No Artist Is Pleased With The Blessed Unrest

Martha Graham in motion, as photographed by the legendary Barbara Morgan.

Yesterday, Google ran one of their patently cool images with their logo. Visitors to Google yesterday discovered their logo was animated by dancing figurines in honor of Martha Graham’s birthday. The animation was fantastic, and I clicked to find out who Martha Graham was, a name wholly unfamiliar to me. To put it too simply, Graham was the preeminent dancer of the 20th century, a massive influence in her field for generations, a woman who performed in the White House and was honored with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

There is a tremendous amount to read and discover about this artist, but this quote is where I want to focus today:

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.

That’s a big quote, a block quote, the kind used for padding long essays. But, please, do read and think about it carefully. There’s so much going on there.

The four words I’m interested in here really needed to be read in their context to understand why it has been messing with me for the last 24 hours. It is this part: “No artist is pleased.” On its surface, that seems both true and awful at the same time.

Imagine never being pleased with the work that you’ve done. Regardless of whether you are a writer, dancer, or any other kind of artist; if you are a teacher, editor, web manager, store owner, market analyst, realtor, engineer, financial officer, it doesn’t matter – what if you are never, ever, pleased with what you’ve done?

That seems like the kind of thoughts that lead to heavy drinking and permanent despair. Or maybe it’s just a matter of how you look at things. I read “No artist is pleased” and I start thinking words like failure, discouraged, dismayed. But I’m not sure that’s what Graham meant; or, maybe more important, I’m not sure that’s the way we should take it. We don’t live in a black-and-white world: saying you aren’t happy doesn’t logically mean that you are sad. There are many, many, many emotions on the spectrum to get a person from one end to the other.

Graham goes on to call this a “blessed unrest.” (Digression: it is, by the way, very tempting to look at each word in this quote and overinflate it with meaning. “Marching”? Does marching make anyone else think of warfare, falling into conformity; or do you take it simply to mean “going forward”? Is there an arrogance in “being more alive than others”? Like I wrote a few paragraphs above, there’s so much in this quote…) While futzing around with what this could possibly mean, I’ve tried to take it as a certain drive to work again and again on one’s art, regardless of medium, and realize that there is always more to be done, more to be explored.

This has to be, must be, a positive. Any artist who treats this drive with despair has already failed. It’s an internal push to always do better, to always make something better. That can, of course, wreck the work: ask a painter about when he or she couldn’t stop tinkering with a painting, and you’ll likely hear a few stories about ruined canvases. Same, too, with writers. Not knowing when something is done, not knowing when the “blessed unrest” forces you to write something new rather than continuing to carve away at something old, is a maddening state to be in. It’s one that takes time, persistance, and a certain amount of stubbornness to not only but continue to push thorugh imte and time again.

Summer for me has always been a time to switch gears with my writing projects, usually moving from the novel that I’ve spent nine months to short stories that have been scraps of paper scribbled down during the winter. Schizophrenic of me? Or just a blessed unrest? I’m not sure. I’m not sure there is a clear and easy answer to that. But I do know that it’s good for us, with warm weather calling, to keep our art fresh, more blessed alive than all others.

Michael Nye is the managing editor of The Missouri Review.