LivingArts: Commitment


I seem to always get angry with my oldest son if I find him caught in the middle place between two choices and unable to think his way through.

“You can go skating and it will be good, or you can see a movie and it will be good; whatever you choose will be good, so stop torturing yourself and just decide”, I say, knowing that both the content of my advice and the pitch at which I deliver it will not help him in the slightest.

At the time, I convince myself that my son is hung up on a fairly simple problem; later on I realize that what he struggles with is commitment.  He knows just as well as I do that it doesn’t matter what he chooses.  He is anxious because he knows that he has to jump into one decision wholeheartedly, and that always takes effort.

This past weekend, I took part in a performance work that I collaboratively wrote with five other artists and musicians.  It was a series of songs and words and gestures that focus on a tiny detail of Norse mythology. There is no real narrative, lots of fairly opaque dialogue, a reasonable bit of improvisation, and an array of inscrutable shadows made behind a screen.  The piece works, but it requires commitment.

We arranged for our work to debut for a small crowd at a modest and open-minded space called Silence in Guelph, ON. The morning of the performance I woke up agitated and angry at the fact that I had an obligation to this performance that would devour most of my weekend.  I procrastinated.  I made no proper provisions to keep clean the white shirt and black tie that I was to wear for the performance.  I was also responsible for driving over a large wooden shadow screen; I strapped this hastily and dangerously onto my car.

Needless to say, ten minutes outside Guelph, the wooden screen cracked in two, and my arrangements to salvage it only caused me to sully my white shirt and black tie.  I drove the remaining miles to Guelph, my feelings of anger and shame overwhelming me.   But moments later I was overcome with a feeling of deja-vu.  This situation has happened so many times before.  I’ve even recently blogged about it (please see November’s post ‘Sales and Promotion).

In art, commitment is arguably the most important ingredient.  Indeed what protects much contemporary art from being laughed into oblivion is the sheer wolf-like conviction of its makers.   I know the joys of possessing this conviction.  Like my son, I frequently also know the private hell of not fully having it.  When you don’t have it, you not only suffer internally, you also summon destruction all around you.

Luckily, when I arrived in Guelph, thanks to the patience and support of my collaborators, the screen was repaired, the blemishes removed from my clothes, and most importantly, I was able to throw myself into my work.

And here’s the thing.  When I think back, I have this crystal clear recollection of being uncommitted, an awareness of every moment, every nuance contained during those horrible hours before I arrived.  After that however, when I was fully engaged, running through a rehearsal, communing with my peers, performing the work, I have only the vaguest of memories, combined with a feeling of satisfaction.

Commitment in other words is a trance, a devotion to a present task just deep enough to disable your capacity to criticize and appraise it.

As I drove back from Guelph I do remember thinking again about my son, thinking about computer games and social media and a world where so many social endeavors and relationships are set up to be fleeting, floating, undemanding, requiring no pledge in order to fulfill.  And then I thought that this little hybrid of performance art, music, and theatre may ultimately be worth little to anyone outside its creators, but that’s not the point.   Just having a thing you can devote yourself to is enough.