Artists engage in a daily battle between the belief their work is worthy—that it can stand the scrutiny of those who know better and it will be well received by critics and customers alike and is ready for publication or presentation; and the conviction that it is a complete waste of time—that it is predictable or trite or tiresome, will sit on shelves or in bins without so much as a glance, and a dozen better ways to approach the topic will become apparent while the brutal reality that no other creative work will ever emerge remains crystal clear.
Artists, writers, work for free, hoping, praying, someone, anyone, will order the book just out of support, just out of curiosity. There is no health care, there is no retirement plan, there is no guarantee the time invested wasn’t simply folly. There is no yard stick to measure how well it is going, how much longer it will take, which parts need attention, and which deserve to be deleted. Often, artists stare at the medium for hours, fiddling around, snacking, cleaning, engaging in any form of distraction and avoidance. On a good day, a writer may have a good page, sometimes three or four, and every once in a while, lightning strikes, but an artist lives with the strong possibility of waking up the next morning and chucking the whole project. Artists have panic attacks, breakdowns, and bad habits. They drink. They swear. It is the creative version of coping, of loosening the tie, but the work is never finished, unless one buys into Rembrandt’s insistence that a work is finished when an artist realizes the intentions.
Few occupations demand the tenets of faith like that of an artist. If they agree with Kahlo and paint their own reality, then artists demonstrate daily the belief in things unseen, constantly starting from scratch, always inventing, and always—by definition—always searching for originality in a world flooded with ideas and blogs and podcasts and books, and still the artist works in one of the original exercises of pure faith, well knowing that Gauguin was right, that art is either revolution or plagiarism.
An artist wants to scream “buy my book,” “purchase this painting,” “please listen to my music.” An artist wants to balance the need to promote her work with not wanting to come across as egocentric when in fact the very act of creating something from nothing under the conviction others will want to make it part of their lives is a level of egoism few professions demand. An artist deals with these tugs of war between humility and pride. The tug of war, as Merton writes, of finding oneself and losing oneself at the same time.
An artist keeps working because it is a race against time to not “die with the music in you” as Wayne Dwyer noted, with stories on the cusp of creation, with unfinished work, with incomplete manuscripts, because two things are absolute: one lifetime cannot accommodate the ideas and works and starts and restarts of an artist, and they will die sooner rather than later and it is coming on fast, no matter how long they will actually live, because perception is different for an artist, hence the need as James Baldwin insists, to vomit up the anguish.
An artist cries because so much time is wasted. An artist cries because it is impossible, it is just impossible to capture the turmoil in humanity, but the artist tries to abide by Pollock and paint “what he is” by sketching another river, writing another digression, composing another score where an oboe comes in high and slow in some minor-key attempt to capture the sadness which, anyway, a true artist well knows she will never aptly express, because all artists know that Rodin was right—the main thing is to be moved, to love, to hope, to tremble, to live.
If one does not have a bestseller, a gallery, an audience, people consider the art a fleeting phase, never completely understanding the difference between art and commodity. An artist wants sales, of course, but only for the purpose of having the time to produce more art. An artist is disturbed by negative reviews and criticism, of course, but works anyway. If a benefactor bestows funds for an artist to keep working without the stress of financial burdens so common in the creative world, that artist will produce. But for certain if no such benefactor exists, the artist works anyway, finds the freedom necessary anyway, producing the same work anyway, because the artist knows what Monet knew, that the richness comes from nature—the true source of inspiration. The world is graced with art because some people must create as certain as they must exhale, as certain as Chagall’s belief that the artist simply picks up where nature left off.
Artists are not amateurs, they are not hobbyists. An artist will spend hours figuring out the necessity of one word, an artist will step back after two months work and scrape off the paint of an oak to move it one inch for a better composition, an artist cannot eliminate a note or a phrase. An artist wants to leave a mark, believes, as did Trotsky, that art is not a mirror to hold up to society but a hammer with which to shape it.
Artists are shooting for something else, and in the end the art is merely a symptom of their desire to express the inexplicable. Because in the soul of an artist is the deep understanding and resignation that, as van Gogh insisted, the true artist works not with brushes and canvas but with flesh and blood, believing first in humanity.
An artist is never quite certain of her mental stability but has complete faith that how she behaves is perfectly normal. Virginia Woolf, Eugene O’Neil, Beethoven, Keats, Tennessee Williams, Vincent van Gogh, Hemingway, Sylvia Plath, Michelangelo, Charles Dickens all lived with mental illnesses and any artist worth his salt will insist if any element of these great souls had been more regulated, more controlled, we would never have heard of them.
Georgia O’Keefe was right: Whether you succeed or not is irrelevant, there is no such thing. Making your unknown known is the important thing, that is success. Something is that was not but for an acute thought, some simmering neurosis only settled by the act of creation. Hence poetry, literature, paintings, symphonies, and all.
An artist can quench the stress and anxiety of bill collectors and illnesses, of hunger and sleeplessness, by producing two or three decent pages, by catching the color of what will forever be last night’s sunset. An artist makes beauty permanent, makes our deepest emotional reactions permissible.
We walk that tight rope spanning obscurity, balanced only by a pole of phrases and transitions, of oil and acrylics, minor keys and crescendos. Walt Whitman had his Leaves of Grass, but an artist has a blank sheet of paper. This leaves the advantage with the artist. Everyone knows the work Whitman wrote and how it still grows in the literary field, but an artist has the uncriticable blank sheet of paper, and with the right choice of words, he may harvest his own Grass. To be an artist, Henry Moore said, is to believe in life, and life is mystery, and mystery is the flint which ignites creativity, without which, as Rene Magritte points out, the world would not exist.