The Function of an Artist: three goals for a more productive and successful creative life

In a 1971 issue of Down Beat, Chick Corea wrote an engaging and thought-provoking column entitled ‘The Function of An Artist’. In this column, he argues that:

“A true artist is a dreamer. He creates something out of nothing. He is free in his own universe, molding and remolding his evaluations of the elements of life with a serious playfulness pointing to worlds not yet lived or realized — or maybe these worlds were once a reality since destroyed, and are now being recreated anew.”

And outlines three concepts to which an artist’s endeavours can be appraised, or rather three goals to which all artists could (and maybe should) aspire. In this post, I’d like to consider some of the thoughts and ideas traversed by Corea in this column and perhaps relate them to my practice.

Corea opens the column with a sagacious observation regarding the perspectival limitations often applied to the scrutiny of art—be that as a reflective practitioner or indeed as a critic or commentator. Corea argues that when considering the process of creation, we often find ourselves preoccupied with issues of mechanism and materialism (discussing form, technique, chords, melodicism, etc.). And, that circumscribing our vantage point in this manner can limit our creative possibilities:

“Now, if we consider that any decision (such as the decision to use this or that note or form) is only as effective as the breadth and truth of the data observed to reach it, then it follows that the broader our views of things, the better will be our decisions and this our ability to art or create.”

Reflecting upon my practice, I can certainly attest that broadening considerations beyond mechanistic concerns has aided me in expanding my artistic palette (both as a performer and listener). But how exactly does this manifest; what’s involved in a perspectival unfurling of this nature? (personally—and this is certainly reflected in my research—an acknowledgement of the centrality of sociability in the creation of music; and, that the interconnectivity of human experience is fundamental to musicking). But, in practical terms, what does this mean? A simple mantra: good relationships off-stage results in good relationships on-stage. Or, more specifically: healthy, honest, and productive relationships off-stage produce healthy, honest, and productive relationships on-stage.

In the name of brevity, I won’t discuss some of the more nuanced points covered by Corea; however, I would like to discuss the three metrics for judging an artist’s endeavours (or goals for each artist to aspire to), these being:

  • Technology: the development and refinement of an artist’s art, employing his/hers chosen ideas, tools, and materials. In some respects, perhaps we can recast this, albeit somewhat reductively, to mean ‘practice’, ‘repertoire’, and ‘composition’.
  • Administration: defined as presenting to the world by sharing with others. We could summarise this as ‘promotion’ and ‘output’.
  • Ethics: this is defined as a balancing element with respect to the other two metrics, Corea explains this nicely as: “…the contemplation of good or right conduct so that purposes can be set to enhance not only oneself but other aspects of life, such as family and children, groups, and mankind.”

Corea puts this framework into practice with a handful of well-crafted thought experiments. But in essence what’s said is that if an artist has refined their craft (Technology), is creating music honestly with the best of intentions (Ethics), but isn’t promoting—or indeed performing, recording, videoing—their music (Administration), they are unlikely to be successful. Of course, you can reformulate the above to highlight any particular metric (Tech, Admin, Ethics), and apply these broadly to any number of artistic or creative endeavours. I would add a cautionary note regarding the definition of ‘successful’. For instance, it is entirely conceivable for an artist to be maximising the metrics Technology and Administration but to be failing ethically (imagine an artist who mistreats or disrespects his/her fellow musicians), but still be successful in some sense, i.e. the project/artist has substantial monetary value. So what we need here is a more holistic and artistically grounded definition of ‘successful’, something not bound to or born of free-market economics or capitalism, but arguably something more humanistic.

Come what may, I think we could all strive to strike a better balance between these three goals in our artistic and creative lives, and possibly beyond?

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