Part 2 of a series on how to develop your artistic voice in a meaningful, impactful, and long-lasting way.
Part II: Follow Your Bliss or Get a #@&%!! Job — Dilemma
In Part I of this series, I wrote about the courage to be unconventional and why we should learn to trust our own instincts rather than those of others. I ended by sharing my appreciation for Joseph Campbell’s “follow your bliss” phrase, but what exactly does that mean? Is it just pie-in-the-sky fluff, or is there more to it than that?
I can understand the apprehension that some might bring to the phrase. After all, at surface glance, it can look a lot like the “you-are-a-special-snowflake” school of thought. As someone who has sat through a number of self-indulgent exercises masquerading as art, I can testify that this school of thought is not so awesome.
What’s that? You don’t know what I’m talking about? Well then, let me illustrate by way of example:
If you’ve never had to attend such a production, give thanks. If you’re the sort who puts on such productions, let me offer a suggestion from young Obi-Wan Kenobi: “You want to go home and rethink your life!”
OK, just kidding around. Maybe your life is just fine, and I’m the philistine who can’t appreciate your genius. Etc. More than anything, that quote was just to set up this next transition.
So, speaking of Star Wars, Joseph Campbell’s book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, was a big influence on George Lucas when he was developing his space saga. Some of you might be familiar with the book, or at least its essence: It’s the backbone of the hero’s journey storytelling approach that a number of Hollywood story consultants like Christopher Vogler teach.
For those who don’t know, Joseph Campbell wrote The Hero with a Thousand Faces after studying myths from around the world and finding certain recurring patterns, or archetypes, in those myths. His work was an extension of Carl Jung’s research into the archetypes of our collective unconscious.
At a time when Sigmund Freud strove to explain all human experiences in terms of biological drives, Carl Jung dared to explore the possibility of metaphysical significance in the things we dream and imagine. Put differently, Jung’s approach to dreams was far more accommodating to the notion of God than that of his teacher, Freud, who was an atheist. Indeed Jung made a number of comments throughout his career attesting to his belief in and experience of God.
Campbell didn’t renounce the spiritual aspects of Jung’s work but embraced them, framing the world myths he discussed as encounters with divine or demonic forces, and his work suggests that people around the world respond to myths and fairytales in universal ways that transcend cultural differences. The implication is that the hero’s journey reappears in one story after another and across cultures because there’s a spark of it etched in the hearts of each of us.
That context does give the “follow your bliss” line a little more weight, right? It suggests that the things we enjoy are there as signposts to help us find the purpose of our lives. Theologians like G. K. Chesterton, C. S. Lewis, and the like have shared similar ideas, so it’s not a concept that is unique to Campbell.
Brian Wilson, the frontman for the Beach Boys, is on record as saying, “Music is God’s voice.” That’s consistent with the spiritual undertones in his music and echoes similar sentiments of musicians throughout the ages going all the way back to Bach and Handel.
That’s quite a purpose, to share the voice of God with those who will listen. That’s also the role of ministers, as it happens, so it should come as no surprise that a number of iconic musicians like Blind Willie Johnson and Little Richard served as ministers at some points in their lives.
Some Beach Boys songs are merely enjoyable melodies that celebrate youthful exuberance. Nothing wrong with that, and who is to say that the of voice of God cannot be found even in teenage exuberance, but some of the songs like “I Know There’s an Answer,” “You Still Believe in Me,” and “God Only Knows” mean a lot more to me, and I doubt they would have the same impact if Brian Wilson’s only purpose in making music was to become a celebrity.
Similarly, consider this quote from Frank Capra, the Academy Award-winning director of films like It Happened One Night, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and It’s a Wonderful Life. “My films must let every man, woman, and child know that God loves them, and that I love them, and that peace and salvation will become a reality only when they learn to love each other.”
That comes from his autobiography, The Name Above the Title, so there’s no doubt about the attribution for it. Like the Brian Wilson quote, it hints at lofty purpose, but lofty purpose doesn’t have to equate to a stuffy church service. Capra’s film have entertained the masses around the world and are still considered classics by many prominent film critics.
In his autobiography, Capra makes it clear that he saw filmmaking as a calling, not a job. He credits this outlook to a mysterious “little man” who visited him when he was sick and said, “The talents you have, Mr. Capra, are not your own, not self-acquired. God gave you those talents; they are His gifts to you, to use for His purpose. And when you don’t use the gifts God blessed you with—you are an offense to God—and to humanity. Good day, sir.”
Sometimes we think of a calling as something morose and unpleasant, but that’s not how Capra saw it. By his own accounts, he couldn’t be happier doing anything else. In Joseph Campbell’s way of putting it, Capra found his bliss and the world benefited from the blessings that came along.
The key takeaway here is that Capra followed his bliss in service of other people. I submit to you that this is a big part of Capra’s enduring appeal. Take public service out of the equation, and the follow-your-bliss mantra becomes just another excuse for self-indulgence and vanity projects.
