The Artist as Alchemist

And those who were seen dancing were thought to be insane by those who could not hear the music. — Friedrich Nietzsche

We all perceive the world differently. This may seem a glib and obvious thing to say, but it is quite fascinating when you stop and think about it. It is a fact of physics, chemistry, biology, psychology and sociology; each of these and more define and delineate our experience. Creative’s notice this more than most, because our acts of perception become public objects that produce new acts of perception. The imaginative ‘music’ we ‘dance to’ is shared, just like the world we all perceive. Why do we do that? What is art for? What is art?

This question has often been asked, and many answers have been given that, for the sake of brevity, I won’t go into here. For myself, I see the search for an overall, objective or fundamental definition as rather pointless, as it seems so contextualised within ever shifting language games and paradigms. Every attempt to crystallise its meaning will only be knocked down by new permutations that break the socially constructed rules. What else could we expect of something wrought from the imagination? Art evolves, much like language, and us, because we, along with our domesticated primate symbolic systems, are art. Every one of us, and every singular moment, is part of an immense creative process, if you ask me anyway. In a wider sense it seems that all we can say about ‘art’ comes down to it as a word, something used by some of us as a linguistic symbol and mouth noise to attempt to describe certain phenomena. But that’s a little facetious!

What does art mean to me? Now here we have a question that hopefully won’t descend into mere semantics. I see art at its most basic as self expression. A way of conveying ones point of view to others; whether or not such attempts succeed or fail does not matter at this most basic level. The act of attempted expression itself, through which one may awaken to some form of self-awareness, seems most important. By self expression I do not mean the repetition of the expression of others, but the individual point of view.

I remember in nursery we were all told to draw our family. I drew some very odd images, fairly anatomically correct faces with arms and legs sticking out of them. I was not a master of anatomy apparently! But what struck me most when I recalled this was the reaction of the other children. A few had drawn stick figures, as they had been taught to by their parents, and many of the other children had followed suit, with variations on stick men. My picture seemed to make the other children single me out; my interpretation was wrong, according to the consensus. I had expressed a different point of view. Another incident brought this home to me in primary school, when further attempts at anatomically correct figures caused a teacher to tell me I must draw stick figures like the other children.

Self expression reveals the individual through itself. The artist becomes an alchemist, taking the raw material of their inputs and constructing something unambiguously authentic and personal, and all the more valuable for that. There were other teachers who encouraged this in me, and I don’t like to think what might have happened if not for them. I would perhaps have been transformed into yet another socially acceptable meme transmitter, regurgitating information by rote and pretending it has universal validity in order to get full imaginary marks. Without self expression we cannot amount to much more than this. I’m not saying that the social operating system and its memes must necessarily be rejected, they are vital in order to be understood by each other, but if we swallow them whole we leave no space for our own imaginations. We cannot see the difference between a map of it and its territory.

We construct our world, through the interpretation of our varied nervous systems and our use of symbolic systems like language. Self expression can become the first step in realising this, through transforming our creative process by exposing the idea of reality singular, within which we must use the power of our imagination to edit our point of view to fit the consensus, as a sham; revealing realities plural, of which we have our unique perspective, within which we can use the power of our imagination to birth new ideas and exceptional perceptions. The next step would be putting that realisation to use.

The world of the happy man is a different one from the world of the unhappy man. – Ludwig Wittgenstein

Once realised knowledge of plurality can begin an alchemical self transformation. One finds oneself less chained not only to the ideas others hold about the world and themselves, but to one’s own ideas about the world and themselves. They can be redefined, the rules can be re-written. You do not see artists life drawing by gathering around the canvas of one designated individual and copying their view of the model. They draw the model, in their own way and from their own perspective. Our perspective upon the world and of ourselves can be shifted and re-drawn within the confines of its territory. We can remap ourselves as positive, charming, intelligent, our view of the world as exciting, intriguing, beautiful. We can fall in love with life; we need only have the will and opportunity to change our perspective.

Paintings, music, writing, dance, these become creative doorways into the world of the creator, into which another may view, and question their own perspective. Art, to me, at highest can be used as alchemy for the soul, not only transforming the creator, but the spectator. Art can be used as a catalyst for the evolution of consciousness. The Logos can be heard, felt, beheld, brought from the world of imagination into our realities. The base matter of ordinary perception can be transmuted to express this hidden divinity.

I used to see art as a form of escapism, a way to get away from the ordinary world. Now I realise that to take part in the creative process can become the starkest confrontation with reality possible. I want to create doorways into which a viewer may step and find their consciousness altered. I see this as the great work of writers, artists, musicians and all other creators. Aim for your work to provoke real thought, laughter, altered states of consciousness, neurosomatic bliss, even enlightenment.

For I love him who seeks to create beyond himself, and thus perishes. – Friedrich Nietzsche


  1. It’s the same the whole world over… if you do or say something, or have a reaction that is not expected, it’s wrong! Why is it wrong? Because it is different I guess.
    I have always been different, not because I try to be, but I just am.. and I always tell my boys never to be afraid to be the way they are. what would happen if we all complied to how we are expected to be?… stagnation I would imagine!
    Stagnation with no new ideas, no new creations.
    Never be afraid to be yourself, you are an important part of the whole of infinity, and are very precious to it. 🙂

    • Exactly 🙂

      One of my favourite Nietzsche quotes is this: “You have your way. I have my way. As for the right way, the correct way, and the only way, it does not exist.” I always think of it when someone starts with the whole ‘you should do what’s expected’ nonsense.

      Be your own authentic self, and enjoy it 😉

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