Audience jealousy of artists, part 2; & what this has to do with Sisyphus and rock ‘n’ roll


Stills from Jankovics Marcell’s ‘Sisyphus’ (1974)

[ part 1 is: here ]

And what about the collective memory of artistic creation? For every Prometheus and Sisyphus haunting scholars, how many of their former equals are barely stirring and covered in dust?

The Sonderberg Case, Elie Wiesel (2010)

Our screen shots from a short Jankovics Marcell animation, Sisyphus (1974) — a work of genius in nearly every frame — could be depicting the struggle to change the monetary terms on which artists make art. We would like, in this lifetime, to see that accursed rock stop and stay still, where it ought to. By that, we mean that some self-sustaining way of letting artists and writers keep up with plumbers must somehow be put into practice.

Presumably Marcell, a Hungarian, earned enough from licensing a giant US multinational to adapt his haiku-like video for a (comparatively crude and clod-hopping) tv advertisement to make the world a gift of his original, so that anyone can watch it, free. But only a sub-microscopic fraction of creators can afford such generosity.

We still shudder, remembering the relentless succession of hostile posts in the discussion on a newspaper site we quoted extensively the last time we wrote on this subject, last month. Artists have starved and suffered throughout history, ran the argument – if we have to dignify rants with that word. So what? … the ranters raged.

It is asking for nearly inhuman self-control, to suppress the vituperative and scatological reply that comes immediately to mind, on hearing that question. People all over the world were actual serfs for aeons, but then became merely virtual serfs – wage-slaves – a few centuries ago. Being a baby-making machine, year after year, and – as someone once put it, ‘tied by their tits’ to their broods – was seen, for most of humanity’s time on earth, as the unavoidable fate of women. If injustice could be defended merely by precedent, and by precedence extending to pre-history, how odd that we no longer accept chaining and whipping our fellow-beings like defenceless animals.

Poverty was once universally accepted as the inevitable lot of most scholars. The great 17th century Dutch rationalist-philosopher Spinoza – whose idea of God, Albert Einstein said, was closest to his own — is known to have lived on porridge, groats and milk, or was certainly obliged to eat that diet more often than most of us would think endurable. Then someone invented tenure, and certainly in rich countries – even after years of budget cuts – few contemporary academics share the abject insecurity, at the level of penury, that too many artists among their fellow-citizens do.

We have returned to the subject not to say anything new as much as underline the importance of change – and because we forgot to mention, earlier, that thoughtful interpreters of Greek mythology consider the fates of Prometheus and Sisyphus to be allegories for the life of inventors and creators. What most of these theorisers have in mind, in drawing their parallels, is not money and financial survival but the interior, psychological struggles of creative people — and the punishment for extraordinary talent, in both stories.

This post ends with a semi-non-sequitur, an extract from an essay by Rollo May (1909-1994) – a disconcertingly perceptive, often poetic, writer on the psychology of workers at creativity’s coalface – for which our excuse is simply that we have been admiring the passage for a very long time.

It earns its hopefulness; is as far as possible from Pollyanna optimism. As May explains to the uninitiated in a terse footnote, ‘Sisyphus was a king of Corinth condemned by Zeus to roll a large stone ceaselessly up a hill.’ (Alternatively, as Nick Pontikis claims in an irresistible, fleshed-out version of the legend on his Thanasis blog — we are indebted to the stoical monarch for the birth of rock ‘n’ roll.)

… Are we doomed to live in a world no one can make sense of? …

… Out of that … despair is born this myth which is new but eternally old, the only myth that fits this seemingly hopeless situation. This is the myth of Sisyphus. The one myth which … goes no place at all, seems to be a repetition, every day and every act being forever the same in perpetual monotonous toil and sweat.

But that is to omit its crucial meaning. One thing Sisyphus can do: he can be aware of each moment in this drama between himself and Zeus, between himself and fate. This – because it is most human – makes his reaction completely different from that of the dark night of the mountain up which he rolls his rock …

… The myth of Sisyphus is sometimes interpreted as the sun climbing to its apex every day and then curving down again. Nothing could be more important for human life than these circular journeys of the sun. …

… [W]e face monotony in all we do; we draw in and exhale breath after breath in ceaseless succession through every moment of our lives, which is monotony par excellence. But out of this repetitiveness of breathing the Buddhists and Yoga have formed their religious meditation and a way of achieving the heights of ecstasy.

For Sisyphus is a creative person who even tried to erase death. He never gives up but always is devoted to creating a better kind of life; he is a model of a hero who presses on in spite of his or her despair. Without such capacity to confront despair we would not have Beethoven or Rembrandt or Michelangelo or Dante or Goethe of any others of the great figures in the development of culture …

Sisyphus’ consciousness is the hallmark of being human. Sisyphus is the thinking reed with a mind which can construct purposes, know ecstasy and pain, distinguish monotony from despair, and place the monotony – the rolling of the stone – in the scheme of his rebellion, the act for which he is condemned. …

Sisyphus … must have noticed in his trips some wisp of pink cloud that heralds the dawn, or felt some pleasure in the wind against his breast as he strode down the hill after his rock, or remembered some line of poetry to muse upon …

… [In t]he myth of Sisyphus … [w]e are required … to recognise our human state of consciousness in progress or without it, … with the disintegration of the world or without it. It is this that saves us from destruction when our little rules prove unavailing.

This is what led Albert Camus to conclude his essay on Sisyphus, ‘We must consider Sisyphus happy.’

… Rollo May does mention money in a passage before that extract, not in connection with artists who have too little of it, but showing us why their poverty so often elicits self-righteous scorn. He says, in a profoundly intelligent dissection of greed, focused on America, but applying widely on every continent:

There has been in America no clear-cut differentiation between right and wrong ways to get rich. Playing the stock market? Finding oil under your shack in Texas? Deforesting vast tracts of Douglas fir in the state of Washington? Amassing piles of money for lectures after getting out of prison as a Watergate crook? The important thing in the American dream has been to get rich, and then those very riches give sanction to your situation. The fact of your being successful is proof that God smiles on you and that you are among the saved. It is not hard to see how this, in true Calvinistic tradition, drifted into getting rich as the eleventh commandment.

[ part 1 is: here ]