There seems to be a sort of air around being an artist-- or, to be more specific: beginning to make art, when you have not previously. As someone who draws not infrequently, I get it a lot.
“Oh, I wish I could draw!” “I can only do stick figures!” So on and so forth.
It is, in case you have not noticed, something of an awkward position to be in. It would not be proper, really, to grab someone by the shoulders and espouse that anyone can draw, anyone can paint, anyone can whittle or sculpt, anyone can write music-- anyone can do anything, for the floodgates of creation are not a locked door, and there is no better time to begin than now. I mean, I do so anyways, but people do not really believe me.
It is true, though, that there is nothing stopping someone from creating. Creation seems to have followed humanity from our very origins-- herds of cows collecting across the walls of caves, vases adorned with goats and water birds, clusters of hand prints on stone, asking us to remember them. It is fulfilling! It allows for the spread of ideas! It keeps your mind sharp! It’s just plain fun! And yet, nonetheless, I see people-- and even myself, at times, in regards to skills I do not really have-- look at art and feel both a fierce envy and a deep anxiety over the idea of doing it for oneself, of being a (sidenote: I do not think people are obligated to be anything more than a ‘beginner,’ if they do not wish to view their art-making as a thing built-- but I digress. )
It begins here, I think:
“Oh, you paint? Well, are you any good?”
The first thing people often tell me when they see my art for the first time, or even the thousandth time, is that I am so very talented.
The first thing my brain jumps to in reply is: no, I am not. I have shaky hands, and aspects of the drawing process that some would consider simple are challenging for me. I might be good in that medium, but don’t get me wrong-- I’m utterly terrible in this one.
While there is certainly an element of self-depreciation in here, the gut-deep revulsion to being called talented is most certainly something else. Am I affronted; have my sensibilities been offended? Well, yes-- I am, and they have been, because the statement is wrong, irrelevant to how bad I am at art on some half-arbitrary, ill-fated objective measure, and irrelevant to my mind’s instinctual jump to self depreciation.
The idea of having talent implies that of a miraculous, natural aptitude; my art was born in a flurry of genius, a genius that needed no foolish or petty things such as classes or training or practice. Having talent scrubs clean the need for dirty things: putting down the bow or brush or pen to stretch the fingers and wipe sweat from one’s brow, the weird looking studies in the sketchbook or the splintered wood or the entrance that was off by a measure, the currency of time spent to practice, practice, practice.
Having talent leaves nothing but (sidenote: Metaphorically speaking. Nothing against sculptors who use marble. ) , and an artist that creates nothing but perfection and masterpieces. That artist, of course, does not exist. They have never existed. So why do people think it is, or could be, me, or another artist I know, or literally anyone at all?
That is not to say some people can have more of an eye for concepts that would help one with art-making; brains and people are diverse like that, and none should be discounted. But to jump to talent as the source of artistic beauty and talent as something to admire and yearn for obfuscates the truth: art is a skill that is worked for.
Like it or not, every artist is always practicing. Their newest work holds more experience than all the past others combined. And that means, of course, that artistic skill is not unattainable.
Then, of course, there is the other half of the issue.
“Oh, you paint? Well, are you any good?”
Am I any good? Well, I have no idea!
Art is something that is incredibly hard to define on exact terms. The idea of finding beauty in things can shift and tremble and writhe in the ocean of subjectivity. People have different tastes-- a masterpiece to one is “eh, whatever” to another. If all the calculators and computers of the world turned their great capacities to figuring out how to rank art on some sure, objective scale, the Last and Final Truth of what makes Good Art-- we’d be here until the heat death of the universe.
Even discounting all of that: why does it matter? Some people are really and truly dedicated to honing their skills, and are really intent on doing proper form studying that gets them places and fast. They look through books, think about theory as they draw, consider one by one the stormcloud of tips floating around their cranium.
Others don’t care.
And why would they! Art is not the end all be all skill of every single person’s life; more often than not, it isn’t. Hobbyists surely exist! Not wishing to, or just not in general, be somehow Good at Art does not discount the effort and time people put into cultivating their skill. Wishing to be good, rather than to feel good, can be quite stressful. It sucks at the soul, can turn a passion into an obligation, like one is tied at the foot to a concrete ball.
Obsession with being a Good Artist is a slippery slope indeed. It turns into desperation, and desperation turns into overwork, and overwork leads to burnout, and now you feel worthless, and terrible, and the world is terrible, and nothing ever mattered, and you are a Bad Artist who has never amounted to anything in your entire life.
See, the instinct to view an artist’s merit on whether they are good or not can be quite unhealthy-- both to those who are not that into art-making, and the artist in question. It sinks its claws into the brain, the greedy, easily fed maw of insecurity-- and, oh, it is so much harder to convince yourself that you do, indeed, have worth, than to find yourself in such straits in the first place. Is worth and merit not intrinsic to being alive?
Unequivocally, the answer is yes. Unfortunately, the idea that one must be productive to amount to anything is quite pervasive; (sidenote: Think of all those annoying “grindset” folks on Instagram or wherever. Maximize your efficiency! Work 4 jobs! Hustle, hustle, hustle! Pull yourself up by the bootstraps! Beat the system-- just don't think too hard about how inherently fucked up the system is! ) comes from the idea that we must work ad infinitum to be ‘worth it.’ If you do not feel an instinctual feeling of guilt when relaxing or resting or ‘not doing anything,’ then you are lucky indeed! Productivity, like art, is not inherently soul-sucking, but the unhealthy obsession with being Good creates that immense guilt.
