Show Me the Honey



Nancy with some of our bees

Nancy with some of our bees

The poet Rilke used the image of the beehive and the collection of honey to describe the activity of the artist. Honey, that magical sweet substance derived from the work of bees, feeds others. (LETTERS TO A YOUNG POET)

With the bee imagery in mind, Rilke wasn’t talking about commercial success for the artist or even cultural fame. It was some idea of sweetness and of feeding others.

Once, a stranger asked me, “Are you an artist?” I winced, and I didn’t know why. Was it that I felt it was an accusation (untrue) or was I embarrassed? I was too muddled to figure it out, but I’m returning to the question in a different way.

First of all, instead of saying musician, painter, sculptor, poet, novelist , dancer, and so forth each time, and specifying all the distinctions among these, for the sake of convenience, let’s simply say artist.

But what an artist is can be ambiguous. We know the word carries connotations that a specific term such as “poet” doesn’t, and it may be because a word like poet links us to the field of poetry, a specific domain with is own specific history, whereas the general term “art” (when it is not a stand in for visual art) doesn’t. So art points to a set of ideals, almost spiritual, that may be very difficult, if impossible, for individuals to attain.

Writers, for example, have often struggled with the notions surrounding being a novelist or poet. In general, things have become simplified enough that we have two notions: one is the practical idea of vocation and the other is the Romantic. If writers have talent and drive and choose writing as a vocation we still expect—influenced by this way of thinking—that they should achieve some celebrity and make money. At least enough money to pay the rent.

With the Romantic definition, the writer is a “wounded soul” and whatever talent he or she possesses will not necessarily translate itself into rent money. The writer expresses personal pain and spares no details. Exposes himself or herself even until we have to look away. Many people are impatient with this “writer in the garret” definition and the delicate treatment that these artists seem to require. Artists don’t take out the garbage or do diapers. Yet someone—Society, it seems—must look after them.


Is there a third possibility?

Every artist—whether a writer, visual artist, or musician, would like to make money from what they love to do. In fact, the ideal set up is for you to be able to express yourself and be paid for it. That’s a given.

But let’s try a foolish idea—even a ridiculous idea. Imagine creating artistically and by that process helping others in some way. Money and self-expression would not be the primary goals. Not just the final product, but the very process of creation, of working every day at this activity, would in some way sustain the community, whether by healing or by educating or by keeping alive the spirit of creativity.

Just reading these words is almost giving me a headache. The idea of some some spiritual goal for art is so ripe for abuse.

With the correct intention, if you were writing a book, or creating a painting or a dance, or composing a piece of music in the appropriate manner with this ideal in mind, then you would be doing a service for the community. Even if you were unknown. Even if your work wasn’t experienced by anyone else.

Put that way, the idea is naïve, even possibly arrogant, and delusional. To argue against this notion is simple: well, anyone can say their work is “healing” or transformative. Thinking doesn’t make it so. And people who make such claims can often be very tiresome and difficult. Another argument is the impossibility of measurement. How can we determine if the work is useful?

We don’t have a language that supports this kind of thinking, mainly because our culture doesn’t understand it. The Renaissance did. So did the Romantics. So did the Ancients.

The Sufis speak of a certain kind of teaching as being honey to the community, The Mevlevi dervishes speak of their sacred dances as being performed for the maintenance and spiritual health of the community.

At one point. poetry was taken seriously, and the poet Shelley could write in an essay that poetry was among the most important professions, if not the most important. The poet was responsible for articulating a society’s vision in a way that was not only memorable and tuneful but would also teach the reader what the important values were. “A Defense of Poetry” 1821

Matthew Arnold also wrote an essay on the importance of poetry and its study, and he was thinking of such things as ethics and civilization.“The study of poetry” 1880 .Now poetry is an entertainment considered by many either as a pretension or as an anachronism like juggling.

It’s not just poetry.  Margie Gillis says about dance “I dance to be living within the depth of the miracle of who we are. I dance to bring my living total consciousness into attunement with the source of what it is, and what it can be, to be human.” (See more at:  “Why I Dance” ).

How would a writer write for others? It cannot be about content, because then the writer is telling you what to think. It can only be about the process of work, the attitude of the artist toward the work, the benevolence of the artist toward the community, and a culture (even a small sub-culture) that supports that notion.

The novelist John Gardner wrote in ON MORAL FICTION of the responsibility of the writer. But he wasn’t speaking about something programmatic. He wasn’t talking about a fixed set of values like religion. Instead he argued for flexibility, the willingness to tackle all subjects, but straightforwardly, without playing head games with the reader, without slick cynicism or polished despair. Narratives could be dark but they must, in the way he saw it, have a resolution that is truly earned, both humanly and aesthetically. All too often in certain novels the beautifully formed sentences set up conflicts that are sick, bizarre, twisted and lead to convenient twisted endings.

The dramatist Brecht spoke about the need for plays that transformed the performers, the audience, and the discipline of theatre with each production. As a communist, Brecht had certain notions in mind to do with socio-political revolution, but the same ideas can hold true in any art form.

Kandinsky the painter aimed for an art that attained the condition of music, affecting its spectators as directly, and envisioning the entire process as spiritual, yet for him and for others, the spirituality was a practical, physical, consciously directed experience. Concerning the Spiritual in Art.

Today. we are far from such ideas.  It’s about being a star, it’s about money, it’s about the supposed glamor of the art process. But getting back to Rilke: is it ever just about the honey?

For a few moments, one might dream that making art could just be about making art, even alone, even unnoticed, even uncelebrated.

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