The more common metaphor is the ladder to success, which one climbs to reach the top of one’s field. However, a ladder, by its nature, requires a wall to lean against. In this case, since I am talking about artistic achievement, the wall represents the culture you are immersed in, a wall, built brick by brick by your predecessors. Sadly, some people seem to feel their achievements are sui generis, without precedent or reference to all that has gone before. Since none of those people are likely to recognize success if it fell on their heads, this blog is not for them.
Or, perhaps it is. After all a stepladder is self supporting, that is the wonder of its engineering. Still, it needs a foundation to rest upon and the wall has now transmogrified into a floor. Alas, there is no escaping the past.
Back to our stepladder and the artist who seeks to clamber up it. Why do we need to climb the damn thing anyway, you might ask, I’m not painting the Sistine Chapel? Well, metaphorically, you are. That is to say, you are grasping at a level of achievement not available to your current reach. If you are satisfied with what you can presently reach, well, I’m sure there is a place for you in hack heaven. The step ladder is a way up to a higher level.
But what is this metaphorical stepladder, what does it consist of, what does it represent? Knowledge, of course, though not simply facts and figures. You need knowledge of that foundation you are standing on. If you are a writer, you need to read, not just anything and, certainly, not just things that entertain you. The books that will build sturdy steps are made of sturdy things—hard ideas, difficult characters, perplexing and powerful plots and language you can cut your mind on (if you’re not careful). Similarly, a painter must study painting, a dancer must understand music and movement and, yes, choreography. And so on.
Knowledge is not enough. You need experience, you need effort, you need to occasionally fall (which is only one letter removed from fail).
That experience has to be transformed into thought, deep, perplexing thought and powerful, often painful, emotions. Art is an attempt, more than else, to understand and try to solve the problems the world presents to you. And that is at the heart of it too – this is your stepladder to climb, no one else’s, and the problems that you see and experience are the ones that you have to delve into. It may be that in solving your own problems with the world, you might solve those of people who surround you. It may not be a universal truth (man with an income in want of a wife, sort of thing) but it might resonate in a wider field than your friends and family.
Nothing happens, of course, unless you want to climb the steps. The first few are easy; you are not far from where you started so the fall (fail) will be small, likely not too painful at all. But with each step higher, the giddiness of your position will start to fill you with both excitement and fear. As you climb higher, as the work you can do becomes ever more difficult, you begin to wonder if you have climbed enough or maybe even too high. I certainly wonder that every time I try to do something more challenging than what I did before. I think: I’ve done enough, I’m better than ever, why do I need to climb higher?
Why indeed? Yet, the higher we climb, the more we can see. Our vision widens to encompass more distant parts of our own culture, or more remotely still, the vast beauty of other people’s art, from far and wide. Moreover, we can also see higher, we can perceive, maybe begin to understand, those profundities others have already expressed, achievements that might now be within our grasp. Those last few steps are the most frightful as first, our thighs and then, our knees are pressed against the highest step. There is nothing to hold onto here, no stability but the ladder we have built and, perhaps, those people who encourage us and promise to hold us up (but what if one of them, and there are people like that, who would be happy to push us down, see us fall/fail).
Finally, we gather our courage and make that final step, that lies parallel to the platform we began on but so much higher, like standing on nothing but air, and we reach as high as we can. We stand on tip toes and stretch out our fingers. And just beyond our grasp is the pinnacle of success. For art is not a destination, it is an aspiration. Like Hemingway trying to write that one perfect sentence, what we want from our art is ultimately unattainable; it is the reaching not the grasping that matters.
Well, that was fun. For me anyway. These days, I sometimes feel shaky on my own stepladder, not wanting to take the next step up, wondering who would notice if I did. But then I take a breath, lift my foot, extend my hand and…