The rebellious spirit is one that just naturally goes against the grain. It’s one that calls out to be heard amidst the isolation, unrealized dreams, and heart longings of the human experience. It’s one that bucks the rules and expectations of an unceasingly busied and repressive society.
Often, great artistic endeavors begin as experimental… being born in response to an artist’s observations of societal idiosyncrasies. As the world turns around them, playing out tired and repetitive themes, the artist feels an incredible depth of empathic awareness for those ideas and layers of society that go unseen. Sometimes, then, they seek to express this emotional observation through their art. Sometimes, that art alters how others see the world and even inspires their own artistic drive.
The one with a rebel heart tends to be keenly aware of injustice on many levels. They intuitively understand the misrepresentations and under-representations, as well as the unrest this inevitably leads to. Maybe it is that unrest that compels these types of personalities to create… at least in part.
Studies consistently show that creativity tends to be bound with the personality type that is open to new ideas and risk-taking. Artists of all types are typically guided by their own inner compass that directs them toward some authentic expression of Self… one that often has the power to reach beyond what is commonly seen and into the hearts of those who are willing to look a little deeper. It’s as if they instinctively hear the internal wails of an entire population. Do these sort of natural inclinations place creatives at odds in some way with the leading minds of their times? Is this why the most clever and experimental additions to the world of arts tend to pop up from the fringes and create such controversy? This certainly seems to be a viable explanation.
Let’s just take a moment to reflect on some of the most notable examples of this that the world has known…
Impressionism has often been referred to as the rebel’s art. This is because it began as a new art form that took painting out of the higher class and placed it on populated streets of town, making it more accessible as a public art. This new expression of painting also included natural movement and unusual points of perspective in the depiction of ordinary subject matters.
Before this addition of impressionistic observation, the world of fine painting was highly detail driven and time consuming… making it a luxury art that was typically only available to the more noble classes and the church. When this new form of less feature oriented styling was brought out into the open, making it relatable as well as accessible to everyday people, it disrupted the art-world and was highly criticized by those who had enjoyed the exclusivity of the art up until then.
Claude Monet is commonly referred to as the Father of Impressionism. Was his family experience and his witnessing of class disparages what ultimately colored his unique perception of social experience? To explore this further, see this article on social class entitled Luxury and Degradation vs. La Grenouillère and Garden at Sainte–Adresse where two of Monet’s paintings are considered on the topic.
But beyond this, going against the grain of societal norms for the sake of creative passion did play a role in his experiences of financial and family hardship. His father was very much against him pursuing the arts as a career and even tried to buy him out of it when he offered to get him released from his draft obligation on the condition that he gave up his art in favor of a more respectable life in business. Monet could not be swayed and instead faced a life of more uncertainty so that he could remain true to his purpose in life. His art was a new form and not widely accepted by people with money, which made it difficult to get by. He also faced a number of personal losses and fading eyesight, but still he pushed forward in his truth. Learn more about his personal journey by reading this interesting article about Claude Monet.
Ludwig Van Beethoven is said to have revolutionized the world of music with his compositions. Born into a time of major transitions and turmoil, Beethoven was influenced by societal unrest and shifting ideologies as well as by his own turbulent upbringing. With an abusive and starry eyed father who pushed him from a very young age, a mother who died during his youth, a failing academic life and unhealthy peer experiences, Beethoven had nearly every strike against him.
Though Beethoven’s father was disappointed that his son was not to be the next child prodigy, some years later Mozart himself was impressed by the young aspiring musician at first meeting. And, Beethoven was able to receive musical training from some well respected teachers of the time. Beethoven was an academic dropout and, early on, the world had turned his potential for good-natured optimism into a stern, stubborn, and proud resolve to be great in his own art. Even though unrest followed him through his adult life with a string of unsuccessful romances, multiple illnesses, and even deafness, he persisted through all of what tried to weigh him down.
Eventually, Beethoven came to be regarded as the greatest composer who ever lived, having used his misfortunes as fuel for creative personal expression and becoming a profound inspiration for those who followed.
Below is an excerpt from a lengthy article about Beethoven’s life – Recommended reading if you want to know more.
Beethoven carried through what was probably the greatest single revolution in modern music. His output was vast, including nine symphonies, five piano concertos and others for violin, string quartets, piano sonatas, songs and one opera. He changed the way music was composed and listened to. Right to the end, he never ceased pushing music to its limits.
