Art is demanding, and that’s good. But art is petulant and importunate and presumptuous to a fault. Art is that damned nuisance of a snoopy neighbor who keeps knocking, knocking, knocking on your cellar door. Art goes straight for the places you forbid yourself to think about and rummages through your most terrifying secrets like a burglar tearing through your underwear drawer. Good art makes you hate it as you devour it, shun it as you immerse yourself in it. Good art makes you restless and jagged and ragged and inspired. Good art makes you shiver. Great art makes you cringe.
Art is a vanity in precisely this way: I presume to recreate reality in my own image and likeness, and I have the effrontery to demand that you not only acknowledge that reality but prefer it. I presume to seize the universe and squeeze out of it a tiny seed of truth. And I presume to plant that seed within you — without your consent, perhaps without even your knowledge. And I presume to nurture this new universe I have caused to grow within you until you scream — if I am good enough — scream from agony and delight. And I presume to do all of this for no purpose of yours, but only for reasons of my own devising. And at the end of it you may thank me or damn me, but you will never have been more than the means to my end: I sought not you but only to spawn myself anew within you — immaculate conceptualization. Art is a vanity because it is the means by which the artist postures as a god — and not a very merciful god.
I see all of this and yet I embrace it. I am as much art’s victim as you, although on my best days I am lucky enough to have a bit of my own back. But as a species and as individuals we are unwilling to forswear the worst of our vices without that resounding blow to the head that art alone provides. Our artists are vain and petulant god-impostors, but they do for us the job we demand of gods: They fill us with awe and wonder and terror and they give us the excuse we seem to need to repent of vice.
As a species, as individuals, we are born enormous and we waste the span of our days and our years shrinking, shrinking, shrinking until we vanish away to nothingness. And while it would be vain and petulant and importunate and presumptuous to a fault for me to call any work of mine art, nonetheless I am come to you to give you a most resounding blow to the head in the hope that it will give you the excuse you seem to need to repent of this awful vice of shrinking.
I love humanity in principle but I loathe much of it in practice. And that is the sort of statement I normally rebel against. The implication is that there are two universes, one perfect but unreal, one real but inherently imperfect. I don’t believe in unreality and I don’t believe perfection is beyond our reach. I love what humanity can become, but for the most part has not. One of the reasons we revere great artists is because they have nurtured the seed of greatness that each of us carries within us. One of the reasons we despise great artists, sneering at their human imperfections, is because we despise ourselves for having failed to nurture the seed of greatness that each of us carries within us. I love to envision a humanity that rejoices in its potential for greatness and therefore never has cause to despise itself.
Is that not a godlike vision? Do not dare call it a merciful vision. I seek for you not ease, not comfort, not quiet, but their polar opposites. I would wish that you work ceaselessly, obsessively, beyond every standard of human endurance, to writhe and seethe and bleed giving birth to your greatness. And I would wish for you to undertake all of this at once, without delay. I have seen enough of this shrinking, and I want it to stop.
Is that not sufficiently demanding? I presume to dictate to you the terms of your existence, and I do it with the utmost effrontery. I demand not just that you repent of vice, I expect you to punch out some hefty virtues, and no half measures. I am importunate by any interpretation and I am petulant beyond dispute.
Is that not presumptuous enough for you? Surely it is, for you and I both know the nature of those most terrifying secrets, but I alone am presumptuous enough to reveal them. I am no mere snoopy neighbor, no mere rummaging burglar. I am you, you in your most furtive and delicious and concealed and coveted moments. I am you in principle, never in practice. Perfect but unreal, burnished to a glow in the utter secrecy of the imagination, hidden from every eye in the universe, even from your own. I am the seed of that greatness within you, fully grown in another garden.
Is that not vanity personified? Indeed. But exactly. I am vanity personified, the word made flesh, the world made fresh. Infuriatingly fresh. I am a resounding blow to your head with a cold, wet fish. I don’t want to knock some sense into you; that’s not possible. I want you to unlock that horrid dungeon of the mind in which all the sense is imprisoned. You know what I am because you know what you are — in principle. I want you to be what you are in principle in practice.
I want you to stop shrinking, shrinking, shrinking and instead nurture the seed of your own enormity. I am not another empty-headed little door-to-door salesman peddling self-esteem or self-improvement or self-advancement or self-delusion. I am a thundering god-impostor and I demand from you self-love, the total worship of the ego by the ego. Self-love cannot be bought or sold, it can only be earned at the price of enormous effort. And I demand that you make that effort to deserve your own adoration.
The words that are running through your mind right now are the words by which you have made war on your life since your childhood. Those words are the means by which you endlessly shrink away to nothingness. You will not grow merely by ceasing to despise your potential for greatness, but you cannot grow as long as you persist in this hideous self-annihilation. You are born to live, no less than any tree or bird, and you have the potential to live in a way impossible to the plants and the animals, to live a life of beauty and meaning and achievement. But you cannot live that life while you are pursuing its destruction.
I am a student of the base and the squalid. But I am a poet of the glorious, the immense. I imagine for myself a radiant universe and I people it with giants. In my work I write about this failure of humanity or that error, this vice or that sin, and it would be easy enough to suppose that it is humanity itself, the stuff we’re made of, that is imperfect. But I know this is untrue. Humanity’s failure is not a failure of materials, not a failure of design. It is a failure of nerve. At least until now, we have lacked the courage to become what we truly are, reasoning animals.
I gaze into the squalor and I would wish that people stop indulging their stupidities, stop gathering into herds, stop pandering to their craven appetites — stop behaving as animals. But there is no end to the vices we could forswear and it would never be enough. We require not an end of vice, but a commencement of virtue. We need not to stop behaving as animals, we need to start behaving fully as human beings. All the time.
Good art makes you shiver, gentle reader, and great art makes you cringe. The very best art makes you change, and I am vain enough to hope that this day and these words will mark a change in your life that will last forever. If you will dare to be as enormous in practice as you furtively imagine yourself in principle, you will have a treasure that no one — no artist and no god — can ever provide for you: A life that you will not have to affect to despise by shrinking, shrinking, shrinking away to nothingness, a life that you can revere — openly, joyously, gloriously. And if you come one day to the perfect complement of this day, the day when you birth for yourself a universe as radiant as the one I would plant within you, I hope that you will share your self-reverence as I have shared mine with you.
Living is what you’re doing when you’re too enthralled to notice. Dying is what you’re doing when all you can do is notice. Our destiny is not to die without ever having dared to live. Our destiny is to thrive. Without shame. Without apologies. And without one instant of shrinking. I worship what you can become. I beseech you to become it and rejoice boundlessly in your enormity.
Greg Swann, 5/20/96