What is an Artist?
I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to *be an artist*.
I want to reject any standard that requires that you make money from your art. Money and worldly success are not completely in your control. And many great artists only achieve posthumous success. What’s the point of being an artist if you can’t enjoy the sexy title while you’re alive?
But neither do I want to be too inclusive. I do believe that everyone has an inner artist that can be cultivated. But few of us are tending to that part of ourselves. If you let your inner artist starve, you don't deserve the title of artist.
(And that's not to mention those trusted members of authority who actively suppress the inner artists of the youth. There's a special place in hell reserved for these folks. But that’s a topic for a different day!)
My current definition of “artist” is based on what enabled me to truly feel like an artist. To feel deserving of the title and even start to openly refer to myself as an A-word.
It was not when I got into a position to financially support myself as a full-time artist. (Still in the works!)
It was not when I scored a sweet studio space or a wall in a fancy gallery. (Also, still in the works.)
It was not when I made my first sale. (Nope. But, check!)
It was not when I built a website and got business cards and set up an LLC. (Two-ish outta three.)
No, it wasn’t any of these things.
It was when I recognized that I had built a lifestyle that enabled me to create and share art on a consistent basis.
What a concept! Your title (especially one as elite as “artist”) should be reflected in your actions, habits, and lifestyle?
I am an artist because I made the conscious decision to pursue art. I knew that I would never feel satisfied until I gave it a real shot as a career. But I also knew that art is an important activity that I’ll always need for my own well-being, whether or not I ever make a sale. About six months ago, I wrote down my decision. I reviewed it and re-wrote it. Many times. I still do on a regular basis. When almost every force in the world is pulling you away from art, you will not succeed without consistently renewing your commitment to it. It's like the the commitment you make at your wedding. But much more important.
I am an artist because my conscious decision has empowered me to intentionally cultivate creative habits. During the last half-year I’ve completed more paintings than the previous 31 years as a hobbyist combined. And I’ve kept at it even though it was becoming more of an expensive hobby than a profitable opportunity (or even a break-even opportunity).
I am an artist because I promote art as a sacred but accessible activity. (Call me the Martin Luther of art.) I’ve come to enjoy painting at public events because I think (or hope) that it gives non-artists a demystifying glimpse into the process. It is my mission to show spectators that creating art is fun and rewarding, but it can also be messy and imperfect. There’s no magic and therefore no reason not to try!
I am an artist because I share. Yes, art often is personal and solitary. But I want my art out there in the world for people to see. And I’m not waiting for sales and gallery shows. There are so many other opportunities to display your work (and paint in public) and I’ve been taking advantage of them. Any true artist would.
I am an artist because I want to get better. I know that I'm pretty good, but I'm not satisfied. I respect the activity enough to seek mastery. I hold my work to a high standard and I can be pretty hard on myself. It keeps me hungry to get better. Whatever the craft, if you don't seek improvement, you don't deserve to call it yours.
But ultimately, if I were to be completely honest, I identify as an artist because of a single defining moment. I was doing my first live painting event, initially feeling a little nervous and inadequate compared to the other artists there. But I was getting a lot of nice feedback on the paintings that I was displaying. At one point, a friend asked me how I was feeling about the night. Before I could answer that the night couldn’t be any better, a girl passing by stopped to check out my display of paintings. At the instant she saw one of the paintings, I saw her become awestruck. Her eyes lit up and a big smile appeared. She lunged forward to take a closer look. Before walking away, she eagerly searched a nearby table for my card and walked off. She had no idea I was watching her.
If I can inspire this kind of reaction in another human being with a painting, I am an artist.
That experience. The indescribable feeling that I felt. The feeling that I have the power to affect another human being emotionally in this way. This is what it’s like to *be an artist*. I want to call it the “artist’s high."
Now I know why an artist will continue to hustle despite that challenges of finding material success in art. (It’s why I haven't given up.) Artists want to feel that feeling again. And again. Just like the addict seeking his fix, the artist at work is chasing that dragon.
(Sidenote: I bet we’d see less addiction if more of us were experiencing an artist’s high or something similar on a consistent basis.)
Don’t believe me? Try it. Go create something beautiful. Something with significant meaning to you. It can be a drawing or a poem or a collage or a meal. Share it. Talk about where it came from and what it means to you. What kind of response do you get? How does it make you feel?