“I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work,” Woody Allen once said. “I want to achieve it by not dying.”
Artists usually want their work to live on after them, to become part of the culture and be appreciated by future generations. The problem is that you can’t be around to experience this. Vincent Van Gogh never knew he would become one of the most admired painters of all time. In his own mind, in terms of commercial success he was a miserable failure. Of course, as far as we can tell he felt highly successful in his ability to carry out his artistic vision.
This is what serious art is all about. Artists may have different degrees of commercial ambition, they may or may not be motivated to some extent by expectation of financial gain, but their primer and overwhelming goal is the realization of their artistic vision. In most cases, they do what they do because they can’t help it, and frequently can’t do anything else – at least with any degree of success.
Of course, this description is an idealization in most cases. Very few of us are driven by such pure and uncompromising motivation. But the point remains that being creative is essentially about carrying out a particular creative vision, more than it is envisioning the ultimate effect of that vision on your life, career or the future of the culture. We won’t be around to see how whatever we do is ultimately accepted by history, so while we may think about such things they are primarily abstract imaginings. Whatever the distant future might be, we won’t be in it.
It seems to me that an artists view of his contribution to the culture is a lot like the way individuals think about having children and creating a family. They are pleased by the idea that their genes are being carried on and that, although they won’t be around for more than a few decades, they will be represented in the future history of the gene pool. The contribution of the artist is to the future of the culture, which is the sum total of all the ideas and values that get “passed on,” much like physical genes in a population.
But it’s still not the same as “not dying.” Pity.