Making Art for Art's Sake or: How I Learned to Give Up the Agenda
“As things arise, you adapt, and let go of your plans and goals. You move with the flow of water, with the changing landscape. You are free to do this because you don’t care where you end up — you just want to be present in your journey, be compassionate with each step, have fun each moment along the way. The destination becomes irrelevant. No destination or goal matters if they are all good. Each step along the way, then, becomes the destination, and is exactly where you should be.” — Zen Habits
When my band broke up last year, I found myself in an uncomfortable but interesting place. I’d been in bands for almost my entire life starting shortly after I first picked up the guitar (six months after, to be exact). From that time in 1996 through 2011, the longest stretch of time when I wasn’t in at least one band was no longer than a few months. It’s always been something that felt right to me, that feeling of being an important part of a small, tight-knit group of like-minded musicians creating new and exciting things. But here I was after a six and a half year run with Shaimus: bandless, lost and exhausted.
In so many ways it was like getting out of a six year relationship; just the thought of starting a new band was enough to make me feel worn out and frustrated. Along with this (and many other feelings) came a sense of melancholy freedom. I had been obligated to go to rehearsals or meetings on Monday nights, Wednesday nights and Saturday mornings for years. I couldn’t take a trip out of town without consulting five other people. It was a sacrifice I was more than willing to make and had no regrets about, but now I suddenly had a huge chunk of my personal life restored. Yet I was back to the beginning: we had not quite made it to the level in our career that would have opened doors that could ease the transition into my next musical project. It was either join a band that was already at that level or start from scratch again.
A Fresh Start
So I decided it was time for a complete overhaul, a new beginning for my life. It was a scary prospect, but in a situation where I was forced to embrace the silver lining I discovered a liberating fact: for the first time in a long while I had no obligations to anyone, anywhere. I didn’t even have a job. I could go anywhere, do anything, and the only person I had to answer to was myself. It was intimidating, to be honest. Still, I had no choice but to move on with my life and start something new. And hopefully something better.
After working through a darker phase, I started working on some new music based on a few sketches and bits I had already written. And when it came time for me to make creative decisions, I only had one rule: do whatever the hell I wanted.
Suddenly I found myself transported back to being in middle school and high school, when I was still learning guitar and writing music by way of pure exploration and epiphanic discovery. There was no agenda; there were no real goals other than making something cool; even if it wasn’t cool, at least I was creating something and learning along the way. It didn’t matter what anyone else thought (bandmates, critics, friends, strangers, etc.). It didn’t matter if it had commercial potential, or if it fit in with the current trends, or if it changed lives, or if it had licensing potential to be put in a movie. It only mattered that what I created was what I wanted to hear, that it was a complete and total representation of what I felt and where I was as an artist. I wasn’t pressed for time. I wasn’t worried about money. I wasn’t stressing over Internet presence or business strategies. I was just creating art, for art’s sake only. What came out of that period was the E8 Vignette EP that I released in the spring, which to me is the best material I’ve ever personally created to this point. And I really don’t care if anyone else thinks it’s any good.
I’m still far from being sure of what I should be doing, what direction my life is heading in, where I fit in with the Big Picture. But I don’t care right now. For the first time in years, I’ve given up goals and agendas and plans and restrictions. I am simply doing what I want to do, moment to moment, day to day. Because the world is a far better place when it’s filled with people doing just that. Now I go with the flow and give up the illusion of control that so many of us cling to in our lives. I enjoy where I am right now without worrying too much about where I’ve been or where I’ll be tomorrow. Because the future may or may not come, but right now is a sure thing. And even if you’re not an artist, I highly recommend trying the same thing and forgetting about goals, even if it’s only temporary. You may realize that living without the burden of your own expectation is incredibly liberating, and you may realize that you can still have ambition and drive without having objectives that represent a life you can’t possibly plan out.
So I’ve continued to give up the agenda and create the art that I want to create, because as I’ve discussed before, true art is not validated or dependent on the number of people who connect with it, only by the fact that someone connects with it. Even if that someone is just me. Right now I can honestly say I have absolutely no idea what is in store for me next. And that’s a truly amazing feeling that keeps me firmly in the present.