Home » rumblings of mutiny » Advice from your Uncle Mike » What it takes to be an artist

What it takes to be an artist

Think of the stereotypes. Artists are loners, wild and unruly, enthralled with themselves, beholden to no norms, egoists above all. Whether you approve or not, artists are held to different standards. Think of Picasso, Warhol, Morrison, Joyce. The #MeToo movement has put some cracks in this image, but, I think, without doing any serious damage to the stereotype. Is there a kernel of truth to it?

Maybe. Or better, in part. I think the image of the self-possessed and self-obsessed seer of things the rest of us can’t may be a caricature of a small subset of artists as a whole: those who are successful enough to rise above the mass of humanity and become visible to us. In a word, the famous.

I know a lot of artists — painters, sculptors, photographers, poets, novelists, musicians – who will never be able to quit their day jobs but ply their crafts with as much dedication as anyone. Is it because they’re not as good at it? Some part of it is no doubt that, but who is as good as or better than whom is an elusive quality to pinpoint. I suggest that more of it has to do with precisely those personality traits that make up the stereotype.

Doing art involves rejection and ridicule. A lot of it. A little Googling will turn up dozens of famous writers who collected numerous rejections. As for painters, the term impressionist was first used as a term of ridicule. It’s not hard to find any number of inspirational essays citing these facts and exhorting the artist to stick to it, that perseverance will eventually pay off.

This isn’t one of them. It may payoff, but most likely not much, and that’s not the point. The point is that all the artists you know about had, in addition to the basic skills (and occasional genius) required of their craft, an ability to face up to rejection and ridicule, to keep close an image of themselves as important people with something unique and valuable to contribute to society.

It’s an attribute of character that’s more about success in general than peculiar to art. Think of Steve Jobs, whose self-confidence about knowing more about cancer than cancer researchers actually killed him.

Still, being a little bit wacky doesn’t hurt.

Okay, it hurts, but it’s a gas.

3 thoughts on “What it takes to be an artist

  1. Perseverance is only part of the method.

    I view achieving success as getting somewhere very distant when public transport isn’t reliable and everyone who gives you a route suggests something slightly different.

    Certainly, persevering rather than turning back in the face of closed roads, cancelled trains, and such is necessary to get there, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t easier or harder depending on various factors that aren’t perseverance: for example, if your car breaks down, there’s only so much you can do to get a lift if there isn’t passing traffic or if passing drivers don’t choose to stop; and not everyone even has a car in the first place.

    In the same way, if your book isn’t in a popular genre or doesn’t have the intangible air of what readers want to spend time with now, persevering with adverts, cover changes, description tweaks, &c. will only go so far.

    So, success as an artist involves perseverance; but the purpose of the perseverance is to keep you in the game so you are there to take advantage of all the things that aren’t perseverance.

      • Exactly: you need to be able to keep going if you haven’t had a success recently, but the “easy out” of settling for something rather than striving for your dream and risking never getting there can be just as dangerous.

        Of course, that brings up the need for both the self-awareness and the confidence to accept genuine opinions from others rather than refuse to accept your art isn’t as good as it could be.

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