Ironically this is probably the worst day I’ve had in the last few weeks for trying to write about responsibility as art. Things I do not want to be carrying are heavy on my shoulders this morning, along with the promise of future unwanted responsibility to come. However, the thing about responsibility as art, is very much about being in control of it. You are not an artist if something is being done to you. Art is all about being the one who does. Responsibility is a curious thing to consider as art because so often it falls upon us with all the grace and elegance of a piano falling out of the sky, and frequently feels about as joyful. But, it doesn’t have to be that way.
I learned from the existentialists the idea that we can only have freedom in so far as we are willing to take responsibility. I think this is true, and is usually useful. We can also be crushed by responsibility or rendered powerless when we are obliged to carry all of the blame but not allowed the power to act. That’s not true responsibility though, it’s a form of oppression pretending to be something else. True responsibility means not only being the person with whom the buck stops, but also means having the power to act and make change.
The first stage of the art involves recognising what we are responsible for, what we could be responsible for, and what we are told we are responsible for but seem not to have the power to fix. Seeking the power or putting down the burden is essential with that second category, although that can be a long, hard fight. Recognising that you have nominal, not actual responsibility can be freeing though. At the very least, it enables letting go at a personal level. You might still have to carry a thing, but you can stop feeling it as your own.
Recognising what we are not responsible for is also liberating. It’s very important in our dealings with other people especially, to know what is not ours to do, mend, or change. It’s easy to feel responsible when we are not, or to assume a responsibility that disempowers others. The letting go process as your child becomes an adult is an easy example. We cannot live their lives for them and they must be free to make their own mistakes. No one can be responsible for anyone else’s emotions and no one should be trying to take responsibility for making someone else change, or for living their life.
Knowing what we must carry as responsibility is a great help. We are ultimately responsible for everything we do and say, everything we think and feel. Even when provoked by others, even in blind rage, or utter despair, we still choose how to be, and cannot blame what we do on anyone else, or on drink, drugs or any other such excuse. We are also entirely responsible for things we decide not to do – the consequences of action not taken, help not offered, wrongs not tackled. That is a very uncomfortable thing to look at, and it takes time and practice to engage with the idea of that kind of responsibility. We will never see the consequences of everything we didn’t do, but looking for them helps, recognising that to do nothing is just as significant as to act. To do nothing can be to tacitly enable abuse, hold up tyranny, facilitate cruelty and crush others with our indifference.
The practicing artist of responsibility knows what they are doing. They are conscious of what they carry and what they set down, and they make those choices deliberately. I think this is about where I am at the moment, but external pressures mean I’m frequently in survival mode, and not able yet, to step up to the next level that I can see. I want to move from being a responsibility musician, to being a responsibility composer. I don’t want to just play the tunes of living responsibility, I want to consciously create acts of responsibility taking. This can include things like running events and teaching. It can also mean taking the fight to the source of the wrong rather than just fending off what comes to the doorstep. It means actively seeking out things that need someone to take responsibility for them, and picking them up, and carrying them. Or, writing them new music, if you will. The person who gets to this stage will do amazing things in the world. They will create responsibility operas and ballets of unthinkable newness. They will go where no one else has gone, and they will see what is needful, and know how to respond to it. A responsibility artist isn’t just reacting or replicating, they are making something new in the world.
I imagine, somewhere beyond there, a way of being where this becomes not a fearful thing, but a joyful process. That’s got to be worth aiming for.