The Free Agent Mindset, Part Two
The artist’s mindset has always been that of the free agent. The painter, writer or filmmaker by definition can only follow her own vision. She has to know (or teach herself) how to be self-defining, self-motivating, self-reinforcing, self-validating.
And yet artists have always run in schools. Paris in the 20s, Rome in the late 50s and early 60s, New York any time. I wish I had been part of a school. I once went to Paris and did nothing but ride the metro to the places Hemingway had mentioned in his short stories and in A Moveable Feast. I would’ve loved to have hung out with kindred spirits anywhere. It would’ve made me feel less alone.
Here’s what I found out about Hemingway by the way. In the short stories like “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place,” you felt like he was in some workingman’s café writing fiction with a half-inch stub of a pencil because he couldn’t afford even a crayon. Turns out the Closerie des Lilas and many of the other watering holes he mentioned are high-toned, high-cotton joints. Zinc bars, walnut-paneled walls. I was kinda depressed to discover this. I thought, “Hem was a swell!” I was disappointed.
Bottom line: I never could find a school. I never managed to hang out with anybody. Wherever the school was, I always got there twenty years after it had packed up and split.
But we need schools. We need the tribe. It’s too lonely being a one-man band all the time. Maybe the web is our school today. Maybe it’s Facebook, I don’t know. I’m missing that school too.
But to get a little more serious, the point of this post is that we need both sides of the dime. Each of us as individual writers, artists and entrepreneurs needs to be able to flip the switch and become the Incredible Hulk of self-discipline and self-sustenance. But we gotta be human beings too. The free agent mindset is too hard to sustain. In my own life I’ve probably arced way too far into that end of the pendulum swing. It’s not healthy. It’s not good for you.
But to be too mush-brained and other-directed is bad news too. Even worse news, because then we’re no good to anybody, including ourselves.
I admire the old-school philosophies of guys like Marcus Aurelius and Baltasar Gracian, who were able to be deeply in the real, warm-blooded world but at the same time remained true to their own stars.
The ancient Greeks invented the concept of the citizen. The autonomous individual who was capable of making up his own mind, unswayed by emotion or the mob, but who was also deeply involved in the affairs of his polis, his city. Solon, the great Athenian who saved the democracy when it was teetering on the brink of chaos, enacted the following law:
Any citizen who fails to take sides during a revolution will be fined a thousand drachmas (or some such hefty amount) by whichever side comes out on top, as soon as order is restored.
Solon didn’t want fence-sitters. He believed it was bad for the democracy. Jump in and join the riot. At least you’ll be a citizen. You’ll be making your voice heard.
Before the invention of the citizen, there were tribesmen, there were subjects, there were slaves, there were savages. None of these possessed free will. All were either possessed by others or bound by rigid, unbreakable codes of honor, conquest, or revenge.
You and I are citizens. We’re artist-citizens, who follow our calling, no matter what internal or external forces stand in our way, but at the same time we participate in the life of our times—of our family, our community, our nation, and our world.
We’re free agents but with warm blood.