In an age where no matter how much money we have most people want more, and status anxiety is a growing concern, those pursuing the life of an artist can find it difficult to justify their claim. In this blog post I will explain why it’s more vital than ever for artists to be proud and confident, and ignore those who ask ‘What gives you the right to call yourself an artist?’, even if the person asking is you yourself!
After graduating from my fine art degree in 2005, I found myself asking myself this question every time I met someone new. I write this blog post based on the assumption that I am not alone in experiencing these feelings. As a recent graduate I worked a 4 day week in an art shop, I didn’t have sufficient time on my day off to make any work I was proud of, and no one was showing or collecting my work, yet despite all this when I met someone at a party who asked me what I did for a living I invariably responded with the words “I am an artist”. How on earth could I have made that claim?
I have only really just experienced “success” (to others) or “recognition” (to me) as an artist. I have work in a couple of galleries and have shown at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition, and admittedly, as a result of this I do feel a lot more confident in saying to people that I am an artist now than I did. But in terms of how I think about making art, the time I have to make it, and how the creative journey feels to me literally nothing has changed, and it has made me think I should never have been squeamish about saying that I was an artist in the first place. In order to try and decipher what an artist is, I have identified 3 key areas that I feel are worth examining and may give some clue: training, output and time.
If you’ve completed a BA or MA in an arts related degree that can be helpful in justifying your claim to being an artist. However think of Vincent van Gogh, Henri Rousseau, Paul Gauguin, Winslow Homer, James McNeill Whistler… irrespective of what you actually think of their work it would be hard to dispute their claims to be artists, despite the fact that none of them went to art school. Picasso once famously said “All children are artists. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.” You do not need to have had formal training in order to be an artist. All you need is a childlike curiosity and an urge to create and express oneself.
Considering one’s output can be deeply uncomfortable, not more so than when one is battling to keep up with the cost of living with part-time employment as well as finding any amount of time to feed one’s creative urges. In the ten years since I graduated I have worked a number of part-time jobs and have often found it a real struggle to find what can only be described as ‘creative flow’ in my studio. Making art can involve so many different processes – and what you have to show for each hour spent in your studio seldom appears to be a true reflection of how much work or effort you have put in. Thinking and procrastination are vital components of the creative process, as is experimentation with both thoughts and materials. When I reflect upon the very restricted periods of time I have spent in my studio I feel what is most apparent is that I have given in to the need to have something to show for my time too readily, when in actual fact more time playing, exploring and being at ease with a lack of resolution or certainty in what I was doing would surely have been beneficial to my creative development.
If you ever find yourself feeling guilty about “wasting time” in your studio, asking yourself what gives you the right to posture as being an artist when you have no work to show, it might be useful to contemplate what John F Kennedy once said: “If art is to nourish the roots of our culture, society must set the artist free to follow his vision wherever it takes him”. As an artist, you have a responsibility to recognise what you need to do and do it.
Emile Zola once said, “I am an artist…I am here to live out loud”, and Leo Tolstoy once said “Art is not a handicraft, it is the transmission of feeling the artist has experienced”. These 2 quotes help to express that although some may be lucky enough to spend Monday – Friday 9am – 5:30pm in their art studios, it is impossible to compare being an artist to any other profession. Artists are more likely to think about their work at all times of the day without ever switching off, not even on holiday! And time away from the studio is often precious gestation time for creative ideas. The work of an artist is not separate from the rest of their life, and more often than not, an artist will live to work rather than work to live. The soprano Alma Gluck once remarked, “Just as the bird sings or the butterfly soars, because it is his natural characteristic, so the artist works”. It is part of our nature, it is a way of life.
I feel that the times in my life where I have questioned whether I can call myself an artist have undermined my confidence, and I have belittled much of what I care most about, at times at the cost of the creative journey itself. It is often true that non-artists will need some proof or validation in order to accept you as an artist. However by recognising the difference between societal preconceptions about work and your own all-encompassing urge to explore and create through art, you will afford yourself the confidence to accept yourself as an artist and allow for growth in your own creative development and self belief.
Header Image: ‘The Singing Butler’ by Jack Vettriano