Wednesday 28 October 2015

Art, Sex and Humility

Today is Artistic Wednesday, but I have been thinking about humility in connection with language studies, not to mention relations between the sexes. Perhaps there's a way to link all these themes.

As I made apparent last week, I have been reading about the career of the Polish artist Stanisław Wyspiański (1869-1907). I am impressed by how very focused he was on his creativity--he excelled in drama, design, illustration and painting--from a very young age. As a child, he was introduced to leading Polish artists and thinkers. As a high school student he studied his brains out. When he graduated he enrolled in both university AND art college and was chosen to help the director of the art college renovate one of his city's most prominent churches. Then he went abroad to immerse himself in the art scenes of France, Germany and Italy. He wasted no time--which was fortunate for the world as he died at the age of 38.

Any kind of artistic work takes humility, by which I mean an objective view of one's own abilities and knowledge. "True objectivity is authentic subjectivity," said the Canadian philosopher Father Bernard Lonergan, S.J. You have to somehow divorce your own self-love (or "ego") from your ability or knowledge or virtue to get a true sense of it and, especially, to improve it.

Humility, properly understood, is not self-abnegation. The humble person doesn't belittle her talents or knowledge. Neither, of course, does she puff them up or talk about them all the time. The humble artist isn't interested in herself at all but in the subject at hand and wants to express that subject as well as she possibly can.

This often takes correction, which can be very, very difficult to receive, judge and accept or reject as one's artistic sense deems necessary. When it comes to learning a second language, correction may feel embarrassing, but it is generally trustworthy when it comes from a native speaker. Not only that,  the sharp emotion of embarrassment helps sew the correction into the memory. However, when it comes to one's own invention, the wrong intervention, especially a malicious intervention, can seriously hurt an artist's ability to create.

What drives me craziest as an artist, by the way, are moral judgments on my writing. "This sounds flat to my ear" is useful. "You spelled 'loquacious' wrong," is also useful. "You should not have written/publish this, for it is immoral," is not useful. In fact, it drives me into a frenzy of rage.

I am a person who writes and spends quite a lot of time writing. I write for money. I write for love. I write to learn. I write to counsel and comfort and help. It is so much a part of me that it is difficult for me to separate it from my sense of self. (How I hate getting rejection letters.) However, to improve my art, that is what I must do.

At the same time, though, we are called to be objective not only about our art but about ourselves. Fortunately this gets easier as you get older. Confidence improves with age, experience and success. Confidence leads to humility, for confidence makes it easier to accept  constructive criticism--even if rudely or clumsily offered--with gratitude. It also makes it easy to reject destructive criticism with grace--even if that means only thinking "You're clearly an idiot" instead of saying (or writing) "You're an idiot." Naturally, confidence prevents the poor artist from thinking "I'm an idiot."

Remember, self-depreciation is not humility, unless you mean it only as a comparison with some admired person in your field, or a saint, or God. "I am little, Thou art Great, O my God. Do Thou assist me, O my Redeemer" is a far cry from, "I'm an idiot."

What can be very, very hard for women these days is admitting to a man--especially one she doesn't much like--that she is wrong, and he is right. This can be harder for women then it can be for some men. I wonder why this is, and I suspect it is because of the high expectations of women of my (and the subsequent) generation to meet and even surpass men in fields hitherto dominated by men, with special honours for anyone who becomes the "First Woman [fill in the blank]".  To admit intellectual defeat by a man just hurts so bad--unless you are married to him, of course. "Oh, I'm sorry, my dear. You are quite right. Wikipedia is on your side" is easier in a loving relationship--especially one in which there is a shared commitment to truth.

That said, yesterday's post suggests that it is very, very hard for men to admit to a woman that he is wrong in some intellectual matter, and she is right. Frankly, I think it has always been this way, and if I had to hazard a guess it is because men associate being corrected with their early childhood of mothers, grandmothers, babysitters, nannies, older sisters and kindergarten teachers all telling them off. However, hopefully modern man will join modern woman in the joint project of accepting correction/constructive criticism while rejecting destructive criticism with grace. Personally, I can think of no laudably humble and edifying sight than a man turning to a woman--or a woman turning to a man--to say, "I did some research, and I must admit you were quite right."

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