Good art is entertaining

The title is a quote from Ursula Le Guinn, an author I much admire. It pokes straight to the heart of a curious and widespread misconception – that popular=low quality and good art=elitist. Industries trying to cater to the mass market seem to assume that they will get bums on seats by finding the lowest common denominator, and pandering to it. People who do ‘proper’ serious art, literature and so forth can be quick to sneer at the ‘not proper books’ of ebook land, the genre fiction and the blockbusters. Good art is not for the masses. If everyone gets it, it can’t be clever. And that’s so wrong.

What good is a creation if no-one else can appreciate it? That’s the pinnacle of elitism, making images and stories that no one else can understand. If the smallness of audience equates to quality, then to be a success is to fail. This sounds to me like the argument of a creator whose work is not successful. They appeal to a select few. They have not sold out to the mass market. They have integrity. On the downside, no one much sees their stuff and their chances of paying the bills are going to be much reduced.

Then there’s the blockbuster monstrosities that are supposed to be for everyone. Can I say Dan Brown? Or Twilight? The books everyone buys, and that within six months are appearing in second hand shops by the bucket load. Commercial success comes to those who manage a crowd pleaser, or at least a crowd persuader. Plenty of people acquire, and are disappointed by, the new big thing.

Much of the problem is the dualist separation going on. Either it’s mass market or it’s elitist, there’s not much claiming of middle ground.

Coming at this from a bardic/druidic angle (you knew I would) I have a few points to offer. To be a bard is to entertain the people who are sat in front of you. All of them, if you can. The bard has no target demographic, no marketing strategy, and quite possibly an entire community gathered round the central fire, wanting to be entertained. It is the job of the bard to entertain them. The best stories, songs, images do this – not by being bland and mediocre, but by working on more than one level at a time.

It can and does work. That’s why we have the growing phenomena of adults reading what are ostensibly books for young adults – they are in fact stories that work on many levels and so have something for older readers as well as younger ones. Tales with layers and nuance. Songs that draw people in but still carry poetry. Films that engage the brain as well as the eyes. It’s not an either/or. We can, and in fact should have both. Aiming to be elite and exclusive, is, to my mind about as pointless as trying to please the lowest common denominator you can imagine. Most people fall somewhere between the two extremes and will be much happier if they can engage with entertainment on their own terms. 

Damh the Bard is a fine case in point. Tunes to stomp your feet to, easy choruses that go ‘na na na’ a lot, so anyone can join in, and deeper, spiritual aspects to the words of for anyone who wants to think about it. And he’s good to dance to. That’s win all round. Children and non-pagans like him too. He’s a true entertainer, his work is accessible, and it has lots of layers of depth and meaning. He’s good art, and he’s entertaining, and that’s definitely the combination to aspire to.

Warmth in Winter

I’ve never lived in a centrally heated house. Winter has always meant cold for me. I’ve been through a fair few winters with single glazing as well, with condensation in the morning, pools on the windowsill, and sometimes ice. Go back a generation or two and this would have been normal. Either there are fires, or it gets very cold. Fires mean constant maintenance and the lugging and cutting of wood. This is the first winter in a decade when I’ve not borne the brunt of that work, and it feels like absolute luxury.

Other people talk about how you should put on a jumper on colder days rather than turn up the heating. It’s greener. Winter for me doesn’t only mean jumpers (plural today) but also vests and thermal long-johns. The idea that anyone could be warm enough to float round in a t-shirt seems weirdly alien to me, but I hear people do. For folk in colder climes, this need for thermals is normal. I remind myself that there are many people who have lived their entire lives in freezing conditions, and made their houses out of ice. I have no idea how anyone survives that, mentally or physically, but apparently they do.

I find the cold exhausting. But I look at the cottage I’m in. It has porches and other modern additions. If any of the insulating layers is fifty years old, I’d be surprised. When the place was first built, it had a front door that opened from living room to road – normal for a labourer’s cottage round here. Single glazed. There was no loft insulation back then. There are stories in my family about boys sleeping in attic rooms (nothing unusual there) and obliged to put their coats on the bed in winter. I can’t begin to imagine how cold it must have been. I think about people going out to fetch water from wells when everything was frozen. My Gran talked of when she first had hot running water in the house. Yesterday a local woman described how as a child she, her parents and a sibling had lived in two rooms with an outside toilet. How cold must that have been when there was snow on the ground?

