The Misunderstood Artist
Once, when an acquaintance found out that I interviewed rock musicians for newspapers and magazines, he looked at me incredulously and gulped, “Why would you hang out with a bunch of lazy drug addicts?” I was stunned by his judgmental response but maintained my composure. Then I calmly explained that since my late teens, I’ve felt a kinship with artists (especially musicians) much like the way someone might find a curious desire to save the whales. Yes, some artists are narcissists who are in it for the wrong reasons. But what could be more holy than someone baring their soul in the form of a song that relates to others? A song is like a carrier pigeon sending a message to its Creator. The message isn’t always pretty but art, in general, seems to be one of the most sincere forms of prayer.
I wasn’t surprised when he didn’t get it. The plight of artists is often misunderstood.
It’s been over a decade since that conversation and I don’t think my position has changed much. If anything, I’ve come to believe that everyone is inherently artistic. I’ve never met a person who wouldn’t rather be absorbed in their own unique state of creation and meditation. Maybe they’d rather spend their day trying to distract snails from an abundant tomato plant so they could harvest the fruit. I’ve met people who sell air fresheners for a living but would rather spend their days smearing bright, oozy acrylics across a scratchy white canvass. The truth is, there’s an artist in all of us because we were all once children whose primary motivation it was to play. That is, until we were systematically indoctrinated into adulthood. As the multi-talented Pablo Picasso postulated, “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.” Children who lose themselves in their creative desires are adorable. They’re even encouraged, “You should be an artist when you grow up!” until they do and then these same individuals face cultural — and sometimes familial — challenges. Living out one’s inner artist can be a lonely life of deprivation. So, we artists have been attempting to adapt in different ways.
“Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.”
— Pablo Picasso
Artists in Denial
After schooling, some go into creative careers like advertising or video production, thinking that a playful work environment will satisfy their nature. But, oftentimes, it doesn’t. Office politics, rigid strategic guidelines and over-editing often kills the creative. Those who stick it out in these jobs can earn a respectable salary and fit in with society. But in some artist’s families, anything short of a career as a doctor or a lawyer is a blemish to the family name. Still, despite Darwinian logic, social and parental heeding, some artists — whose blood runs hot and thick with unstoppable creativity — are compelled to declare themselves a full-time artist. Why? Because abandoning their art would be far worse than being ostracized. As one musician privately shared with me, “I don’t want to be a musician. I have to.”
The secret desire of almost every creative person I’ve met (including myself) is to let the artistic soul breathe and flourish in the hopes that the world will mysteriously conspire to make that process livable and sustainable. She believes that when she creates, she transforms into a vessel for the Truth; whether that Truth is beautiful, ugly, sarcastic or reprehensible. It’s a communal thing, not a colony thing. C.S. Lewis wrote, “We read to know we are not alone.” While this is true, it seems all art is created so we know we are not alone – that we are not just ants. More selfishly, this artist longs to have her work recognized the way human life is validated when a fetal heartbeat is detected on an ultrasound. She wants her heartbeat to be heard otherwise she feels nonexistent. But, of course, most artists, (even the “successful” ones) don’t get recognized which means they also don’t earn enough money to pay off loans and bills. When the world doesn’t conspire the way she hoped it would, more choices must be made. As the French painter, Henri Matisse, advised, “You have to be stronger than your gifts to protect them.”
More selfishly, this artist longs to have her work recognized the way human life is validated when a fetal heartbeat is detected on an ultrasound.
Doing it Alone
Someone with an “I can take care of myself” personality might consciously abandon his art for a while and get a “real job” that isn’t very creative. That is, until his inner whisper to create gets louder and louder. He might try to solicit his talent to the company like a dog leaves a dead mouse in its food bowl as an honorable gift for its owners. But when the dead mouse offering fails, he resorts to secretly using the company time to satisfy the rebellious artist within. To this point, I remember watching a co-worker stay in the office long after all of the bosses left so he could use the laser printer and run off copies of his screenplays. Unbeknownst to his employer, he probably ran off thousands of pages. He’s now living in L.A. as a screenwriter. More often, however, the employee maintains a double life as a worker and a secret artist while the company turns a blind eye so long as the work is getting done. But for the artist, this career choice represents a life of entrapment and frustration. As Picasso protested, “When you have something to say, to express, any submission becomes unbearable in the long run. One must have the courage to make a living from one’s vocation. The ‘second career’ is an illusion!” Which leads us to the starving artist.
