Cliché as Existential Angst

by gkurra

“To idealize: all writing is a campaign against cliché. Not just clichés of the pen but clichés of the mind and clichés of the heart” – Martin Amis


“I say play your own way. Don’t play what the public wants. You play what you want and let the public pick up on what you’re doing – Even if it does take them fifteen, twenty years” – Thelonious Monk


Here’s what used to be my take on it. The real tragedy of Man the Artist is his deep, painful need to create unique meaning out of his short and often lonely existence on this planet.

To discover one’s own truths, or perhaps to capture old truths in a new light; to embark on a personal journey of self-discovery that ultimately reaffirms the uniqueness of one’s soul – this is the true essence of art.

Scientists have this desire too, to discover the truth. But there is a difference: to scientists, truth doesn’t have to be uniquely theirs. It doesn’t have to, and in most cases shouldn’t, be subjective or personal. It just has to be falsifiably true, or even simply useful. The truth has to only explain and predict. In theory. In practice, scientists seek beauty in truth, where ever they can find it, the same as artists.

With one difference. To the artist, subjective unique personal meaning is everything in the long run. Without uniqueness in  perspective there is no point in us living distinct, separate human lives. Without it, indeed, there is no difference between one person and the other; no difference between you and I, or him and her; we may all as well be a part of the Borg collective.

The cliché is that which tears at this fragile illusion of uniqueness, of personal meaning. It is the thing that can shatter the belief that one’s experiences are special and subject only to one’s own personal truths. It’s that which threatens to limit and confine the sum total palette of all possible expression.

This is why the inability to transcend the cliché, be it in the various forms Martin Amis was campaigning against, or be it in the spirit of Monk’s advise, can quickly become an artist’s worst fear.

Funny thing is, since art becomes complete only when it connects with the intended audience, the audience too shares in this antipathy towards cliché, although, perhaps not with as much existential horror as does the artist. Not nearly as much, and not always.

In fact, often the audience will find safe harbor in the cliché, and it’s the artist’s job to raise the storm and destroy the harbor, so that he may eventually build another.