Alan Woods – Beethoven: man, composer and revolutionary
After Beethoven it was impossible to go back to the old days when music was regarded as a soporific for wealthy patrons who could doze through a symphony and then go home quietly to bed. After Beethoven, one no longer returned from a concert humming pleasant tunes. This is music that does not calm, but shocks and disturbs. it is music that makes you think and feel.
Jack Kerouac‘s ‘spontaneous prose’, through works such as the famous On the Road, and the Beat generation in general, has been credited with highlighting the overall unrest of a generation disillusioned by a post-war society. It is even said to have inspired the later hippie movement, as it helped give expression to that vision. But to the American literary world of the 1950’s, this free flowing poetic style was just as ground shaking and loathed by the American literary world of the time as Impressionism was to the 1860’s French art world.
Kerouac held a lot of strong opinions about the art of writing and explored techniques that were unheard of in any serious literary community at the time. He experimented with the idea of publishing a work as a continuous thought in scroll form. He explored Buddhist and Zen philosophies. He believed that the writer’s first thought was his best and most authentic thought and therefore rebuked revision as a lie. Like most great creatives before him, he had experienced a number of great losses throughout his life, yet he remained true to his own soul purpose and expression of art – in spite of whatever hardships he had known and regardless of criticism for his ideas or writing style.
Although much of Kerouac’s work was heavily criticized by a good portion of the literary thought leaders of the time, those recorded observations of poetic heart musings in which he made over his lifetime continue to generate awe and admiration even to this day. College professors frequently draw from his works and methods for classroom inspiration. The power and influence of his art has been great indeed.
The beautiful, soul churning twin forces known as the Blues and Jazz music have a deep and complicated beginning that is difficult to break down into any precise point, place, or influence – though many have tried! Do a little research and you’ll quickly come to see just how blurry it can get. There were a great number of first influences to be considered, but what we can say is they were birthed from some of the most heart wrenching, oppressive times in American history. These musical revelations grew in the hearts and minds of people everywhere, taking on a life and soul of their own, and ultimately becoming one of the greatest musical movements in all the world. If it weren’t for these, would we have ever known rock in any of its manifestations that we see today? Probably not.
And what touches people so about theses compositional forms is that the spirit of an entire culture and history is carried through generations on notes of bittersweet accomplishments and a hope that never dies. Any soul that has experienced the strange intermingling of joy, hope, sadness, regret, loss, and longing will feel these notes down to their very core.
Muddy Waters, dubbed the father of modern Chicago blues, is often credited with inspiring world musicians – such as the Rolling Stones, who are said to have taken their name from one of Muddy’s songs (Rollin’ Stone).
The history of Blues and Jazz is rich with influential moments during societal shifts, and – like every other significant artistic movement – it grew from the unrest of generations.
Peter Tork, keyboardist and bass guitarist for The Monkees, once said, “The blues brings you back into the fold. The blues isn’t about the blues, it’s about we have all had the blues and we are all in this together.“
Wynton Learson Marsalis, Grammy Award and Pulitzer Prize winning American composer, has been quoted as saying, “Jazz music is America’s past and its potential, summed up and sanctified and accessible to anybody who learns to listen to, feel, and understand it. The music can connect us to our earlier selves and to our better selves-to-come. It can remind us of where we fit on the time line of human achievement, an ultimate value of art.”
Elvis Presley is widely known as the King of Rock-n-Roll. Though rock-n-roll was already on the scene to some degree before Elvis came around, his unique blending of country and western music with rhythm and blues (dubbed rockabilly) pioneered the sound for this genre as we know it to this day.
Elvis’s music and style challenged the racial and sexual norms of the time and helped to bring an integration of cultural trends for the younger generation, encouraging individual self expression on many levels.
Indeed, Elvis was not readily embraced by the popular conservatives of his time. He was called a sexhibitionist and morally corrupt. The youth generation was experiencing a coming of age during a time mixed with an economic upturn and turbulent civil rights issues. The teen generation of the time couldn’t get enough of him. Indeed, he lit a spark inside many and it created a fire that couldn’t be extinguished. Elvis was an unstoppable creative force whose legacy is felt even today. His work and influence over entertainment and music continues to be widely praised and beloved.
On the surface of his story, in spite of his untimely death, the legacy of his achievements tend to overwhelm any perceived ugliness of that experience. But Elvis’s life was far from perfect… even before the rocky marriage, drug misuse, and anxieties from the pressures and perceived obligations of extreme fame.
