The Cult of Self-Expression

Perhaps nothing has been less fruitful, less artistic, less interesting than the cult of self-expression in the arts. The arts are not and have never been about self-expression. Unfortunately, most people believe that art is almost exclusively about self-expression. But to the extent that an artist or writer believes this, that person is not engaged in an aesthetic enterprise. Their work is anti-artistic, and the degree to which they are engaging in self-expression actually undermines the work as a work of art.

What does it mean to “engage in self-expression”? I’ve seen its most extreme version in creative writing classes with students who would say things like, “I don’t read poetry because I don’t want to be influenced by anyone else in the way I write or what I write about.” The funny thing is that every single poem by every single person who ever said something like this all sounded exactly the same. Somehow, the “self” they were all trying to “express” was identical in nature.

Your pure, unadulterated “self” is pretty much identical to everyone else’s. In other words, you’re not all that interesting or even unique. To become interesting and unique, you have to have experiences with other people, which includes reading a great deal of poetry if you plan to be a poet. Your poetic voice will never emerge by avoiding poetry any more than your actual voice will ever emerge without hearing anyone speak. Your poetic voice can only ever emerge if you immerse yourself in poetry, read poetry obsessively, try to emulate your favorite poets, adopt forms and styles, write in meter and use rhyme, consonance, assonance, and other poetic elements.

The choices forced on you by meter and rhyme, for example, force you to make different choices than what you would have made “naturally.” More often, better and more interesting choices. The choices you would have made without the restrictions of meter and rhyme are your “self-expression,” and most of the time they aren’t as interesting as the forced choices. Now, to what degree can “forced choices” be “self-expression” if they have been imposed from the outside?

If you read about the great artists, you won’t find a lot about their self-expression. What you will find is a great deal about whatever artistic problems they were trying to solve. The Renaissance artists were interested in solving artistic problems around the emergent idea of point perspective. The Impressionists were trying to solve problems with capturing light in different ways. The cubists too were trying to solve artistic problems in trying to capture movement and in trying to render unseen portions as seen in a 2D painting.

Shakespeare wasn’t trying to express himself (thank God!) in his plays, or even in his series of sonnets (there was an artistic problem he was trying to solve in creating a coherent set of sonnets without a narrative holding them together). Shakespeare to varying degrees expressed his society, culture, etc. in his plays, transforming works by Roman playwrights into Elizabethan stories, and sometimes Shakespeare reinforced that world view, and sometimes he challenged that world view, but he always did so through the portrayal of his characters, who spoke with their own voices, who only expressed themselves rather than being avatars for Shakespeare.

Today’s movies are very popular in no small part because the massively collaborative nature of film making makes self-expression nearly impossible. We can always tell when a film has self-expression, because we tend not to like them for being so self-indulgent. And that’s what everyone says about your work when you engage in self-expression: they say that it’s self-indulgent. And self-indulgent work is egotistical and boring.

Of course, much poetry especially is egotistical and boring. Poetry is especially prone to this because there are few market forces working to keep poets honest. Nobody’s paying for poetry anyway, so why not drivel on about your boring self? If nobody is paying, nobody cares, right? But that’s not necessarily true. People are paying–in time. When you write a poem, you are supposed to be trying to communicate with that person. Have you ever had to sit with someone who droned on and on and on about themselves and nothing else? If your poetry reads like that, don’t be surprised if nobody wants to read it. Probably nobody wants to sit with you, either.

I’m certainly not saying I haven’t written poems about myself. I have. Most poets have. But hopefully I’m trying to communicate something to you that goes well beyond self-expression, and in fact has nothing whatsoever to do with self-expression. I’m trying to communicate my experiences in a way that they are universal and universalized in their particularity. My very best poems have been those where I have avoided self-expression entirely. If I have communicated to you beauty, that’s enough. If I have made you think, contemplate, meditate, or want to turn a line or two into a mantra or a koan, all the better. If I have helped you see something you’ve never seen before, or something you have seen before in a new way, I’ve done my job as an artist. But none of those things require self-expression. More, self-expression is the surest way to get in the way of accomplishing these things.

Matt Ridley has recently talked about “ideas having sex.” A true artist’s brain is the bed where these ideas are having sex. For a poet, all of the poems you have read, all of the ideas you have read, all of the facts filling your head are having sex and reproducing in the form of new poems. Your artwork will have the DNA of all the forms, ideas, and so on of everything you have read, experienced, and seen. Self-expression, on the other hand, involves only yourself–and its outcome is sterile and only of interest to the person involved in that self-expression. Art, like sex, is only interesting to others if more than yourself is involved.

The best thing that could happen to the arts would be for everyone to do away with the self-indulgent cult of self-expression. Go out and solve some artistic problems. That’s the one and only way to be any kind of artist at all.

Advertisements