Observations on the Life of Artists

Katherine Phelps
Copyright 3 February 1997

Cute squiggly.What is the life of an artist like? The problem with the standard myths and stereotypes about the lives of artists is that they have produced generations of young artists who have taken on these stereotypes in order to achieve aesthetic greatness, sometimes resulting in such unneccessary tragedies as substance abuse and suicide. The lives of some of my favourite artists by all accounts were unremarkably human, filled with ordinary joys and sorrows. I have personally known respected artists who are free from any major dysfunctions living mostly healthy and happy lives. These artists are unlikely to have movies made of them to inspire young people by the grand sweep of their emotional experiences, which is a shame. We are all being fed a very skewed vision of the creative life. The vision may be true of a few individuals, but is not a pre-requisite to becoming an enduring artistic figure. I would like to help shatter the myths of artists as victims and figures of tragedy. Having lived through some personal tragedy myself I can assure you that there is no nobility or romance in real misfortune, only in the courage of going on with our lives.

Great artists are meticulous rather than perfectionist. A meticulous artist still knows when it is time to stop and move onto a new project. Perfection is slippery and unattainable---perfect by what standard?

Great artists are focused rather than obsessed. Obsessed artists can lose perspective on their work. Focused artists see the process of completing a work through because they care, because they get a sense of fulfillment from it, not b ecause of a neurotic compulsion. Until they have experienced it for themselves, many people have a hard time imagining anyone making a self-motivated longterm commitment to anything, and yet upon occasion it does happen.

Great artists are self-confident rather than egotistical. Egotistical artists no matter how great are frequently turned down by collaborators and media producers. Such artists end up costing too much in time, aggravation and money. Egotism is the extroverted face of insecurity. Artists do need self-confidence in order to believe in the value of their work and to persistently and honestly put their work before the public. This is a true act of courage.

Great artists are more sensitive than cynical or angst-ridden. Cynicism protects artists from having to be vulnerable to experience, in fact it keeps them from feeling and experiencing anything but the blackest side of life, since that is where they choose to place their focus. It is easy to "dis" things. It is easy to choose to live a life of tragedy. It is a greater challenge to face life as it is as a whole and see it through. The reward for artists sensitive to all experience is access to a broad variety of feeling and therefore an ability to empathise with a broad variety of human perspectives. Great artists also get to genuinely feel such things as joy and wonder.

Great artists make a lifetime committment to expressing their experience. They don't expect greatness in their twenties then spend the rest of their lives bitter because it didn't work out. Great artists are not separate or above the rest of society. They too participate in humanity by virtue of being human. Great artists do have the capacity to make significant contributions to the future of our race, as do many people.

The slimness of some artists' bank accounts is not a measure of their greatness. Commercial success does not preclude people from being artists. All those who express themselves with honesty, skill and integrity have some of the core elements of great art regardless of social position or financial status. As an analogy for contemplating the differences between poor and commercial artists: it may be easy for nuns and monks to live blameless lives in the seclusion of a convent or monastery; however, those facing the challenge of participating in daily life with the rest of humanity may be no less holy.

Artists are not required to starve. No one should expect it of them, nor should they expect it of themselves. Like anyone else artists should expect and de serve fair payment for their work.

People including artists are allowed to enjoy their work and derive from it a sense of fulfillment.

The darkness, impenetrability, intellection and shock value of some artists' work is no guarantee of its value. Clarity, beauty and humour do not preclude other artists' works from being great art.

Finally, success and fame are no true measure of greatness. Artists cannot know if their work will endure beyond their lives: they may be discovered in their lifetime, then be forever forgotten; or only appreciated after their death for perpetuity. Artists can create for their own enjoyment and fulfillment, with a desire that their work be illuminating to the rest of humanity, then they simply have to have faith in its ultimate value.

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