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Invisibles: Book Review

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There's a formulation I use when I ask myself why I write -- or why I continue to write well past my realistic "shelf-life" as a writer: it's because this is what I am given to do. That I continue to ask the question is an indication of a level of uncertainty about the way in which I have chosen to define who I am, to myself as well as to others. And writing is really an odd thing to do. I make no money at it. My "name" is known only to those very few people who read my reviews of art and books, or who read my blog. I receive little in the way of the response to what I write, and have at best a tiny readership -- though it's nice to know that there is a handful of people throughout the world who read The Buddha Diaries. So why do it? Because that is what I am given to do. It's that simple.

And yet... I hate that other formulation, "I do it for myself." No. I'd be a fool and a narcissist if I did it for myself. Writing is by definition a means of communication. Words are a way of reaching out into the world and saying something to my fellow human beings that I judge to be of value. The other side of the creative equation is the reader, without whom my words are no more than an empty echo. So I struggle with this conundrum. How far do I need to go in order to be heard -- in order for these words I go to so much trouble to write to have meaning? I see it to be a part of the responsibility I incur, as the writer of those words, to see to it that they are heard, by someone.

These thoughts recurred as I read David Zweig's Invisibles: The Power of Anonymous Work in an Age of Relentless Self-Promotion. I say recurred, because I have struggled with them for many years. On the one hand, I preach the values of invisibility, as does Zweig. I admire those who toil in anonymity -- who seek nothing but the reward of appreciating the excellence of their work. Zweig's criteria for the "invisibles" he writes about are threefold: ambivalence toward recognition, meticulousness, and the savoring of responsibility. The people he writes about -- and they are a fascinating and varied bunch -- are those who measure success not by celebrity or financial return, but by the quality of the work they do. And it's a persuasive argument that they are happier, more fulfilled human beings as a result. Fame, as Zweig demonstrates, is a hollow, fickle thing, and money is much overrated as a source of happiness.

For me, this is personal. In the world of art and letters, I'm always delighted to discover the unknown, the solitary painter who might labor for a lifetime without recognition, and yet make work that is worthy of any museum's walls. I sing the praises of those who devote more time to the studio than to Facebook or LinkedIn. I published, myself, a collection of essays under the title Persist: In Praise of the Creative Spirit in a World Gone Mad with Commerce. The oldest of these essays, written more than three decades ago, was titled "A Word for the Amateur," and it was written as a protest against the teaching of "professionalism" in art schools. So, yes, I have been thinking about matters related to "invisibility" for much of my working life.

And, to be honest, agonizing too. Like Zweig, I find the whole notion of "branding" to be anathema. The "relentless self-promotion" about which he writes has had a baleful influence on our common culture. And yet, for the artist, for the writer, there is a responsibility to the work itself, and we neglect it at our cost. Zweig's ideas are important; he writes about them with great persuasiveness and passion, and his book is an important reminder of some of the less appetizing aspects of our culture, as well as a celebration of some extraordinary individuals. It calls for the kind of promotion that will ensure the promulgation of its ideas -- though there is a healthy distinction, to be sure, between promoting the work and promoting oneself. His thesis notwithstanding, I wish the author every success in getting the word out.