He had the blessing of loving and devoted parents and most people know it was his mother who scraped together enough money to buy him his first guitar for his eleventh birthday. What some people may not know so well was that he was born in a shack (built by his own father) in Tupelo, Mississippi to a family living on welfare. His own twin died at birth and his father later spent time in prison for altering a check, leaving his mother to struggle alone for some time when Elvis was around the age of four.
As a teen, Elvis was greatly inspired by African American musical stylings, but his peers were not at all impressed by his performances and went so far as to cut his guitar strings to show their disapproval. For someone without much money, you can imagine that alone would be discouraging. The bullying was bad enough that after his family made the move to Memphis he decided to focus on other things and hid the fact that he was musically talented from pretty much everyone he met. He made a few select friends during that time who he did share this part of himself with and they were supportive. Lucky for the rest of us, when he was eighteen, he decided to go make a record for his beloved mother as a birthday present. There, he was discovered – and the rest is history. But could you imagine what the world would’ve lost had Elvis given up on his sincerest passion because of criticism from peers?
Jimmy Carter issued a statement after the death of Elvis in which he said, “Elvis Presley’s death deprives our country of a part of itself. He was unique, irreplaceable. More than twenty years ago, he burst upon the scene with an impact that was unprecedented and will probably never be equaled. His music and his personality, fusing the styles of white country and black rhythm and blues, permanently changed the face of American popular culture. His following was immense. And he was a symbol to people the world over of the vitality, rebelliousness and good humor of this country.”
In an interview with Rolling Stone magazine in 1970, Little Richard told reporter David Dalton, “Let me tell you this—when I came out they wasn’t playing no black artists on no Top 40 stations, I was the first to get played on the Top 40 stations—but it took people like Elvis and Pat Boone, Gene Vincent to open the door for this kind of music, and I thank God for Elvis Presley. I thank the Lord for sending Elvis to open that door so I could walk down the road, you understand?”
James Brown, the Godfather of Soul, is said to have been a major influence to Elvis and though Brown was at first none too happy to see Elvis taking an inspiration from soul music, he eventually came to understand him and they became dear friends. After the death of Elvis, Brown was quoted as saying… “I wasn’t just a fan, I was his brother. He said I was good and I said he was good; we never argued about that. Elvis was a hard worker, dedicated, and God loved him. Last time I saw him was at Graceland. We sang Old Blind Barnabus together, a gospel song. I love him and hope to see him in heaven. There’ll never be another like that soul brother.“
Are you noticing a common thread here with all these characters from history’s pages? Many of them experienced common human hardships such as poverty and witnessed major culture and political shifts in their respective times. All of them were able to step outside of what was perceived as normal and build something great from the rubble of the walls they had broken through.
Monet showed us everyday life of ordinary people through a lens of wispy movement and dynamic compositions. Beethoven woke us up from a sleep with his tension driven melodies created from sheer necessity. Kerouac took us on a journey of exploration that had us questioning our place and purpose. The musical pioneers of the American south brought us together, at least through soul understanding, with the sounds of intermingling human emotion and shared experience. They each used their natural creative tendencies to filter the ugliness of the world and their personal hardships in a way that spoke a beauty into history’s pages so loudly that it still vibrates within us all.
These are just a few of history’s examples of how creativity can be born from the rebellious spirit. There are countless more. And while a creative side can be found within all of us, as it is a basic component of human nature, it seems clear that some people are able to access that part of themselves more effortlessly than others. But maybe it is an inescapable inner drive, born from a rebellious spirit, that granted them such ease of access into worlds previously unexplored. When we look deeper, we can see that what really made these artists so special was their ability to transform inner storms into rays of light. And I think we can learn to do that too.
Sure, we can’t all be a Monet or an Elvis or a Kerouac, but we can be inspired by their journeys and motivated through their legacies and the impact they had on the world. We can draw from their vision, as told to us through the art they left behind, and we can learn to meld styles and blend influences just as they did – but in our own unique way… even if it bucks the norm and rebels against popular opinion. This is what it means to embrace one’s own creative spirit… authentically, joyously, and with rebelliousness in our hearts.
What are some of your favorite examples of historic figures that overcame the darkest times and showed us what could be through their innovation and creative soul? Share with me in the comments!
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