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James Baldwin

The Creative Process, James Baldwin, 1962.

James Baldwin

The Creative Process - James Baldwin, 1962

In a 1962 essay titled “The Creative Process,” novelist, playwright, poet, essayist, and cultural critic James Baldwin writes about the trying yet vital responsibility that artists have to their society, who he describes as “a breed of men and women historically despised while living and acclaimed when safely dead”.


In the essay, Baldwin juxtaposes the role of the society and the role of the artist, exploring their dynamic relationship, inherent states and functions.


In order for humans to function in the physical world or to make a life in society, they must be outwardly facing, socially functioning creators. They must not take things for granted, suppress uncomfortable truths and ignore the lonely conditions of existence in order to function effectively in life. They must deny any genuine acknowledgement of the inherent aloneness of human existence (as  in death, birth, suffering, love). Baldwin explains: “most of us are not compelled to linger with the knowledge of our aloneness, for it is a knowledge that can paralyze all action in this world.”


While society is preoccupied with the exploration and conquering of the physical world, the role of the artist is to grapple with the internal world, “to illuminate that darkness, blaze roads through that vast forest, so that we will not, in all our doing, lose sight of its purpose, which is, after all, to make the world a more human dwelling place.” Through a purposeful cultivation, the artist is able to find and explore the dark parts of the internal worlds inside of ourselves as humans. What they find in this rigorous process is as important for society as it is uncomfortable.  “The artist cannot and must not take anything for granted, but must drive to the heart of every answer and expose the question the answer hides.” In other words: the role of society is to stabilize the world, and the role of the artist is to destabilize the stable world. It is the artist’s job to correct societal delusions that result from the over preoccupation with the external world and under-preoccupation with the internal world. This is why the artist is often seen as a disturber of peace by society - which, outside of romantic rhetoric, is a role that is necessarily seen in periods of conflict and confusion such as the pandemic or Black Lives Matter protests of today. It is, in part, what I refer to in the Arc when I discuss Lockdown Diary's purpose in bearing witness to our time, and further in the protest art I contributed in the Black Lives Matter Protest section of the Professional Showcase. We must abandon the notion of art - or anything - being apolitical, and embrace the responsibility that comes with that.


Baldwin says that all things tangible and real in society rest on things unseen - an invisible reality that hides a deeper one. We will never be able to fully understand our actions, until we focus inward and understand ourselves. These unseen things that lie under the surface - predicated on the truth of our pasts - hold us and our reaction with the social world hostage. They inform everything we do and all the ways in which we feel what we feel. Baldwin argues that “if we understood ourselves better, we would damage ourselves less.” But, the social nature of humans, the high barrier between our internal and external self and the un-comfort we feel towards the truths we avoid knowing prevent most from ever cultivating that state of aloneness and fully understanding themselves.


According to Baldwin, the nation works the same way that humans do: “in the same way that to become a social human being one modifies and suppresses and, ultimately, without great courage, lies to oneself about all one’s interior, uncharted chaos, so have we, as a nation, modified or suppressed and lied about all the darker forces in our history.” Both the nation and person become trapped in the truth about his past that he cannot, and will not acknowledge – “immobilized in the prison of his undiscovered self.”


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