There’s another route the self-sufficient personality takes: Instead of getting a “real job,” she might dig her proverbial heels into the murky sod by refusing to “sell out” and drain her life savings as she spends a year or two trying to make it as a full-time artist. She’s most comfortable hanging with other artists; couch-crashing and dime-digging between dust mite-infested cushions for survival. And when she has a few dollars to spare, she spends it on supporting other local artists. And this brings me back to the acquaintance I mentioned at the beginning. What most lapsed-artists don’t understand is that the life of an artist is holy in that there’s self sacrifice and a commitment to charity. When a local band goes to support another local band’s gig, the experience actually mimics the feeling one gets when they’ve given to a good cause. The trouble, of course, is that in the context of starving artists, the hands of giving and the hands of receiving are constantly rotating; And artistic poverty is perceived to be a choice rather than the unavoidable circumstance of the disenfranchised.
Probably the most ideal career route of an artist is to diversify artistic endeavors. Since we’re not living in the Baroque period, maybe a sculptor can get paid teaching pottery classes through the local junior college while also working at a four-star restaurant so she can network and sell handcrafted dishes while she gets commissioned to sculpt busts for independent art collectors. Having multiple sources of income helps pay the bills. However, this overactive, overworked lifestyle can also deplete a person over time. An artist in their 20’s might be able to juggle three or four artistic jobs but as she rises into middle age, the routine becomes exhausting.
Artists Seeking Support
There are artists who subconsciously seek out a dependent when they realize the universe is not cooperating. The supporter (usually a lapsed artist themselves) is responsible, diligently checking off the milestones of the American Dream and in doing so, underwrites the artist’s journey. However, when the inequities of the relationship start to reveal themselves, and the investor isn’t seeing the strong dividends he or she expected, the relationship starts to falter. The sad reality is that the people who inspire the artist are usually not the same people who support their daily existence. Put bluntly: Active artists are inspired by other active artists. So caught in stagnation, this artist finds ways to escape while simultaneously clinging to security.
The artists I’ve interviewed the most escape their ordinary world by going to and putting on live shows. More than just a performance, concerts are really snatches of time that represent what life could be like if everyone surrendered to music. Outsiders misunderstand the scene as a place for egos and self-indulgence. And it definitely can resemble that. But it can also be a holy communion with others. The energy that comes from a band that’s connecting with one another, connecting with its audience and soulfully grappling with humanity on a stage is profound. After the show, it’s as if a beautiful world diminishes as each person gets forced back into that complicated system of survival – riddled with social mores and folkways.
So, how can the artists get along with lapsed-artists and vice versa? The answer might be tolerance.
If, as a country, we’re developing a tolerance for people who can’t help being “different,” then being a lifelong artist should be on that list. And maybe the supporters need to ask themselves these questions: Are you disappointed in the artist you currently support or are you mad at yourself for rejecting your inner artist? Have you considered that maybe you’re really mad at America for constantly upgrading “the dream” that’s become unsustainable as it takes its toll on the human spirit? Whatever your answers might be, it’s important to recognize that we’re all taking a journey here on Storybook Earth. American Culture might’ve titled every chapter for you (childhood, college, career, dating, marriage, mortgage, children, retirement, etc), but at some point, you might need to consider that you are your own artist creating yourself.
And for the artist, you might want to ask yourself these questions: Whose voice comes through your art? What are you releasing through your art? Is it possible that the refusal to “sell out” is really the over-identification with your art? Yourself? Are you afraid of losing yourself or that you’re already lost?
Are you afraid of losing yourself or that you’re already lost?
And in Conclusion…
I’m not exactly sure why these words just spilled out of me. Maybe the real reason I’m writing this is that I’m at crossroads (again) where I’ve been putting my art out there and the universe has not (yet) risen up. Once again, I have to step up my “real job” which will steal even more time away from writing and drumming. Author and New Thought minister, Michael Bernard Beckwith, describes the dark night of the soul as a time when you’re not who you used to be and not yet who you’re going to be. These days I feel like I’m a piece of art that has always known who she wants to be but isn’t sure if the artist making her shares the same vision. Hopefully, this life force that’s now pulling me (no longer pushing me) has something even better in store than anything I could’ve ever imagined.
And, I hope the same happens for you too…
The featured image is “Untitled” (Oil on canvass) by Amy Baran Belonio. For more artwork by Amy Baran Belonio, click here.
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