“Can anyone be an artist?”
When faced with studio time, I am often both excited and terrified. Much of the terror comes back to what it might mean to be an artist. If you are asking this question for yourself I am guessing there is some stirring in you, a part that wants to explore some kind of art. If this is the case, I suggest you stop reading this, try to forget this question, and just get curious about the world and explore it with whatever medium excites you.
Ok, for you who are still stuck on the question, you are in good company, it has haunted me over the years and gotten in the way of creative endeavors. So let’s dissect the questions a little and see what the question is about for you. I am guessing that being crowned with the title of “artist” seems like it will do something for you? Here are three groups of questions to help figure that out.
Are you asking because you wonder if being an artist is inborn or a skill you can develop? Are you in the middle of a project wondering if you can pull it off, asking if this is normal artist struggle or finally showing that you an imposter? Maybe asking if you’re capable of creating something beautiful? Or are you considering renting an artist space or showing work to the public and want to know if you will be able to make it fly? Do you wonder if you can produce something that matters and impacts the world?
How can you respond to your own self doubting parts from your wisdom now?
Are you asking because you wonder if you should identify yourself as an artist on a profile or in your CV? Do you wonder if you belong with others who call themselves artists? Would you be accepted as an artist by other artists? Do you worry about being Artsy enough?
How can you address your needs to belong buried underneath the desire to be called an artist?
Are you asking because you need permission or justification to spend your time making art? Maybe you have a hunch you are an artist, but aren’t sure you are allowed to spend the time and resources? People are starving, how can you buy paint? Will you be good enough to justify the use of time and resources? Will others begrudge your hiding away while working on your craft?
What would you tell a friend if they told you they were struggling with justifying spending time and money on art? Ok, can you tell your permission-seeking parts that same thing?
Hopefully, this begins to give you a little more clarity on what needs are at stake for you in asking the question. Now I just want to look at the question of being an artist from another direction.
“Tam Gan” Tam Gan, By Robert Henri — 1914,
Instead of Trying to Be an Artist, Try to Find the “Wonderful State”
Robert Henri the painter said, ”The object isn’t to make art, it’s to be in that wonderful state which makes art inevitable.” Sure, there are others who are probably more talented, more creative and with more technical ability…so what? Should you not work to enter that “wonderful state,” that place of attempting to see the world as it is, to describe your experience in a medium, honing technical abilities to more faithfully articulate what you see, and just be more fully engaged in the mystery of the world through the process of making art? So what helps in finding that “wonderful state?”
State of Empathic Attunement to the Subject
It is not calling oneself an artist that creates art, but finding your way to that “wonderful state.” My hunch is that two things really matter here. First, a mindful state of empathic attunement to the subject. All great art is built on empathic insight. Style doesn’t make art great, but rather attunement that creates fresh new forms. Van Gogh wasn’t trying to invent a new style, he was just trying to faithfully paint the world as he experienced it. The ancient contemplative practices of stillness, silence and solitude are perhaps the most direct roads to empathic attunement to your subject. Great artmaking is always the residue of heroic mindfulness. There are no shortcuts.
Artmaking Tools as Prosthetic Extensions
The second practice that helps find “that wonderful state”, is developing an intimate relationship with a medium and the accompanying tools that fit your vision. When eating, due to many years of practice, you don’t think about how to use a fork. The tool has become a prosthetic extension allowing you to enjoy your dinner. Playing scales helps make the technical movements become so automatic that you can focus on musicality. Asking how you can deepen the sympathetic connection with your artmaking tools, helps you figure out the scales for your art that will free you to create.
Asking yourself if you are an artist is distracting to getting into this zone, this “wonderful state.” I doubt if just anyone could be a painter, or musician, or dancer, but I do believe that humans seem to thrive when pursuing activities in which they slow down, deeply attend to the magical world of forms, relationships, systems, structures, and internal movements and then find ways of embodying those empathic insights in some way.
Lower Danube, by Joel Klepac
When liberated enough, humans are curious and creative by nature. There is no need to prove anything, just to celebrate the mystery of existence through your artmaking. The ancient world is full of breathtaking art made by people who probably never considered themselves artists. If it is in you to write, write. If it is in you to animate, do it. If you are fascinated with French cuisine, give it a shot.
So to your confidence questions, I would say, you are good enough to grow in your ability to see, respond to the world by creating something, and working on your relationship with your tools. You belong, not because you are a particular kind or quality of artmaker, but because you are part of the human race full of curious and creative people who thrive when they can find that wonderful state. I suggest finding a group of creatives to help nurture your creative growth. And lastly, your desire to make art is your permission.
So, can anyone be an artist? Let’s settle the question, if you make art you are an artist, sure, whatever, now forget about that and seek to find that “wonderful state which makes art inevitable.”