October 20, 2013, by Stephen Mumford
A precondition for much great art is solitude. We all have a tendency towards sociability, communication and laughter, yet this tendency must be curbed if one is to make progress on worthy artistic endeavours. Writing, painting, composing, sculpting, choreographing, philosophizing and designing will all require deep concentration at some point, best achieved in loneliness.
For some this state is easier to find than for others. Enforced loneliness is a sad thing indeed and art can then be an attempt to reach out, connect with others, and be noticed. In other cases, an artist needs an effort to steal themselves away from company, knowing that isolation is the only way in which they can work. In either case, it is accepted that without such lengthy spells uninterrupted, no worthy content is likely to emerge.
Some artistic activities are inherently collaborative and require effective teamwork, such as the staging of a drama or co-authoring together with another. A host of different skills then come to the fore. Yet in every case it seems that there must always be some enforced period of solitude: for the writer of the play, for the actor learning lines, for the co-author reflecting on the discussion.
The enjoyment of art too is often a solitary affair. One always likes to read alone so that one can think and reflect. Any interruption is then an intrusion. We watch a film or play among an audience but here too we are alone with our thoughts, silent until the finish. My preference for visiting an art gallery is always with others because it is lovely to share one’s thoughts and reactions to the works. But that is to assume that one first has an individual reaction that is best to share subsequently, upon reflection.
I have always had a difficult relationship with solitude. I like people very much and it would be so easy to spend all day in idle conversation. In my professional life, I now tend to be in meetings all day with no possibility of being alone. But I also have a compulsion to write, to create, and know that this will occur only if I isolate myself away from friends, family and colleagues. Paradoxically, despite such solitude, art is perhaps the greatest of sociable and communicative acts. The paradox is resolved if one thinks of solitude as a necessary condition for discovering, formulating and articulating something profound within the human mind that really deserves to be shared.
Footnote: Twitter offers an ideal form of conversation for one in need of solitude. It doesn’t interrupt your thinking but you know it is always available when needed. It’s like a conversation where you can take as long as you want over your reply.
Nice post. A couple of short and entertaining readings came to my mind: Montaigne’s essay ‘On Solitude’ and the second part of Paul Auster’s ‘The Invention of Solitude’, which can be read apart from its first part.
Agree with the footnote. Nice post, as ever. But you don’t say anything about the struggle of articulating “something profound”. How is the sadness related to loneliness? since you could be in solitude but happy, what does it means to feeling alone in solitude?