James Baldwin on the “Question [Every] Answer Hides” and the Role of Artists in Society

Nina Simone and James Baldwin in the 1960s.

We of the craft are all crazy… some are affected by gaiety, others by melancholy, but all are more or less touched.

— Lord Byron, 1836

Look, it bugs me a little bit how much we sometimes glorify artists, at least the famous ones. In a professional sense, artists are just humans who happen to have found outlets for expression that presumably pay enough for them to live on. Sure, what they create can have great value for society, but they’re petty and screwed up and weighed down by all kinds of limitations just like the rest of us.

To some extent, I prefer to think that we all share in the common project of making art—of making beautiful things with our lives, of meeting life’s challenges with creativity, love, and maybe a little panache. I think we all feel the pull of some deep creative force moving within, some mysterious animating essence that we long to capture and convey and that in our best moments motivates and inspires us. Expression is a need of our souls. We’re all seeking union with something beautiful.

There’s a stirring passage from Evelyn Underhill’s Mysticism (1911) that’s relevant here:

All men, at one time or another, have fallen in love with the veiled Isis whom they call Truth. With most, this has been a passing passion: they have early seen its hopelessness and turned to more practical things. But others remain all their lives the devout lovers of reality… Some have seen her in a test tube, and some in a poet’s dream: some before the altar, others in the slime. The extreme pragmatists have even sought her in the kitchen; declaring that she may best be recognized by her utility. Last stage of all, the philosophic skeptic has comforted an unsuccessful courtship by assuring himself that his mistress is not really there.

To me, this passage suggests that we’re all at least potential mystics and artists, all made to be seekers of transcendent meaning, and in seeking it—in seeking what is in some sense seeking us—we often can’t help but attempt to express it or capture its essence, to live it out in some fashion. But this seeker’s path is not without sacrifice. For though we may not know it, it is in fact the “pearl of great price” that we are after. It requires much of us, perhaps more than we are ever inclined to give.

Which brings me to James Baldwin. I recently came across an incredible little essay he published in 1962 called “The Creative Process.” In it, he describes the conditions and purposes for creative life and lays out his vision for the role of artists in society. According to Baldwin’s lofty standard, true artists are rarely glorified and idolized until they are “safely dead,” and often have a rather fraught relationship with society, quite akin to that of prophets. He begins by arguing that artists must embrace a kind of loneliness—which is in some sense part of the human condition, but which, by cultivating it, is essential to the artist’s task of seeing beyond the delusions culture provides to buffer us against reality. He writes,

Perhaps the primary distinction of the artist is that he must actively cultivate that state which most men, necessarily, must avoid; the state of being alone. That all men are, when the chips are down, alone, is a banality—a banality because it is very frequently stated, but very rarely, on the evidence, believed. 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. There are, forever, swamps to be drained, cities to be created, mines to be exploited, children to be fed. None of these things can be done alone. But the conquest of the physical world is not man’s only duty. He is also enjoined to conquer the great wilderness of himself. The precise role of the artist, then, is to illuminate that darkness, blaze roads through that vast forest…

The state of being alone is not meant to bring to mind merely a rustic musing beside some silver lake. The aloneness of which I speak is much more like the aloneness of birth or death. It is like the fearless alone that one sees in the eyes of someone who is suffering, whom we cannot help. Or it is like the aloneness of love, the force and mystery that so many have extolled and so many have cursed, but which no one has ever understood or ever really been able to control. I put the matter this way, not out of any desire to create pity for the artist—God forbid!—but to suggest how nearly, after all, is his state the state of everyone, and in an attempt to make vivid his endeavor. The state of birth, suffering, love, and death are extreme states—extreme, universal, and inescapable. We all know this, but we would rather not know it. The artist is present to correct the delusions to which we fall prey in our attempts to avoid this knowledge.

Most of us are quite naturally averse to feeling the “aloneness of birth or death”—it’s terrifying, it’s bleak, it unmasks our ultimate lack of control and leaves us feeling utterly vulnerable. I’d wager that part of what has made these months of pandemic life so painful is that we’ve all been forced into a prolonged and intense encounter with something resembling this sort of loneliness. Culture and society exist in part to provide a buffer against our vulnerability. This is one of the basic themes of Ernest Becker’s The Denial of Death (1973), that is, that “human civilization is ultimately an elaborate, symbolic defense mechanism against the knowledge of mortality.” For Baldwin, the role of the artist—and I would add, of the prophet—is to break through those defenses so as to get at deeper truth. This of course makes the artist an “incorrigible disturber of the peace,” perpetually at odds with the status quo. Baldwin continues:

The entire purpose of society is to create a bulwark against the inner and the outer chaos, in order to make life bearable and to keep the human race alive. And it is absolutely inevitable that when a tradition has been evolved, whatever the tradition is, the people, in general, will suppose it to have existed from before the beginning of time and will be most unwilling and indeed unable to conceive of any changes in it. They do not know how they will live without those traditions that have given them their identity. Their reaction, when it is suggested that they can or that they must, is panic…

The artist is distinguished from all other responsible actors in society… by the fact that he is his own test tube, his own laboratory, working according to very rigorous rules, however unstated these may be, and cannot allow any consideration to supersede his responsibility to reveal all that he can possibly discover concerning the mystery of the human being. Society must accept some things as real; but he must always know that visible reality hides a deeper one, and that all our action and achievement rest on things unseen. A society must assume that it is stable, but the artist must know, and he must let us know, that there is nothing stable under heaven. One cannot possibly build a school, teach a child, or drive a car without taking some things for granted. 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.

