What Does it Take to be a ‘Real’ Artist?
Is it fame? Money? Success?
I used to think that there was only one way to be a “great” artist.
To be single-minded with your craft, to devote yourself to it, body and soul. To make it your priority in life. To make it your career.
The “great” artists never did anything by half measures, so we’re told. It’s noble to starve for your art. It’s entirely appropriate to pin your self-worth, your identity, on “the audience”. On whether or not you end up “making a living” from your art. On whether or not you get published, or get “discovered” by an agent, or get your own exhibition, or one million views on Youtube. Whatever the metric of success is defined as in your field — regardless if the majority of artists try to reach it and fail — you must strive for that, and if you do not, you are what you’ve always secretly feared, not a “real” artist.
In a world that values time as money, it follows that the time spent on art must have monetary value. And if the market doesn’t want to pay money for that art, then the art must therefore not have value. Therefore, you’re only a “true artist” if people pay you money for your art, and if they don’t pay you enough to quit your day job, then you’d better have gained fame and prestige from your work. If not, you’re nothing but a common dabbler, a hobbyist, one upon whom superior artists smile with condescension.
In fact, why make art at all if you’re not going to be famous right? If you don’t make an indelible mark in history? Why even try?
If you can’t become a full-time artist one day, what’s all the effort even for?
In real life, very few of us have the luxury of being able to make art full time. And despite our best efforts, only a fraction of us will become globally famous.
After I left university, several major life crises hit me at once. I had to support myself, and a loved one, on a minimum wage job. I became depressed, stressed, overwhelmed and fatigued. Many things I once enjoyed became stale and lifeless for a time, including the novel I had been working on before these events. My priorities shifted, and life was a stoic struggle to hold on to what I most cared about.
During this time, I made more art than ever. Most of which was only meant for one other pair of eyes than mine. Those drawings were not the most technically accomplished things I’ve ever created, and you’ll never see them in a gallery. But they were for my suicidal fiancé, to comfort him while he lay sleepless night after night in a jail cell, wracked with grief and guilt and self-hatred.
He told me he gazed at them for hours at a time, these coloured pencil drawings, pressing his hand to the wall, holding them up. During the lockdown hours when the lights never go out, and the suicidal urges were strongest, my pictures were a lifeline until he could speak to me again. They reminded him of his promise to me, not to let go. Just for one more night. And then for just one more.
He said they saved his life.
That realisation, that my art, as unsophisticated as it may be, had the power to hold a person to sanity and to life, night after night, completely flipped my view on what makes “real art”.
Perhaps it doesn’t have to be critical acclaim, or money, or the adulation of millions.
I won’t deny that those things aren’t nice to have. Nor will I say that I wouldn’t like to achieve those markers of external or economic validation. But I have realised that it’s not the reason I create.
Creativity isn’t a static thing, it isn’t a job, it isn’t a lifestyle, it is embedded within the fabric of life. It is the way you look at the world, the way you share yourself with others, the way the act of sharing gives form and dimension to the nebulous images and emotions in your mind.
I used to worry that if I had a career in something other than art, that I would be “selling out”, that I would lose the creativity that gives my moments so much colour and meaning. That I would become a grey corporate drone, and eventually no longer even remember the person I used to be, or even feel sorrow that I had lost that part of myself.
But I’ve realised that it’s impossible. Making art is a natural part of life and takes many forms. For myself, I write, draw pictures, create flamboyant headdresses and costumes for daily life. I sometimes make videos. I want art to be an eternal part of my life. But I now realise that it is not an “either-or”. I don’t have to give up everything else. The Muse is not jealous.
I can be a “real” artist, and many other things besides. I want to be a Renaissance woman. I want to experience many different types of profession, live many different lives. I am a corporate salesperson now — I may later become a psychologist, a teacher, a community builder, an off-grid farmer, a world traveller, a shaman, a mother or a host of other things. And that desire is not incompatible with the desire to be an artist and a writer.
Getting out of the habit of regular art-making isn’t good for me — not because it means I’ll never be “successful” at art, but because art is healthy for my psyche the way clean eating and exercise is healthy for my body.
The making of art nourishes creativity and exercises your perception and communication. It makes you better at seeing the beauty in the world — gives you the ability to transform the ordinary into the meaningful and profound. It gives you the ability to take on the perspectives of others, and allows you to shape your feelings into messages that can reach the hearts of those your communicate with. When you make art you are sharing, and being seen. An act of vulnerability that makes the impulse better.
The artworks I sent my fiancé were a tangible message of what I feel for him, transformed beyond the simple words of “I love you” into a multidimensional experience that engaged directly with his psyche in a way that connected with him powerfully. On my side, the process of creating the art was a chance to meditate on my love, and the forms it takes.
The novel I have gotten back into writing, is an attempt to share the visions and stories I’ve imagined, that have so profoundly affected me, with people I love and care about, so that they too might feel what I felt. I want to share with them an experience that is important to me. At the same time, the process of writing itself gives me the chance to make my thoughts more real. My characters become even more fully alive as I write them. My book is a gift I am creating, which gives back to me during the process of writing.
And so, I am content. I make my art, and it enriches my life. Maybe one day I will be famous. Maybe I will not. But either way, in myself and my art, I am happy.