To have that sense of one’s intrinsic worth which constitutes self-respect is potentially to have everything: the ability to discriminate, to love and to remain indifferent. To lack it is to be locked within oneself, paradoxically incapable of either love or indifference.
— Joan Didion
I have never been a particularly nostalgic person. I haven’t been back to visit my home town in over thirty years and nothing inside of me compelling a change in that condition. Even in brief moments when I catch myself beginning to cherish a particular time and place over the one in which I currently inhabit, a chill comes over me and I push to shift my perspective or disrupt my surroundings to quell the feeling. This not to say that I don’t miss people who have died, or hold dear certain experiences I’ve had in my life because I do. It’s more that I see the good and bad in my life largely as moments in time that can’t be recovered but can be remembered. In my mind, nostalgia is a longing to relive or recover a past as a way of nourishing ourselves. Subconsciously we use nostalgia as a barrier against our dissatisfaction with our current circumstances. But nostalgia never satisfies the way we want it to.
One reason I believe I’ve been able to largely shed the confines of nostalgic thinking is because of my art practice. As an artist my work is ever changing even within the context of decades-long themes and I have to be persistently flexible in my approaches to the work in order to make something of it. No matter how much command I obtain over materials there are always what we call ‘happy accidents’, when an action in the making of a work of art goes completely differently from the way you predicted it would and leaves you with a decision to make—keep it, or discard it. If I perpetually longed for something I made years ago, hoping to recreate it I don’t think I would be able to work. The trap of nostalgia would hold me in a perpetual space of indiscriminate thinking because I’d always be striving for repetition rather than creation.
In 1944 the artist Francis Bacon burst on the British art scene with a work called Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion (1944). The triptych appearing at the tail end of a war that had left the English emotionally scarred the work brought terrors to the surface many people would have preferred to avoid. It is a shocking work, even today, emulating the interior terror ever present in humanity. In 1988, just four years before his death, Bacon who was frustrated at not being able to procure the original triptych for an exhibition decided to recreate it anew. Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion (1988) is by no means a copy of the original. The painting is twice the size of the original while maintaining the scale of the original figures. The background shifts from the original shocking orange to a deep crimson. Details are softened as well from the 1944 version. Bacon’s recreation of his own work is a great example of the happy accidents artists work with. Bacon discovered a whole new painting by attempting to mimic an original from forty years previous. He of course also made conscious decisions not to copy the original but rework it. I don’t think he had a longing for the original but recognized its power and the importance of that work in his own career. By remaking the work in a new way he was hoping to both regain some of the power of the original but also work out issues he was having in the work he was making in 1988. I think this is a good strategy for the way we live our lives as well.
Artists gain strength in their work not just from practice and command over their materials, or even just the veracity of their ideas, but their capacity for change. In our lives we have a tendency toward comfort and security, which inevitably becomes a denial of change. We no longer have a need to discriminate between choices because we reinforce only one path. Even worse our longing for the past can cause us to drift away from the ferocity of love. That wild, untamed experience that embraces change within our emotional landscape. The truth is we don’t have to attempt to rework ourselves because that is already happening even when we don’t see it. Nothing is static in life, age is the great reminder of that, but our self-worth is dependent as Didion says on our capacity for discernment, love, and attention. It is impossible to balance those things without letting go of the past and flowing with the present. The next time you long for something that was of a different time use that idea to rethink how you are interacting with the world and how you might remake yourself, however subtly so you can retain that beautiful paradox that real comfort and security come from accepting change as the only constant.