Earlier this week I went to a talk by Julian Barnes. He read his story The Silence about the last years of Sibelius’s life. I didn’t realize Sibelius wrote seven symphonies and then went silent for nearly thirty years, although Barnes said “about seventeen seconds” of an 8th symphony does exist. As far as is known he wrote very little during that period, although one night late in his life Sibelius’s wife found him burning manuscripts.
Barnes said that made him think about the point in any artist’s career when they should give up because everything after that is going to be “repetition and diminution”. And there have been other cases of artists who created extraordinary work then simply walked away. At thirty-six Duchamp turned his attention almost entirely to chess. Rimbaud wrote more poetry than some poets will produce in their lifetimes before he was twenty-one then walked away from it.
Because I think of art as a compulsion the idea of artists who just quit is something I have a hard time wrapping my head around. And this raises an even tougher question: when artists are known do they feel greater pressure to evolve, to not do the same thing again and again? Or do anonymous artists feel the same pressure to keep challenging themselves? And I realize it must vary from artist to artist.
It’s an interesting question for me because I see a lot of repetition in graffiti. Artists create a distinctive tag that doubles as their work and their signature. They get known by repeating the same thing again and again. Because so many are anonymous, though, it’s tough to track how many change, how many evolve, and how many challenge themselves to keep doing something new.