Generative v. performative

I caught up with my friend M yesterday after a gap of some months. She was lamenting her lack of art output. She also told me about an exceptionally challenging student she’s been working with, and by “exceptionally challenging” I mean I don’t have more intense words than that. She says that when she gets home she pretty much falls asleep.

That’s some serious creativity exercise.

Her frustration/regret, and the self-talk that came with it, brought out echoes in my head this morning. One of my baseline emotion-memories of my thirties is frustration. I’ve even a long essay idea I keep grappling with where I refute the Great Work concept articulated by a productivity coach I deeply respect.

Mind you, Great Work resonates with me. Profoundly. I think the guy’s right. But at the same time, any Great vision I tried setting for myself during my thirties and forties seemed to wither on the vine: no light, no water, no air, no soil. And while I know I have plenty of brains and creativity, this nasty little voice kept murmuring—keeps murmuring—”If you really meant it, you would move the needle. You would make something happen. Slacker.”

It’s when we listen to our friends that we learn better how to counsel ourselves.

See, I believe there are two major strands in art-making: when we generate new things, and when we leverage others’ creations to set free something pent up within us. Generative, and performative.

M has been singing with her civic choir (they have a concert Thursday; go if you can) and took up the mandolin this fall. During my thirties I sang with my church choir as well as with a separate church tight-harmony ensemble a friend and I founded. With two friends, I made an artists’ retreat from parts I found around the house…”leveraging others’ creations to set free something pent up within us.” (Jen Louden made a fantastic book back at the turn of the century; thanks, Jen!)

I think that when our creative energies are consumed elsewhere—perhaps particularly when they’re consumed in relationship?—our art-making selves still have the craving but no longer have the internal resources to generate new things. Performative work comes in to counter-balance, can soothe the craving a little.

Now that I have some breathing-distance, I’m wondering whether I would have been better able to let performance console my sorrowing, angry self if I could have said: Just-performance is just for now. You’re generating new mental pathways, new responses, new behaviors—in yourself and in the Other(s)—so you are making new art. Sure, it’s art no one can ever see. But someday this work will be finished; every work comes to a stopping point, eventually. And then perhaps you’ll next find a Great Work, some generative art, that’s just for you.

Think good thoughts for M. I think she may be getting a pause in her external creative workout on Wednesday.

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