Here is something I’ve always believed: Just knowing I am an artist, asserting that identity, is more important than what I produce. It is a victory in itself.
When we make this declaration proudly we are staking a claim for the validity of the artistic vocation, a vocation that belongs to all of us who hear the call, regardless of quantity or quality of artistic production. We are artists because of who we are and daily choose to be, not for what we produce.
My proud artistic identity is not unlike my proud gay identity. I would be gay even if I spent an entire lifetime in perfect celibacy. The same is true of my Jewish identity; I remain a Jew even when working on the Sabbath, eating shrimp with lobster sauce at Uncle Chung’s Szechuan Restaurant, or praying with monks in a Catholic monastery, cloistered in the mountains above Big Sur. These things are who I am: artist, Jew, faggot. This is so because I say it is so. I could make a longer list, but I think I have made the point.
So, as an artist, it remains to ask: Given that I am an artist, the decision is made, what must I do? I must seek, successfully or unsuccessfully, one way or another, to express that identity. And how I do so is up to me. Sometimes it is expressed in a desire to visit museums, or poetry readings. Sometimes it is expressed by wearing colorful clothing. Sometimes it is expressed in offering support to fellow artists, by being an appreciative audience. And sometimes (perhaps most importantly), it is expressed by trying to live in such a way as to foster my own capacity for creation. And sometimes it is expressed in the creation of my own art.
Here is another statement of personal creed: creation, whether biological, artistic, or intellectual, grows out of relationship. There is no other way.
To be an artist, then, above all else, is to have a relationship with one’s creative self, or, as put forward in this column, one must PUNK THE MUSE.
Since this is the first of, hopefully, many “Punk the Muse” columns, I now ask you to indulge me in a bit of confessional writing, to explain how I came to be “The Storming Bohemian.”
I have always thought of myself as being “artistic,” but I had entered my sixth decade of life before declaring to the world (and myself) that I am an artist. A high school dropout and a runaway in my misspent youth, I had spent my teen years on my own or in a self-selected abusive foster home, developed into an alcoholic during my twenties, and sought recovery in my thirties. In a 12-Step program, for the purposes of recovery, I learned, for the first time in my life, the value of conformity—being one among many. I went back to school, earned a graduate degree and eventually became a high school English teacher. Twelve years later, earning $60,000 a year in a (sort of) respectable profession, you’d think I would have had it made. But school teaching is a conservative business, and, repeatedly, I found myself fitting poorly into teaching jobs, until, at fifty-three years old, I was fired, yet again. Desperate, I set out to reinvent myself as an artist—I didn’t know what else to do. I took art classes, learned to paint (even sold a few paintings), flung myself into the literary community, wrote poems, spent twelve months in a “shamanic apprenticeship” training program, and more or less tried to tune in and drop out. I also devoted more than five years to intense analytic therapy with a gifted Jungian therapist.
Seven years later, I manage to survive in genteel poverty, scraping by on a tiny pension from my school teaching days, and driving a Lyft.
Of necessity, I have learned to “Punk the Muse” in a variety of ways. By this I mean that I have learned to reinvent myself daily as an artist (as opposed to what the world calls a failure), even when my creative productivity is low or completely blocked.
In these columns, I mean to explore the various ways I have learned (or tried to learn) to keep the creative self alive and awake, and self-judgment at bay. This is not about how to write, how to paint, how to produce work, or how to succeed as an artist. I don’t know anything about that. This is about how one poor schlub works to keep some degree of artistic self-awareness alive in the soul, which is a good thing in itself, no matter the results, and is certainly a necessary prerequisite to any sort of artistic production.
And so, we Punk the Muse. Because, if we keep knocking, our Muse will surely answer.
Rumpus original logo and artwork by James Lorenzato, aka Argyle C. Klopnick (ACK!).
“The Storming Bohemian Punks The Muse” was originally developed as a column under the editorship of Evan Karp at Litseen. An earlier incarnation of this work can be found there, along with many other interesting things.