After dissolving under the 2 hour and 41 minute spell of the Swans music documentary, “Where Does a Body End,” I learned something about doing your own thing, artistically speaking.
It takes guts.
This realization comes on the heels of my latest blog post about the possibility that we’re in a downward decline of our masters era. Now, I’m apt to correct that thought. Well, maybe make a slight course correction.
There’s the outward accomplishment of mastery, where everyone else judges the work as risen to the top of the field.
Then, there’s what Michal Gira did with Swans. Swans’ progressive rock music is trance-like and droning, but you don’t have to know Swans’ music to know what I’m about to dive into. If you’re here reading, I have a feeling you’re able to relate. Second to external mastery is internal mastery: self-mastery of art. I see this as comprising of three elements:
1. Creating an uncompromising vision;
2. Putting your art into the world without apology;
3. Continuing forward without pandering to societal pressures, demands, or the drive for a quick dollar.
Watching Swans’ Gira do it was hard. Doing it myself?
F-ing near impossible.
I can tell you why, but do I even have to?
Gira tells it like this: he started in the early 1980s in another band that was not Swans. It was a band similar to everything else at the time. He says the music sounded good to him, but as he also said, what did he know?
That starting point sounds awfully familiar.
You start flexing creative muscles by doing what you’re interested in at the time. Something sparks you. Maybe you pick up a pen and begin devising an epic fantasy world because that’s what you love reading. Then, as you start doing it you realize that, although you may love it, you aren't only that one thing.
If you need to hear it from someone, I’ll say it: you don’t have to be pigeonholed.
Next, you start to find your voice, perhaps a secondary niche. That’s all well and good, but don’t sh*t on your roots. They were vitally important in building your confidence. You needed the inspiration to start somewhere. Or, you stay in the starting genre, but you're finding your place in that genre. Growth happens anywhere you let it. Just don’t ignore your impulses to go where the art wants you to go, because that’s how you get to the magic. I'm talking about Gira-level magic, where despite what anyone thinks...
you become you.
Another way to look at this is to consider your motivation. If you’re in it for the art, chances are, you’ll eventually grow into your own internal mastery.
Doing something because it’s popular is entry-level artistry. Artistic maturity (in my humble opinion) is ignoring the external forces that are telling you to be more like “so-and-so” to gain marketability and popularity in order to monetize with ease. I have a hunch that that's a fast-pass watching your self-respect fly right out the creative window. Don't misunderstand... I'm not asking you to give up prospects of fame, popularity, or money. Rather, I'm arguing that artistic maturity is maintaining an uncompromising vision at any cost in the immediate time in order to play the long game.
Gira spent almost three decades making music his way, and his way had many ways: experiments, different sounds, trial and error. The crowds he played to throughout the documentary were small by most concert standards. He held fast to his ideals. Musicians came and went. Swans eventually disbanded for some time.
When they reformed in the twenty-teens, they played to massive audiences and sold-out venues.
Swans stayed true to their vision and the payoff was huge.