Between the raunch and pomp but before the terror, court life in France made today’s rock-n-roll lifestyle seem goofy, quaint and charmingly civil.
It wasn’t enough to have a pond that reflected the rising sun in 1671, the grounds of Versailles also had to have an enormous bronze fountain that depicted Apollo dragging the sun across the horizon with four horses and three trumpeting sea gods and two wild serpents to pull the dawn from the night.
Water spurted, sunlight shimmered and the rising sun backlit the entire scene to create a momentary special effect that would have made Michael Bay seem like a subtle minimalist.
After an all-night party of chamber opera, bedroom antics, political backstabbing, dirty poetry, and half of the wine of the kingdom, there was no better way to greet the ineluctable fleeting nature of life than this sun scene. It was the ritual of renewal. It was the breakthrough. It was the moment when our courage returns, our emotions punctuate, and our ideas come together. It was a single-second cadenza. It was the final tonic. It was a return back home. It was the trumpet call of survival.
Writers know the feeling. Artists catch the drift. Anyone who has had even a small taste of the pleasure of the creative act knows what this is like. Pushing, stumbling, forging ahead — or rising and falling and rising again — or going past the reasonable limits of human thought into the realm of the altered idea— the creative act is exactly this: pulling the sun from the night. Sometimes it’s instant—no struggle at all—just genius floating there in front of you to grab. It’s a radio signal from God (as William Blake used to more or less describe) or it’s as obvious to us as a shape in the clouds. Other times it’s an asymptotic race towards failure, with only the process to save us from the doom of our own bad ideas.
Creativity is not always weirdo decadence — that’s just the most romanticized version. It’s often solitary, intellectual and methodical. Or put more positively, creativity involves the pleasure of deep curiosity.
There is nothing quite like chasing an unknowable answer to keep us in the perpetual motion of thought. Our artistic artifacts trace imaginary orreries trying to capture the feeling of understanding some slice of truth—even if for just a moment.
If we catch it, it’s there and then gone—the sun shines through the erupting mist but for a second.
If we miss it, we spend the rest of our lives looking for its shadow.
OK now I’m going to say something important. So if you’ve made it this far, please stick with me for just a few sentences more.
If you’re an artist—never give up. If there are forces that conspire to limit your art making, then enjoy the few moments you do get. If no one likes your art, who cares? Keep chasing the sun. If you have to pause for twenty, thirty or forty years, then start up again when you get the chance. Here’s the secret—once you’re an artist, you are never not one—so don’t worry. You are you. Stay sharp, stay curious, and never get lazy and you’ll be fine.
Art is not about decadence, hipness or living life on the edge, art is about pushing your mind as far as it will go and then to observe what is on the other side. Art is about following curiosity across the realm of the night until you find the dawn.
Pull the dawn from the night. And we’ll all be there, standing at the edge of the garden, to applaud, cheer and shout “bravo” when you do.
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