Creative Impulse and a Song

by Mark Hahn


So I got a guitar a few months ago. I’ve never done anything musically in my life, but my girlfriend read somewhere that playing guitar can change your brain chemistry for the better, especially when you’re coping with serious stress in life and/or organic mood disorders. I’m game. Anything that might help sounds good to me!

I generally view all creative expression as a way to more deeply experience life. It doesn’t matter if you are “successful,” get recognition or if other people even care about what you do, but the emotional process of creating something new changes you. Throwing yourself into something creative can put you into another private world. It can also precipitate shifts in your fundamental perspective of the world at large. It can be a means to and a mechanism for personal emotional freedom.

Anyway, I got the guitar, read a few articles on the basics of modern Western music and just started playing. Instead of worrying about everything I can’t do, I just started playing simple progressions in ways that resonated with my emotions and figured out how to find expression in the tones and rhythms. I don’t care about learning to play other people’s songs, just seeing what I can do.

One thing I found immediately freeing about picking up a guitar at 55 was that I didn’t have to feel compelled to try and be a rock star (like I would have as a teen). Now it is something that will never happen. This removes a lot of pressure from personal expectations and completely freed me in what I would allow myself to try. As I played more and more, I learned to enjoy playing sounds that just came out.

What makes my new musical efforts most interesting to me is seeing how they relate to my art and writing. My art/photography and writing have evolved over many years into what they are now. They serve their purpose. Within the boundaries that I work within, I feel I can really find a depth and complexity in what I want to express and explore within these media. Music is just something fun.

When I started studying at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago I had the dream of being able to express the totality of everything within a single medium. This puts a lot of pressure on any one medium. No medium is really ideal for expressing everything. Better to choose what is most appropriate for any one thing you want to say and use that. If something can be expressed completely in a single sentence, why struggle for months trying to allude to it with paint on a twelve foot stretched canvas?

Many of my online followers know that I am currently mixing my words and art photography. The connections between the writing and photographs are generally fairly loose as the words are not meant to explain the photos and the photos are not meant to illustrate the words. Both are meant to be potentially viewed independently. What I really like finding are the seemingly incongruous intersections of things — something like finding the underlying fabric of our universe. Maybe it’s just the flawed 1,000 trillion synaptic connections in my own head that I’m exploring. Who knows? Life is nothing unless it is a constant process of discovery.

This has brought me to thinking of the creative impulses that must have been stifled in artists such as Roy Lichtenstein — the things he must have had within him that had wanted to get out. His offset print cartoon paintings were a clever stroke of genius and fun, but after 30 years, what was he able to experience from producing a new piece? Another crying woman or another fighter jet? What does that get you? I remember the first time I saw one of his large paintings as a kid. “Whaam! Pop!” They hit me just like the words jumping off the canvas, but that was it. Once the “Wow!” wore off, it was over. It’s the kind of thing that has initial impact, but no depth.

Keith Haring’s work had a similar effect on me as Lichtenstein’s, although, since he was roughly my contemporary, part of me also wished I had stumbled on such a simple gimmick as Haring and had made me wildly rich and famous. Haring made it seem so simple, though things in life and society are rarely as simple as they appear on the surface.

Back in the day, I remember watching a documentary on Haring where he gave a brief tour of his collection of Haring forgeries. The talk was humorous, but he did comment how there were pieces that were so close to his own that even he might have been fooled had they been slipped into his studio. Haring’s work like Lichtenstein’s was a great commercial success and explored the realm of art as singular commercial products. Both artists produced work that was clever and timely in the periods they both produced the work, but really, how much depth is there really when you look at their pieces now?

On the other hand, when you have an artist and poet like Gregory Corso, we see the price that is often paid for trying to extend the breadth of your creative instincts. Corso never got the lasting recognition or became the household name that fellow beat writers such as Ginsberg, Kerouac or Burroughs did. The other three didn’t mess things up by trying to be anything more than “writers.” Corso wanted to do it all. The public wants someone they can put in a box.

Interestingly, Pop icons like Andy Warhol and David Bowie were able to do many creative things, but both of them turned themselves into the commercial products. Instead of spending his life producing variations of Campbell Soup can paintings and Brillo boxes, Warhol was able to explore many different types of art, film and conceptual projects. This was at least partially because he firmly remained the one dimensional Andy Warhol publicity doll the whole time. As long as he was Andy Warhol to the world, everything made sense.

Bowie was kind of the same, he made a show of always reinventing himself under the guise of revolving personae, but he always remained the constructed David Bowie doll underneath. Unlike Warhol who was always the way-too-smart, cynical and smug New York artist, Bowie always seemed to let out a little of his naive sincerity in everything he did — no matter how flamboyant and shallow some of his work seemed on the surface. You never feel like Bowie is laughing at you inside when you listen to an interview with him whereas Warhol’s words and attitude always has that effect (on me anyway).

In a recent water cooler conversation at work, the subject of the creative process and motivation came up. I told my coworker, “Really, I’ll just be happy if people think of me as an interesting loser.” While trying to figure out his reaction to the statement, I added for clarification, “Most people aren’t very interesting.” He got the Zen implications of this and laughed, “But everyone is a loser!” There’s something freeing about throwing all the inspirational quotes about “winning” and “succeeding” out the window and just “being” and following the paths you choose! In Hagakure, the Samurai is advised to go into battle as if he is already dead — when you have nothing to lose, you are free to do anything!

“I may not know as many chords as other musicians, but I can play a D chords almost as well as any of them.” -Lou Reed