For the true artist, there’s no glamor to art, just hard work and satisfaction. There’s no divine inspiration, or superhuman qualities, as much as we’d like to believe that. Sure, some things come easier to some people, and some folks have a different way of seeing than ourselves, and all of this comes out in the creative work, but much like the saying, so flippantly used to reference artists with vision, who’ve done the hard work, “they’re ahead of their time…” Actually, they’re exactly in the time they’re in, and some folks just don’t get it, so it’s contextualized in a way that makes it more about the art and less about the incomprehensibility of the work.
The work is just that, and like work it’s also hard, stressful, frequently exhausting and often to the detriment of one’s mental or emotional well-being, sometime both.
But in that place where the artist lives, whether through process or product, the satisfaction of having done the good work, the right work, their own work, and their own thing is the only glamor, reward or external they’ll ever need. At least that’s what I’ve found to be the case.
It’s everywhere, and the present observer is fortunate enough to see it in everything; I’m talking about beauty of course. However, there are those times when we’re somewhere that feels completely devoid, not just of natural beauty, but of even man-made beauty.
For starters, this is a state of mind, more than anything, because truly beauty is seemingly everywhere if you can just find it, but a question I’ve pondered at more than one employer when working as a graphic designer or content writer is where can I get inspiration when I don’t see beauty or inspiration in anything. I’ve talked about variations of this dilemma many times before, but what I’ve found is that there are a couple things that you can do.
Since we’re usually locked at a desk when this feeling kicks in and I’m sure that this feeling of not being free plays a significant part in the process, but if we assume this part can’t be helped, we can start with:
The “things that have inspired me” file. Everyone who has to be creative on demand should have one of these. Keep a file of the various things that have inspired you and made you feel creative. It will come in very handy. Sometimes, we can even borrow ideas right from these files and then use them or restructure them in a way that suits our needs… Or you can just steal ‘em outright, and say to hell with it… 100% originality can’t happen everyday, even if we want to believe otherwise…
There’s also what I call the Oblique Strategies approach, which is an allusion to set of cards developed by Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt in the 1970s that has one ask various questions to change up their current thought process. This is a great tool and interesting process geared towards stimulating creative thought, but in my version, you don’t need the cards, you just focus on something, an object like a pencil, pen, a ceiling tile pattern or the pattern in the carpet until you no longer see the the object of your focus as the words that you associate with it and instead you begin to see something different, actually something that’s beyond the word and language you’ve assigned to it. This is a neat little exercise for breaking yourself out of a mindspace that’s devoid of wonder and beauty, because through this little meditation you’re put back in touch with that timeless space before things had names and a symbolic place in your psyche.
These are just a few ways I do it, and I’d love to hear about how other approach this.
That’s the thing about being an artist. No matter where, what or how you do things, you’ve realized that there’s no shortcut with emotional labor. Emotional labor means caring about what you do and putting all of yourself into something, not because you feel obliged, or it’s easy, but because that’s the only way to do it — that’s the only answer. When it comes time to solve a problem or complete a task, the artist gets to work. They know that there aren’t any shortcuts. You have to pull the figure from the block of wood, use the blank space of the canvas to create a new world, take invisible frequencies and pitches and organize them into a melody or a symphony.
No good work gets done without doing the emotional labor. Even physical work, especially physical work, contains a piece of yourself, a self that is inextricably linked to an emotional something deeper than merely, mindlessly moving your muscle to complete a given task. With the act of the physical and the creative, you’re all in; there’s no substitute and when the artist attempts to supplement emotional labor with some other force of will, often the outcome is dissatisfying exhaustion that depletes and enervates you.
For the artist, doing the emotional labor is the only way.
Recently, I was struck listening to a very seasoned artist, a world-class, world-famous concert violinist. Perhaps it was an off day, or the tenth interview regarding a new release, but what little they had to say fell very flat. Near the end, the interviewer was able to get more out of them, and able to get a little more enthusiasm about the work that they were discussing, but as I was thinking about our role as artists, if we can’t advocate for our own work, how we can expect any one else to do it either?
If you’re not inspired by your work, if you don’t ache with the thought of doing it, or telling someone about it, or just discussing the profound beauty of it, then why the hell are you doing it? Life is too short to live someone else’s life or to do something that’s not your own. At least, that’s what I’ve always told myself.
For some of us, it’s very easy to talk about ourselves, but for others of us, in my experience, the most creative or inspired, it’s very hard. Because the artist spends so much time steeped in their inspiration and creativity it can become hard to do the self-promotion work and talk about yourself, your process, or most importantly, the art, but we have to. We have to be the greatest advocates of our work. Now, there’s a fine line here, a self-promoting narcissist is a bummer, and sucks the life out of people and conversations, whereas an artist talking with passion and energy about their work spreads this passion like a contagion without a flag that says “look at me, look at me! I’m special!”.
We have to be able to talk about ourselves and our work, if we don’t how can we expect anybody else to.
Not everyone’s an artist. I’ve heard that said many times. I’ve also heard that artists aren’t made, they’re born. In many ways this parallels the discussion about leaders, and whether they’re born or made. I don’t know if artists are born or made. I don’t know if inspiration is something that we all experience, though I have to believe that a wide swath of the world population experiences this, even if it’s only to make a grill cheese sandwich or a flower box outside one’s window.
Maybe this starts to get into what it means to be an artist. An artist gets inspired, an artist has vision, an artist has a commitment to their work and continuing to push the envelope on their work. An artist understands craft, even becomes a craft person, but always works towards the goal of their vision and what they see for their art.
Maybe everyone isn’t an artist. Maybe the act of making art or being creative doesn’t necessarily make someone an artist, but any one of us can make the commitments and be dedicated in ways that I’ve mentioned above. We can choose to be inspired; we can choose to have vision and follow it; we can choose to be committed to our work and be dedicated to that work.
So, yeah, I still don’t know if everyone can be an artist. Certainly, I’ve met many folks who believe it’s an exclusive club, but I can tell you this: In a world where being creative and making art is much better and more satisfying than a world without it, I have to believe that everyone can live better with creativity.