When In Doubt, Work

Patti Smith

One of the best events I've been to this summer was Hop Farm Music Festival, headlined by Bob Dylan, who delivered a fun, high-energy interpretation of his classics that I thought pure genius.

Even more exciting, though, was the heart-clenching set delivered by one of my all-time artist-icons, Patti Smith.

It got me reading her autobiographical prelude to fame and fortune, Just Kids,  and I wanted to share this great passage, about how she handled creative doubt when she was becoming an artist.

She is writing about painting and poems here  but what she says applies to creating anything, including the rock career and happy family she went on to have.

“In my low points,” she writes, “I wondered: what was the point of creating art? For whom? Are we animating God? Are we talking to ourselves?

“And what was the ultimate goal? To have one's work caged in art's great zoos — the Modern, the Met, the Louvre?

“By example… I understood that what matters is the work: the string of words propelled by God becoming a poem, the weave of color and graphite scrawled upon the sheet that magnifies His motion.

“To achieve within the work a perfect balance of faith and execution.  From this state of mind comes a light, life-charged.

“Picasso didn't crawl in a shell when his beloved Basque country was bombed. He reacted by creating a masterpiece in Guernica, to remind us of the injustices committed against his people… I'd go to the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) and sit before Guernica, spending long hours considering the fallen horse and the eye of the bulb shining over the sad spoils of war.

“Then I'd get back to work.”

For me, it's that beautiful line about the balance of faith and execution that gives this passage, and indeed her whole book, its power.  How that balance gives the state of mind that brings forth the “light, life-charged”.

Smith saw herself going “back to work” when she returned to execution. I like to think of her, sitting in MOMA, in front of Guernica, working on her faith.