I’m standing in front of the canvas and I’m at a point, again, where things need to come together and nothing’s working. I work improvisationally, so there’s no plan, there’s no set way to bail myself out, I’ve run out of safety line, nothing can save this pile of shit aside from starting over, and that’s not an option. Of course, of course, of course, I’ve tried to solve the problem intellectually—reasoning my way out of being completely lost—looking at the formal qualities, introducing this color here and that line there, emphasizing this, downplaying that, but nothing’s working. Everything I’ve tried makes it worse. Cycling through excuse after excuse, the frustration builds, everything I do is complete shit.
At this point each color and mark feels forced, manufactured or self-conscious. The doubt simmers, always simmering in the background, and then immediately jumps into a roiling boil. Alone in the studio, always alone, under my breath, at the same time arguing and agreeing with myself, “this is shit, I’m shit, you should just give up, fuck this, fuck you!” And in a fit with equal measures of panic and anger, when I don’t give a shit what happens next or what it looks like, something unlocks. I become unattached and the vigorous dance with the canvas pushes into uncharted territory. It doesn’t last long but it’s all that’s needed. The painting seems to come together at the last moment and I can’t really explain how.
Every painting where performance and composition are not separate acts, every painting that feels right, requires a struggle. Lately I’ve been referring to this as a struggle with my duende. And as uncomfortable and frustrating as this creative process is, and as much as it can feel like it’s the end of my painting career each time I do battle with my duende, when it’s over, I know at some unreasonable level that it’s completely necessary.
Ah, but what is this duende you ask? Duende is a Spanish word that is usually associated with Flamenco but it certainly applies to any creative endeavor. It is likely derived from “dueño de casa” meaning “spirit of the house.” This spirit can be mischievous or protective depending on the inhabitants. It’s origins may go even further back to the Arabic word “djinn” which is “a creature made of smokeless fire, a being invisible to the human eye, yet who lives beside us.” But for modern usage, duende refers to a spirit of spontaneous creation. This creative, mischievous spirit is not a muse. No, far from it. It is an asshole and it comes to do battle with the artist reminding them of their insignificance and their weakness. If the artist accepts the challenge from their duende, they must seek to forget what they have learned, they must forget their habits, they must always let go but never surrender. The artist must accept that what is happening, what needs to happen, is not rational, it is not comfortable, and one will likely fail spectacularly. The artist does not enjoy themselves during this process.
Duende is not intuition. Intuition implies a certain ease, as if the artist is only a conduit and the answers pass freely from somewhere or from something beyond and through the artist onto the canvas at hand. Nor does the duende “possess” the artist like a muse. Possession implies that something else is in control that must be surrendered to where the artist is neither accountable nor has any influence. The duende is not interested in surrender. It’s more like a battle of wills. The duende does not guide or grant, defend or spare, proclaim or forewarn. The duende does not try to make one feel better about themselves. It revels in reminding the artist of their mortality, their limitations, their uselessness, rubbing the artist’s nose in the shit they just left on the floor. Needless to say, it does not inspire. No, that would be too easy.
Belief in the muse allows one to gloss over their own shortcomings. “Surrender to me,” the muse demands, “and all will be okay!” The muse is always external to and separate from the artist and when things don’t go according to plan, when there is the slightest sense of inconvenience or doubt, it is easy for one to point the finger and say, “This is your fault!” And the muse will of course shoot back, “Ha, it is your fault for not believing hard enough, for not praying long enough, for not surrendering to my will!” If things work out, the muse will always take the credit, if things crash and burn, well, it’s the artist’s fault. Because of their blind faith in the muse, the artist will aquiesce.
The muse takes advantage of the artist’s desperation and glorifies the creative spirit, but it is as shallow as a social media influencer. It dictates and occasionally prompts. It promises an effortless realization. The ego will want you to avoid anything difficult or uncomfortable. And so the muse and the ego seem like a marriage made in heaven. Then, when confronted with it’s own limitations, the ego will hide behind addiction or blame or a rage towards an “other.” The muse will leave on a whim, it will kiss you on the forehead and go out for a pack of cigarettes never to return. A dysfunctional marriage for sure. The duende will not give you what you want, nor what you need, it only promises a battle where nothing is effortless nor given freely. It does not want you to surrender, it only wishes to do battle as two swords sharpening each other.
The struggle with the duende gives one a heightened awareness of their own death. The artist and their duende are freely engaged in a battle on the edge of a pit, an abyss that represents one’s physical death, a reminder that we are all fragile creatures of Nature, we are all related, we are all connected, and everything is temporary. But it also reminds the ego of it’s own death and it desperately needs us to believe it is in command. It begs us to move away from the edge of the pit. The pit is the unknown, it harbors the potential for failure and the ego will do anything to hide it’s fragility and it’s vulnerability in living and in dying.
Living things are always caught in a tension between the persistent and inevitable states of life and death. When we cannot accept this tension—when we are afraid of being on the edge of the pit, when we downplay the tension, belittle it, or ignore it—through this fear, we will seek to command everything around us, hellbent on domination and destruction which only causes us to be isolated and weak, unhappy and afraid. If we have the strength to accept this tension—when we can do battle with the duende and dance on the edge of the pit of darkness, always being reminded of our vulnerability and appreciating our fragility—through the struggle, we will then be able to live in harmony with and draw strength from everything around us, hellbent on acceptance and creation. Yet, strangely, no amount of practice or ability will prepare you for this battle.
The duende laughs at your virtuosity and your 10,000 hours of practice. To summon the duende you must be helpless, you must banish your intellect and your muse. When engaging it there is no map to reference or discipline to draw from. Your ability, technique and skill are not important. Your duende rejects your knowledge and shatters your styles. When locked in battle, virtuosity becomes the enemy. You must rob yourself of skill and safety. You must forget what you know and seek to do battle on unfamiliar ground. Not in an attempt to defeat your duende, but to be locked in the struggle, to dance with your own mortality and the death of your ego. You must not rely on past answers yet you must still find the courage to push forward. With a beginner’s mind, there is a quality of first-timeless. You must struggle.
The duende has always been and will always be a part of the artist, as much as their hands and their heart. It is summoned in the feet and the blood and the earth, for we are never separate from the earth. We are born to the earth, live off the earth, and then at death, no matter how horribly we treat her, she accepts us back into her warm embrace as she does for all her inhabitants.
The duende frightens the ego and renders the muse impotent. There is no repetition with the duende any more than the waves in the ocean. The dance/music/painting will soar beyond mere virtuosity and style seizing the artist and the audience’s attention not with form but “with the marrow of form, with a body lean enough to float on air.” In the end, the art conveys something so intense that it seems unreal.
One must feel the duende climb up through their feet, through their connection to the ground where blood and earth are one. One’s voice will crack under the strain, their movement will be rough and raw as it enters the unknown and the unfamiliar, and what emerges will be something that could never be planned or thought out or rational, it always becomes something more than the artist, ego or muse could ever conceive.