Life for our ancestors in winter must have been entirely focused on survival. The bringing in of fuel for the fire, the sourcing of it, the making of food, the drying of clothes and shoes, the warming of chilled bodies. They must have been a lot tougher than we are, mentally and physically.

In this weather, heat to me seems like the most amazing luxury. Hot food and warm drinks become essential. Summer seems like a distant dream. And yet there are schools of thought in Druidry and other pagan traditions that winter is the time of sleep, of dark restfulness and quiet. If you live in a milder place, perhaps this is so. If you have central heating then sure, winter means snuggling up inside and looking through the double glazing at the frost. Our ancestors relied on fire for heat, and fire needs constant feeding. Our ancestors had to forage outside, not in supermarkets. The sleep of winter is only possible if you are insulated from the climate by modern technology, maintaining toasty temperatures that aren’t green or sustainable.

But we get hungry for heat, as we do for any other essential thing in brief supply. The cold can, and does, kill people. The desire to be comfortable is a very human one. But without the knowledge of discomfort, we take those mod-cons for granted. At this time of year, I relish heat, and the days of sunlight, as rich, luxurious blessings, and I reconcile myself to the cold as best I can, armed with extra socks. And I do not, ever, find winter to be a sleepy time of rest and retreat.

The pagan with the pen

Where does art come from?

Some might say the subconscious, or the imagination. Some may cite the id as the bubbling cauldron of ideas, or the need to define certain childhood experiences or emotions. Perhaps the answer varies from person to person. I personally feel that creation, in its purest form, is a sacred act.

There are definitely times when I’m writing that I feel like I’m channeling something rather than creating something.  I’m not alone in this.  One will often hear artists saying that their strongest works seemed to ‘write themselves’ or ‘play themselves’ or ‘paint themselves’.  It’s wonderful when this happens. More commonly, things don’t come that easily. That’s where craft and discipline come in. Divine inspiration or not, it takes work to shape the final piece. Muses can be fickle things. They can whisper while one is absorbed in mundane daily tasks, scream at inopportune moments and then, when given a chance to speak, be strangely and stubbornly quiet. They can abandon us at crucial moments, standing just out of reach. Muses must be fed, on a constant influx of inspiration. (Mine seems to also enjoy a glass of red wine.) And to open your output valve, you also have to open your input valve.

In art and in life, our influences and experiences are our teachers. The songs we listen to and the movies we watch and the books we read imprint new patterns on our brains. Healthy minds are always changing, evolving, factoring in new experiences and adjusting outlook accordingly. As we never stop learning (hopefully) we should never stop seeking new sources for inspiration. Frequently this search leads to the past, to the myths and lore and legends of old. And if one follows those threads of influence back, inevitably one will find oneself in the realm of myth. Stoker didn’t create Dracula out of whole cloth. The Count was the lovechild of myth and history. And without the Count, we likely wouldn’t find ourselves being inflicted with glittery baseball-playing vampires.  

The line where myth and art meet is not a clear one. If you’re looking for them, you might recognize archetypes and/or dieties at play in the least expected places. You might find a hint of Aphrodite working through Miss Piggy. You might find traces of Loki at play in a mischievous character. One of my favorite TV shows ever, Sons of Anarchy, is loosely inspired by Hamlet, which was inspired by the 13th-century Vita Amlethi, which was in itself inspired by something else, something older.

Art is the line between dream and reality, between the future and the past, the seen and the unseen, the sacred and the profane. Art is the embodiment of emotion. Art is one way in which we interact with the universe, how we express  our thoughts and emotions. Art is as necessary as breathing for some of us. There are many of us who simply feel driven to create. Whatever one’s art, there are going to be roadblocks at every turn. Rejection, uncertainty, lackluster product, even a lack of confidence can lead one down a dangerous dead-end road. Sooner or later, we all run out of gas. The way through these roadblocks can sometimes come through unexpected places, such as meditation or ritual, as well as research. I’ve found characters in meditation, and resolved plot problems while staring at a solstice moon.

