After recent reflections on the challenges we feel about needing to promote our work (here and here), we’ve come to better understand the pressure many of us feel. 

We’re stuck between modern ways and ancient wisdom. 

The modern world tells us to get out there and promote ourselves. Ancient wisdom speaks to the power of retreat. Retreat is how we discover enlightenment. We retreat from the boundaries of society to gain new ways to see.

Retreat is especially powerful for artists. In The Hero with a Thousand Faces, the famous 1949 book that introduces the “Hero’s journey” common myth shared by all cultures and societies, Joseph Campbell writes:

Willed introversion, in fact, is one of the classic implements of creative genius and can be employed as a deliberate device. It drives the psychic energies into depth and activates the lost continent of unconscious infantile and archetypal images. The result, of course, may be a disintegration of consciousness more or less complete (neurosis, psychosis); but on the other hand, if the personality is able to absorb and integrate the new forces, there will be experienced an almost superhuman degree of self-consciousness and masterful control.”

Already this is powerful. “Willed introversion” is a “classic implement of creative genius” and “a deliberate device” for artists. Then, this:

[Willed introversion] cannot be described, quite, as an answer to any specific call. Rather, it is a deliberate, terrific refusal to respond to anything but the deepest, highest, richest answer to the as yet unknown demand of some waiting void within: a kind of total strike, or rejection of the offered terms of life, as a result of which some power of transformation carries the problem to a plane of new magnitudes, where it is suddenly and finally resolved.”

According to Campbell and our ancient myths, it’s the artist’s duty to willfully withdraw from society for periods of time and refuse to respond to anything other than the void within. A profound thought and invitation! 

In comparison, creative people today are encouraged to incessantly self-promote on social media. Afterwards many of us feel empty after “shouting into the void” and posting our stuff without getting the response we hoped. We’re compelled to fill the void of the market rather than explore the void within, as artists are meant to do. No wonder we struggle.

Creator platforms algorithmically incentivize us to create at the pace Wall Street and the market demand. This is why we’re pushed to create more and more. Not because our audiences are asking for it. Not because the world needs more of what we have to say. Because we as artists, the platforms, and their investors desire, to varying degrees, growth. 

In this environment it seems unthinkable, but you can opt out of this game. “I paint with my back to the world,” the painter Agnes Martin saysShe makes work not thinking about the external world, but her own. 

Martin ironically says this in an interview where she shows her face, which seems like a contradiction. Except Martin tells the truth: we all need periods where we create with our back to the world and others when we share what we’re doing. There is no fixed position. We’re meant to flow back and forth.

There are times to give. There are times to receive.

There are times to be seen. There are times to recede.

There are times to be with others. There are times to be alone.

Systems wish to freeze us into predictable models of monetizable output, but our circumstances are always changing and we are too. Systems want us to do the same thing every day and week. That’s not who we actually are.

If we listen to the ancient wisdom, we can hear the call to reimagine what an artist’s retreat is. Not some elite program in a secluded forest that people like us never get into. Artist retreats as part of everyone’s personal practice. A dedicated time and metaphysical space to retreat, step back, and explore that’s accessible to all.

A personal artist retreat could look like a set time where we make space to create and experiment while also pledging to not publicly share what we’re doing. A time for creation and experimentation to connect to the void within where we outwardly remain silent. Freed from expectations, what might we make and find?

A call for retreat is not an invitation to surrender, be passive, or to hide. To retreat, one must first be engaged. When the retreat gifts us with revelations, we return to share and disseminate what we have learned. In our new retreat ritual we could all gather when the time ends, virtually or in real life, to show our discoveries and work. Not out of competition or status, but to marvel at the gifts, each different, we would all have received.

Social media experts tell us to put our faces out there like clockwork to support our creative practices. The Performance of The Artist has become the primary work of the artist. Ancient wisdom tells us otherwise. It says that yes, we need to enter public space to share our gifts and to receive in return. But being public is not a permanent state, it’s a momentary one. We as artists must sometimes show our faces, but just as often we must turn our backs to the world and listen to the void within once more.