And yet, artists need to cultivate self-expression. Otherwise they’re just doing second-rate imitations of others. We are drawn to a painting by Picasso not because it is a Rembrandt impersonator, but specifically because it is a Picasso. On the other hand, if artists focus entirely on themselves and don’t serve an audience in any way, then no one will provide the financial support needed to sustain their efforts.
The good news is that artists can serve others in many ways. The bad news is that most of them require some effort.
One approach is to produce something that inspires through the ideals it represents and the craftsmanship it displays. The Renaissance artists followed that model. Their patrons—whether members of powerful families, like the Medicis, or powerful institutions, like the Church—wanted to bring glory to their communities. Artists like Donatello, Raphael, and Michelangelo helped them do that with the masterpieces they created.
Other artists choose to serve by calling attention to social issues. Think of the novels of John Steinbeck or the films of Spike Lee, for example. The risk of taking on challenging issues is that doing so might alienate some people, but doing so can also resonate deeply with those who have a vested interest in social issues and have the financial strength to subsidize an artist’s work.
Another approach is to offer temporary escape from problems. A heartfelt comedy or action adventure can do that, as can a pastoral poem or a nocturne from Claude Debussy. There’s no shame in escapism if it is well crafted and powered by admirable qualities.
I’ll go further. Only the snobs refuse to grant artistic status to someone like Walt Disney, whose work has brought joy to millions of people while developing the innovations that have paved the way for today’s VFX spectacles. I will bet good money that long after society has forgotten any given art-house film that is raved about at Cannes, Walt Disney’s name will still be remembered. Look me up in like 300 years, and we’ll figure out who owes the other what.
A few rare artists can even entertain while addressing social issues. Charles Dickens was a master of that. A more contemporary example is a sitcom like Blackish or the Harry Potter series. (I go into more detail about the merits of Harry Potter here).
Unfortunately, there are also less-admirable ways for artists to serve others. Some artists pander to our baser natures by enflaming sexual passions, bloodlust, and hatred. Others merely cater to the misanthropic, joyless sensibilities of certain festival programmers and film critics.
As a quick aside, festival-baiting is very real epidemic, dear readers. Someday I’d like to start an institute to combat it, but there are only so many hours in the day. Note: this is just a joke. Unless, you’d like to help fund this important outreach, in which case, let’s talk about it!
Getting back to the discussion at hand, every artist makes a choice about how to serve others, whether he or she acknowledges the choice or not, and that choice will serve as the framework for all the work that artist produces. Choosing not to serve is still a choice, but it seems to go better for everyone involved when the aim is to add value to others. And so, whatever your bliss is and however you try to find it, I encourage you to seek it out through service.
That said, we can’t follow our bliss if we don’t know what it is, and there’s a lot of noise out there that tries to distract us. In the film industry a lot of attention goes to the newest camera gear that come out every few months. It is certainly useful to learn the capabilities of new tools, but that only goes so far. Shakespeare used primitive technology, and his work still endures. Camera tests shot on state-of-the-art equipment will not.
I appreciate camera demonstrations as much as the next filmmaker, but understanding the tools of the trade is not synonymous with developing an artistic voice, although we sometimes confuse the two. If you’re an avid visitor of daredreamer.fm then this is familiar territory. Our host Ron Dawson ends his podcasts by saying, “if the story sucks I don’t care what you shot it on,” a friendly reminder that even in a tech-driven industry, the human element still takes precedence. For more on the tension between technological coverage and artistic development, give a listen to Ron’s recent NAB coverage on Radio Film School.
Parts I and II of this series have been largely theoretical because I believe it is important to discuss the “what” and “why” before getting to the “how.” Part III will include more practical suggestions, but I did want to offer up one practical suggestion here, in conclusion.
As I mentioned a few paragraphs earlier, there’s a lot of noise coming at us that can distract us from following our bliss, if we let it. To combat the noise, why not set aside daily time for quiet contemplation, prayer, or meditation? Most world religions advocate some form of that, and a number of successful creative people from various backgrounds practice some form of meditation, or deliberate mindfulness, if you prefer.
Here are a few of them: Jennifer Aniston, Gisele Bündchen, Leonard Cohen, Ellen DeGeneres, Clint Eastwood, Jack Kerouac, David Lynch, Hugh Jackman, Paul McCartney, Rick Rubin, George Stephanopoulus, and Oprah Winfrey.
There are all kinds of ways to practice mindfulness. I recently came across headspace.com, and like them for their straightforward approach and their playful style. No images of treacly beaches, sunsets, or glowing crystals to be found there, which is a plus if you’re like me and are wary of seeking guidance from gurus who don’t believe in personal hygiene.
I haven’t explored headspace.com extensively, but the free course is a decent introduction. If you’re interested I can share additional recommendations, some of which are more religious in nature. You can email me for that or just to share your own take on the topic: firstname.lastname@example.org.
I’ll leave you with a quote from Hugh Jackman: “In meditation, I can let go of everything. I’m not Hugh Jackman. I’m not a dad. I’m not a husband. I’m just dipping into that powerful source that creates everything.” To those of us who want to find our bliss, a source like that might be a good place to look.