist’s calling will find its proper orientation “in the presence of others and in response to others.” In the company of good friends, an artist discovers the resources both to want to cultivate virtue—to be humble, generous, diligent or courageous, for example—as well as to persist in the practices which sustain these virtues. Good friends help us to resist the hydra of vices—sloth and jealousy and so on—that betray us against our best intentions.
In the company of good friends an artist discovers—though not without struggle—that the service of another’s good is also, with the Spirit’s help, a common good. Oscar Wilde remarks, “Anybody can sympathise with the sufferings of a friend, but it requires a very fine nature to sympathise with a friend’s success.”
In the company of good friends, an artist discovers the need for, as well as the joy of debt to, other “exemplars.” These are men and women who embody the kind of life an artist aspires to attain. That might be Herbert or Bach. That might be O’Connor. That might be Fujimura. On the one hand, then, an artist needs to see how other believer artists have embodied their imitation of Christ. On the other, an artist can welcome their influence in her life as a means of Christ’s grace.
From a Christian perspective, an artist needs regular reminders that she is not self-determined. She is constituted instead by the often rag-tag group of people, whether smart or simple, cool or uncool, that God has lovingly surrounded her with. Herdt wonderfully expresses this dynamic:
“We may become aware of how our capacity to critique our own partial malformations and the malformations of our own formative exemplars has itself been made possible through our encounter with yet other exemplars. So the ardor of Christians to imitate Christ by emulating the heroic martyr was corrected by the ardor to emulate the ascetic Desert Father, and corrected in turn by the ardor to emulate the mendicant preacher, the foreign missionary, the civil rights worker, and so on.”
A Few Dangers
What does the presence of good friends in an artist’s life protect against? I can suggest three dangers. The first danger, appearing often enough in the art world, involves the temptation to use people but to pretend to treat them as friends (a temptation Augustine anticipated long ago). My filmmaker friend Jeffrey Travis told me a story once. He remarked that he went to an “industry party” in Hollywood, and it was the weirdest party he’d ever been to. People would approach him and ask him who he was. If they thought they had something to gain by knowing him, they would stay. Otherwise they moved on. No “pardon me.” No “nice to meet you.” Their departures were crassly blunt.
A second danger is the need for artists to assert self-sufficiency. Rousseau once quipped that “a truly happy being is a solitary being.” It’s a deeply confused opinion, but also one that persists in the world of art, where artists continually struggle against the twin need to be original (“my own”) and to connect. (“with you”).
A third danger involves the desire of artists to play out a bohemian persona. The bohemian persona is always “true to himself,” one part “authentic,” one part “autonomous.” Or as Rousseau once put it: “If I am not better, at least I am different.” In the art world, this danger manifests itself often enough as an attitude of anti-responsibility to society, where an artist asserts the “right” to be responsible mainly if not exclusively to himself. “I’m not a baby-sitter. I’m a performer,” glam-rock musician Adam Lambert once pronounced. And it’s a sentiment that many of us as believer artists find appealing, for better and for worse. Yet however useful we may find people around us, we still as ever feel the sting of loneliness.
The Greek playwright Euripedes long ago remarked that “one loyal friend is worth ten thousand relatives.” A few centuries later, St. John Cassian (360-435 AD) called the indissoluble bond between “soul friends” as “what is broken by no chances, what no interval of time or space can sever or destroy, and what even death itself cannot part.” To rephrase Augustine, God has made us for this kind of friend, and our hearts are restless until we find one. Artists, despite their push-pull feelings about people, yearn for deep friendship and while three would be ideal, many pray for just one good friend.
I spent my entire twenties living with a loneliness that I was afraid publicly to admit. It was partly my own fault. I suffered the embarrassingly pathological need to find elite, Inkling-like friendships and I would settle for nothing else. Since my search involved the quest for the impossibly ideal friend, I ended up with no close friends and a hardened, fearful heart. It took the gracious but fiercely determined love of two guys to expose my broken thinking and to re-introduce me to the fabulous world of male friendship.
When I come across the kinds of statements that Lady Gaga makes about art and loneliness, my first instinct is to dismiss them as irritatingly silly, because, well, they are, in a manner. Yet something about her views on the vocation of art-making appears to be resonating with many artists, both pop and high. So I keep listening. I don’t think they’re particularly helpful, but they do stir me to keep praying for artists, that they would find good friends, even one such friend. Surely Christ ceaselessly prays this prayer on our behalf, and I cannot imagine that we as the church would want to pray less.