“There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep yourself open and aware to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open. … No artist is pleased. [There is] no satisfaction whatever at any time. There is only a queer divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others.”
– Martha Graham
When I was studying theater directing and performance in my high school this was one of the quotes that was most prominently featured in our department. I have clear memories of Martha Graham’s words often being shared with us. It was the essential idea that through our labor and through our passion we could express something unique to the whole universe. Somehow, through our working, whether appreciated by others or not, we were made more alive. This sense of purpose proved true in our labors on theater shows, though we were often fortunate enough to entertain a crowd, to tour on the road, and to perform for charitable causes that were well received, the work held special meaning to all of us in the department – far removed from any accolades that we may have received. We felt alive.
In film school it has always been difficult to work on projects that occasionally fail to meet personal expectations. This is of course the way of the world. When you learn a craft and work on collaborating with others who are also steadily at work learning their craft there will be occasions when you make mistakes, when those you admire make mistakes, and simply when lessons needed to be learned through the application of failed methodology. It has always been in those moments that Graham’s words have come back to me. I have faced darkness and failed efforts and been made to remember these words:
“It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open.“
The wisdom of Graham’s words however persist beyond failure. They are not merely words of consolation for when your work goes unappreciated or unrealized, they are words of caution and wise warning for even your greatest of successes.
“No artist is pleased. There is no satisfaction whatever at anytime. There is only a queer divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others.”
Graham is commenting from experience, I am sure. Even in moments when I have felt that I came closest to the realization of my goals on a project, or found my process to be meeting my expectations, there is no satisfaction. Graham is talking about a specific kind of artist. An artist who is not satisfied by applause because – as important as the audience is and always will be – there is another audience who matters even more. Somewhere in-between dreaming and waking we face our work and know that we can do better. That we can improve. Our growth is never ending. At no point do we become masters, because mastery means having the strength of vision to always see how a work can be improved. And it can always be improved.
“Art is never finished, only abandoned.” – Leonardo DaVinci
It may be difficult to confront the fact that our work will never be finished. We may never be truly satisfied with the work we commit the strength of our lives and passions to, but ultimately the process of our vicious and total efforts has an empowering strength all it’s own. We feel our lives affirmed in our working. We feel the channel open. It is only ours to hold, and ours through all of time. In our efforts we are not only more alive, but simply alive. So we will keep working. We will keep affirming our life’s expression, through action, through craft.
Never stop dreaming, never stop creating, and keep the channel open.
Your life, and all of our lives, will be the better because of it.