When one is ‘borrowing’ a god or goddess for a muse, it can become a bit complicated. There is a fine line one treads when working with deities in art. Some deities do not take lightly to being adopted. You cannot work against them. You have to let them come to you on your own terms. I realized this recently when working with Hecate. I found myself blocked, and realized that I had to open myself to the goddess, rather than force her myth to open up to me. The pagan and the pen, indeed.

Where does art come from? The natural, or the supernatural? I think it’s a bit of both, but either way, art is a chain that stretches back to the beginning of time, and if nothing else, in that aspect it becomes sacred. If one can transcribe emotion and cause an audience or a reader or a listener to react emotionally, that’s a very powerful and profound thing . One of the things that drew me to druidry in the first place was the fact that it recognizes creation as divine.       

Some might argue that the gods and goddesses of the ancient world, and their stories, are nothing more than pieces of us, the human race, embodied in specific forms and tales. You can certainly put those labels on them, if you choose. This goddess represents sexuality, this one rage, this tale is about hubris, this one is about love. Myths certainly are mirrors; we see ourselves reflected back in them, and if we’re paying attention, we can learn valuable lessons from them. The spirits of the ancient dieties will shine through us if we let them.  And if you look, you might find them waiting for you in some very unexpected places.

Being a House Elf

The Harry Potter stories include a race of creatures called House Elves, but they are in fact much older than this. Fairytales of benevolent creatures who help humans out by doing their work, crop up all over the place. The elves and the shoemaker are a fine case in point. Rumplestiltskin spinning straw into gold is a variant on the theme.

Real people can be House Elves too. They tend not to announce it, but move quietly in the background, sorting out the details so that other people’s lives run smoothly. Hot meals appear as though by magic. Dirty things are cleaned and returned. Wood chops itself while no one is looking, cupboards do not become bare, dishes walk to the sink all by themselves, clean themselves up and get refilled.

The House Elf Person does this because they love to serve. The comfort of those they care for matters to them. They do it to enable, to facilitate, and for the joy of making other people happy.

Anyone familiar with the Harry Potter stories will have noted that the lot of House Elves depends a lot on who they live with. Many are treated as no better than slaves, their industrious natures taken for granted and tested to the limits. They may become bitter, destructive creatures. Those who are valued and appreciated, are very happy indeed. Rowling’s House Elves like to work and serve, for them it is not slavery, drudgery or in any way degrading. They take pride in their own natures.

So it should be for House Elf People.

I’m not that sort of House Elf who keeps a place perfectly neat, we’re all of us different, but keeping those around me happy, warm, fed and comfortable is something that has always mattered to me. When no one is looking, I can work at somewhat uncanny speeds. I can do the hours of chopping it takes to make big batches of pickles and marmalades, biscuits, fudge and cake. The smell of line-dried washing makes me happy.

There’s nothing like being taken for granted, or being treated like your efforts have no value, for making a House Elf Person miserable. (I’ve met others along the way and we definitely have this is common.) The other thing that demoralises, is finding that nothing is done with the time your elfing creates. To do the House Elf thing so that others can study, create, or do something else inherently beautiful and worthwhile is a reward in itself for a House Elf Person. It’s all about facilitating others. But when you find you are facilitating laziness, selfishness, wasteful carelessness and indifference, being inherently a House Elf, becomes miserable.

There was a time when women were trained to be just this kind of creature. It was expected of us. This was the kind of great woman you’d find behind great men, making it easier for them to follow their calling. The world has changed, thankfully. Women are no longer expected to be House Elves. As a consequence, you’ll only tend to find folk in this role because it is something that comes from their soul. A House Elf Person is as likely to be male as female, and may well be expressing it somewhere other than in the home. They’re in positions that enable them to help other people achieve.