“[V]isible reality hides a deeper one”? “[A]ll our action and achievement rest on things unseen”? It’s hard not to interpret these as statements of faith. If the artist’s task is indeed to “drive to the heart of every answer and expose the question the answer hides,” it seems to me that making art then is clearly a kind of spiritual endeavor, one that lies well beyond the realm of mere craftsmanship and good business. In Baldwin’s depiction, this “drive” would seem to be both captivating and liberating, empowering artists with a strange freedom, a will that—in its love of (bondage to?) ultimate truth—is less bound by social and cultural constraints. Hence perhaps why, in the thrall of “the veiled Isis,” artists have at times had a reputation for being a bit “crazy,” as Lord Byron put it. Again, it’s hard not to see parallels to the life of faith here.

According to Baldwin, “the artist’s responsibility to his society” is such that, like the prophets of old, “he must never cease warring with it, for its sake and for his own.” The artist is forever pointing society towards deeper truths that can be both unsettling and liberating:

It goes without saying, I believe, that if we understood ourselves better, we would damage ourselves less. But the barrier between oneself and one’s knowledge of oneself is high indeed. There are so many things one would rather not know! We become social creatures because we cannot live any other way. But in order to become social, there are a great many other things that we must not become, and we are frightened, all of us, of these forces within us that perpetually menace our precarious security. Yet the forces are there: we cannot will them away. All we can do is learn to live with them. And we cannot learn this unless we are willing to tell the truth about ourselves, and the truth about us is always at variance with what we wish to be… The human beings whom we respect the most, after all—and sometimes fear the most—are those who are most deeply involved in this delicate and strenuous effort [to reconcile these two realities], for they have the unshakable authority that comes only from having looked on and endured and survived the worst.

But how have they “survived the worst”? Here Baldwin offers an interesting way of understanding “saints” as much as artists. You might say the saints are those who are more fully integrated than the rest of us, those who have been made whole, at peace in their own skins. This healing, this peace within, Christians would say, is made possible through the Cross, by which God has reconciled what was irreconcilable—the space between who we are and who we ought/want to be. It is from this space of inward reconciliation with our true selves—this space of spiritual freedom—that flows agape love, and you might say, true art. And although he would presumably not have put it in explicitly religious terms, it’s towards this spiritual freedom that Baldwin ultimately hopes artists can point us all, even as a nation:

The dangers of being an American artist… are produced by our history. They rest on the fact that in order to conquer this continent, the particular aloneness of which I speak—the aloneness in which one discovers that life is tragic, and therefore unutterably beautiful—could not be permitted… [I]n 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. We know, in the case of the person, that whoever cannot tell himself the truth about his past is trapped in it, is immobilized in the prison of his undiscovered self. This is also true of nations. We know how a person, in such a paralysis, is unable to assess either his weaknesses or his strengths, and how frequently indeed he mistakes the one for the other. And this, I think, we do. We are the strongest nation in the Western world… because we have an opportunity that no other nation has in moving beyond the Old World concepts of race and class and caste… But the price of this is a long look backward… and an unflinching assessment of the record… Societies never know it, but the war of an artist with his society is a lover’s war, and he does, at his best, what lovers do, which is to reveal the beloved to himself and, with that revelation, to make freedom real.

I don’t need to tell you how much these words resonate amid our present reckoning on racism in America. The national conversation sparked by this summer’s BLM protests has inspired many of us to look more honestly at the racial inequities in our various systems and institutions—in criminal justice, education, social services, housing, government, and so forth. In doing so, we have also been called on to look more honestly at ourselves, at how those systems are maintained—and at our history, at how those systems came to be. This, we have been told, is vital work; as Baldwin put it, “whoever cannot tell himself the truth about his past is trapped in it.” This process of facing hard truths, we can hope, will ultimately help to heal some of our society’s deepest wounds and engender real systemic changes.

But let us also remember the spiritual component that Baldwin seems to suggest is involved in making art, the artist’s spiritual quest to “drive to the heart of every answer and expose the question the answer hides.” There’s a passage from Becker’s The Denial of Death that’s helpful here. At its farthest reaches, Becker suggests, our pursuits of truth must ultimately “give way to ‘theology’—that is, to a world-view that absorbs the individual’s conflicts and guilt and offers him the possibility for some kind of heroic apotheosis. Man cannot endure his own littleness unless he can translate it into meaningfulness on the largest possible level.” I take that to mean that if you strip away all the happy-talk and posturing and self-delusions we cling to, there are truths about our existence that are so painful and scary as to be well-nigh impossible for us to bear unless we’re also supported by “meaningfulness on the largest possible level”—that is, unless we can trust that behind the veil there lies a beating heart at the center of cosmos.

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