“I’m dating a musician. He’s in a band that plays every Friday night here in town, but they’ll be headed off to do a mini-tour to support their iTunes album soon,” says a friend of yours. You study your friend, somewhat skeptical…and definitely worried. The sentence, “Please remember, you’re dating an actor,” is a commonly overheard refrain – and sometimes an exhortation – in Los Angeles when raised voices, sobbing and genuine confusion alert you that two friends at the table next to you are discussing relationships and heartbreak. In fact, I had an acquaintance who developed a sort of cruel shorthand for dealing with his female friend’s numerous complaints about an on-again, off-again boyfriend. When she lamented about the newest strange and unwanted behavior by her boyfriend, he would reply emphatically with a poignant, one-word reminder, “Actor.”
There is a sense that actors, musicians, poets, writers, comedians, artists can be intelligent, sensitive, passionate, certainly sexy, but also dangerously self-centered, not quite a solid bet for forming relationships. In some ways, artists seem the opposite of dutiful, a worrisome thought when pondering a potential son-in-law.
Now doctors, they clearly have a duty – to heal their patients. Sure, some doctors are unscrupulous but those scandals are the exception that prove the existence of the rule. Teachers report to schools to discharge their duty to transmit knowledge to the next generation. New police officers take a “Law Enforcement Oath” at the beginning of their career, outlining their duty as public servants. So do Senators and U.S. Congressmen and our President. Lawyers are bound by duty to represent their clients and that duty swears them to secrecy about the conversations held in private with clients. And members of the clergy have duties defined by their religious beliefs. Many practitioners in these fields fall far short of what their duty prescribes, but it is significant that entire career categories are defined by aspirations towards fulfilling a duty, perhaps ennobling those who pursue them. After all, if your job requires you to serve an ideal beyond your ego, perhaps you start transcending selfish desires in your personal life as well.
In contrast, on the surface at least, artists seem to gravitate towards the “love” in the classic “duty vs. love” theme. The stereotypical artist engages in some kind of rebellion to join the ranks of his profession, against a future safeguarded by more steady and predictable work. (There are certainly exceptions – people born into esteemed families of artists, for example). Like Romeo or Juliet, the artist falls in love…with the pursuit of his or her craft or with the field they aspire to join. And that love is a kind of river that sweeps the artist along – sometimes here, sometimes there. Desire asserts itself as the key component of the artist’s choice to make a career of the creative life. In the best case scenario, it’s an authentic desire of the soul to discover and express something of value; in the worst case, it’s the desire for the enviable results that accompany success at the highest levels of the creative class – fame, money, cultural importance and influence.
But even when the impulse to become an actor comes naturally, out of genuine curiosity and passion, basing your profession on desire is fundamentally different than joining a profession defined by its duty to others.
So that begs the question – is this stereotypical initiation of the artist into his profession a healthy one? Perhaps living one’s life based on desire and rebellion is the source of the accusation that many artists are suffering from arrested development, trapped in an extended adolescence that’s simply not possible for those who serve others as doctors, teachers, police officers and nurses. Have we entered the arts simply to avoid growing up? Or, perhaps, to avoid having to consider the needs and requirements of others, who are, after all, equally human to non-artists? Are we as artists only living to satisfy our own self-centered needs and to express the passion, thoughts, emotions or imagination within us with no sense of duty towards anyone else or anything greater than ourselves?
I don’t think so. Indeed, I think there are many noble artists fulfilling an important duty through their profession, whether they are doing so consciously or unconsciously. But, it is much more difficult to describe what an artist’s duty should be, compared to other professions, and it is easier to set aside one’s duty as an artist precisely because that duty is so much harder and more elusive to define.
Let’s start out with some heavy hitters and see what they had to say about the duty of the artist. Here are two quotes from Marlon Brandon & Robert Schumann:
“To grasp the full significance of life is the actor’s duty, to interpret it is his problem and to express it is his dedication.” – Marlon Brando
“To send light into the darkness of men’s hearts – such is the duty of the artist.” – Robert Schumann
Both statements have a ring of truth to them, although they certainly contradict one another. Granted, Brando is a first-rate actor, while Schumann is a composer. Brando’s statement would seemingly embrace the actor grasping, interpreting and expressing both dark and light, while Schumann sees art (perhaps a la Schopenhauer) as the lightness that illuminates our otherwise dark hearts. Presumably, under Brando’s description, it would be excellent for an artist to bring a hidden dark color to bear in his work so that we may understand the meaning of that darkness, while for Schumann the artist must strive to conjure light to relieve us from darkness.
So – knowing the statements contradict one another – how can I possibly contend that both Brando and Schumann are correct?
Because – unlike police officers and teachers – the artist’s duty is more closely related to the individual self. In the case of Brando, his duty was to ‘grasp the full significance of life’ and he did so, in the process unearthing unforgettable moments on film. But Brando’s mistake here is in trying to imply that EVERY actor’s duty is ‘to grasp the full significance of life’ rather than accepting it as his duty alone.
In the classic SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN, the late Debbie Reynolds, only 19 at the time it was shot, overjoyed a nation with her irrepressible, optimistic performance. I would dispute that Ms. Reynolds’ duty in that role was to “grasp the full significance of life.” No. Her role called on her to do something else, something also very valuable to a nation in need. Her performance embodied the American can-do spirit after a vicious world war through a performance that exuded joy. If Debbie Reynolds’ duty had been – “to lift the spirits of others” – she certainly fulfilled it in that role, just as Brando fulfilled his duty to “grasp the full significance of life” with his own, very different, oeuvre. He saw the meaning. She brought the light into the darkness.
And the variations of duty with regards to artists are not binary, but rather limitless because there are an infinite number of individual variations of important qualities that need embodiment and exploration for the greater good. Artists must just take more time – and indeed walk through a bit of a creative process – to become conscious of their own intrinsic qualities that can be helpful to the culture at large…and how to then formulate those qualities into a sort of vision statement, or duty that serves their fellow citizens.
The problem for actors – and artists – is that because determining one’s duty is a two-step process that requires sober self-reflection, it’s easy to ignore the concept of duty altogether and slip into adolescent thinking and self-centeredness when the nature of your duty is not obvious. And once we slip into a self-centered life without the yoke of duty, we can become “that guy” that Los Angeles friends discuss through tears over cappuccinos.
So maybe it’s worthwhile for all artists to spend an afternoon or two or three asking themselves, “What is my duty? What is the intrinsic quality I have to share that could be helpful to others in need?” I believe that once you figure out your artist’s duty (consistent with the qualities you possess) – and perhaps even just by asking the question – then life may be as meaningful and selfless for artists, as for anyone else doing their part to make our world a better place.
Hunter Lee Hughes is a filmmaker living and working in Los Angeles and the founder of Fatelink, an open source production company. Our filmmaking blog charts the progress of each of our projects. If you enjoy the blog, please support our team by following us on Facebook, Twitter (@Fatelink) or Instagram (@Fatelink).