Inspiration vs. craftsmanship. Five minutes. Go.
It occurred to me today that one of the places from which the idea that craftsmanship and devotion to craftsmanship are unworthy of artists might be coming is the Renaissance idea of sprezzatura, the art of making the difficult look easy. Sprezzatura is all about disclaiming effort, about presenting the appearance of not working hard to achieve perfection, and it seems to me like there's a point of slippage between sprezzatura as a pose, equally understood as such by author and audience, and the devaluation of craft. It's similar to what Peter Wimsey says in The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club
: "there's a difference between the man who can draw and won't draw, and the man who can't draw at all" (196).
On the face of it, it doesn't make sense to disparage craft and working hard at craftsmanship. Why should we be ashamed of being good at what we do, or of working hard to become good at it? But there's this idea (which I generally blame on the Romantics, but which the Romantics themselves got from Plato) that Real Artists don't have to work because the Art uses them as a conduit. Nothing but net. And it's only if you're not a Real Artist that you ever have to actually, you know, try
. Or, god forbid, fail
Any self-respecting musician would look at this idea and fall over laughing. Same goes for dancers. These are arts which have never lost the meaning of the connection between art
. But painters and poets and novelists (composers? I don't know enough about the ideology of creativity in composing to say) got lumbered with this idea, put forward originally by Socrates, who was, please note, NOT HIMSELF A POET, that their art is produced through them, not by them, that they are merely vessels.
I personally think this idea is pernicious and should be killed with a stick--which tells you where I stand on the inspiration vs. craft issue. Although, in point of fact, I think both
is a better working position. Sometimes the ideas really do feel like the clouds opened up and the angels sang hosanna and the hand of god reached down and turned the light bulb on. That's a great feeling, and I'm not arguing that it never happens.
On the other hand, it doesn't happen all the time, either, and when it doesn't, you're a lot better off if you have craft to fall back on--that is to say, if your own personal ideology of creativity does not beat you up and tell you you're worthless when you aren't quote-unquote inspired.
In other words, it's a false binary.
And then there's this Sidney poem. It's the first poem of Sidney's sonnet sequence, Astrophil and Stella
(because every Elizabethan poet who wanted to be able to hold his head up as he walked down the street had to write a sonnet sequence), and it goes like this:
Loving in truth, and fain in verse my love to show,
That the dear she might take some pleasure of my pain,
Pleasure might cause her read, reading might make her know,
Knowledge might pity win, and pity grace obtain.
I sought fit words to paint the blackest face of woe,
Studying inventions fine, her wits to entertain;
Oft turning others' leaves, to see if thence would flow
Some fresh and fruitful showers upon my sunburnt brain.
But words came halting forth, wanting invention's stay;
Invention, Nature's child, fled step-dame study's blows,
And others' feet still seemed but strangers in my way.
Thus great with child to speak, and helpless in my throes,
Biting my truant pen, beating myself for spite,
'Fool,' said my Muse to me, 'look in thy heart and write.'
(Astrophil and Stella 1)
Now, on the surface, this looks like a defense of Art before Craft. Astrophil wants to write a poem to Stella. He tries to teach himself to do it by reading other men's poems, works himself into a fit of writer's block, and then his Muse comes down and tells him to write what's in his heart. He's the poster child for Inspiration.
But it isn't that simple. He's written a poem insisting on the primacy of inspiration--but the poem itself is about his failure to be inspired. This poem about writing from the heart and trusting in the Muse is itself a carefully, wittily, brilliantly crafted
poem. It's a sonnet, for one thing, which means it follows a specific form: 14 lines, ABAB ABAB CDCD EE. And he wrote the silly thing in hexameters. Beyond that, it's full of wordplay and rhetorical figures, the pun on "fain" and "feign," the joke about "feet," the male poet imagining himself as being in labor, the Muse invoking the poet instead of the other way around . . . at the same time that Sidney denies all artifice, he does so in a poem made of nothing but artifice. This is sprezzatura, and it is not the same thing as saying craft is for losers.
I remember when I was a teenager, I thought "craft" was what people talked about when they didn't care about their art. I remember that I felt that way, but I can't remember why. Today, I don't feel like that at all. Craft doesn't threaten art. My artistic integrity is not ruptured because I think about craft issues, or because I accept that part of being an artist is practicing my craft. For me personally, craft is like a life preserver: something I can cling to in the cold, turbulent, and sometimes hostile ocean of my creativity. And I am grateful for it.
Obviously, this is my opinion. If you disagree with me, I will not think less of you.