“Oh, but Newt, you do not have to worry about that! Of course you’d say it’s good to be bad at art-- because you’re good at it! I think you are a Good Artist-- don’t spurn a compliment! You don’t have to base your merits on your creations at all!”
I see people be quite grandiose about it, how much art is part of their lives. And I do find something in that; art is, one could say, my main redeeming quality.
Of course, that is quite a cruel thing to say about myself. But see, it is so much easier to type this:
Yeah, I guess I draw. It’s nothing much, though, mainly people and they’re pretty stylized. People compliment my color usage all the time, when in actuality I use cheats-- I don’t really understand color theory, you know. I often try to diversify my subjects, but I get so easily frustrated. And I draw comics, though most that I’ve started or planned I haven’t finished. I never seem to finish anything, and I’m sorry about that. And in every picture I draw or every thing I write or every passage I play I find a million little mistakes-- and I know for a fact that you see them too, and I swear I practice every day at fixing them, and making something better.
I have a pretty good eye for color, and I love using interesting or even wacky color combinations. I love visual symbolism, and people feel smart when they notice it and piece it together. My rendering style pairs well with experimental decorative elements; the combination is stunning! I am good at worldbuilding and get very intricate with it. I can draw all sorts of facial features and do not struggle at all with “same face syndrome,” as it is called. I have so much to learn, and it’s great! I’m a good and accomplished artist!
I was not kidding when I said it is much harder to regain confidence than to lose it. And feelings such as these haunt nearly every artist I know, and sister feelings seem to frequently plague friends and compatriots who wish to make art and yet are paralyzed in their (sidenote: I do not want to say it is inevitable, but it surely feels that way. The more I draw, the more there seems to be an expectation to make art as a skill ‘marketable,’ which has soured some kinds of encouragement for me. This kind of pressure to make yourself ‘marketable’ is quite common and not exclusive to art skills at all-- and I do despise it. ) See, that is the consequence of this elevation of the Good Artist-- “Oh, I wish I could draw! I only draw stick figures-- I can play chopsticks and that’s about it-- my figures seem so wonky-- I’m just so utterly terrible. I really do wish I could but I would never be as good as you.”
That is not to say that artists cannot be good, or should not be good-- but the Good Artist, that unattainable, ideal fool, seems to only spurn unhealthy ideas regarding our own worth in regards to skill, ‘talent,’ creativity, and productivity. Creativity is a dancing, fleeting thing, one that shines so brilliantly, one that enriches life so deeply-- it is terrible, then, when it seems to become obligation and a thing that haunts.
Do I have a solution for this seemingly inescapable endless spiral of comparison, talent, and the need to be good? Well, no. Unfortunately the best advice I can give is: create anyways.
There’s something fulfilling about working with your hands. Cutting at wood to form instrument bodies, moving a needle up and down through fabric, rolling clay like dough under my palms, binding leafs of paper to covers, putting a brush or pen or pencil on canvas or paper or tablet surface and getting a neat picture out of it, working at ingredients in a pan and in a pot; this, that. Physical work is less appealing to some than others, and it can be surely hard work-- as someone with mild disability in multiple directions, I can and do attest-- but nonetheless I think some people need to, on some level, be able to do work and see their efforts come together in a physical form before their eyes. It soothes the soul to see the fruits of your (sidenote: Writing this made my mind jump to Marx's idea of alienation under capitalism-- though that is in regards to all sorts of labor and certainly not only art. I think capitalism stifles the flourishing of art on the lines of forcing an inherently subjective, ineffable thing like art to rely on the whims of marketability and profits, but that's too off topic. )
I think that is why more people should make art-- that, and just the bliss of being creative, no matter in what manner. It won’t be fulfilling for literally everyone, but art is a natural part of the human experience, not some distant and rare talent. I should even say that one does not have to be an artist to make art, much less a Good Artist. You can draw a dog and then nothing else for the rest of your life, you can make funny creatures out of clay and delegate them to paperweights, you can play jigs out of time for your family, you can doodle in your diary for your eyes alone. You can show it off and it does not have to be Good to be worth it.
Parents stick their children’s portrait work to the fridge. Visitors to buildings sit in quiet admiration as they trace the arching ceilings with their eyes. Someone walking to work every day looks at the statue on the sidewalk. Calligraphy and colonnades and relief sculptures inspire faith and awe. Drawing a goofy picture of a friend’s cat makes them smile and laugh. Art is all around us, which is all the more reason to do it, no matter if you are good, an artist, or a Good Artist. For yourself, or for the connections you can foster with others, or both.
So, here. If you need any purpose at all to make art, here it is: because it might bring you joy. Because seeing a finished product form from your own hands is satisfying. Because looking at something older and something newer and seeing how far you’ve come can bring you great pride. Because life can be boring sometimes, and you might need something to do. Because a loved one thinks you’re cool. Because you just feel the impulse, or urge. Because you want to.
Create. Feel good. The world will be better for it, I’m sure.