We think of art in such a variety of ways that it is virtually impossible to come up with anything close to a universal definition. Case in point, I typed in “art is” in Google search and the hive mind finished my sentence with options like “essential to life,” “dead,” and “in bakery.” Then there was my personal favorite, “an explosion.” Art is… formless in a way, but at its best it is communicative, illustrative, and transformative. In being those things, it can also be subversive, disruptive, and even destructive. Art simply “is,” and yet we continually invent new reasons for it to exist. So why do we art? After all,
It’s not like it’s going to make you rich.
It’s not like it’s going to change the world.
It’s not like it’s going to make a difference.
It’s not like it’s going to make you happy.
It’s not like it’s going to make you feel better.
It’s not like it’s going to give you a reason to live.
…save for when it does, which is kind of all the time.
The beautiful thing about the in the mystifying nature of art is that anyone can do it. Who other than the creator can say what art is or is not? Who can even say when something is truly finished or not? We are all able to do whatever we are called to until we are called no longer, then say that we’ve made “art” and no one else can prove us wrong. Half of painted canvas? Art. Half a martial arts form? Art. Half a film? Art. Whether or not it has value in the traditional sense is arbitrary. At its core, even quality is arbitrary. Just because we like something doesn’t mean it’s good. Just because the world buys something doesn’t mean it’s worth owning. Some of the most memorable songs were written in minutes, while some of the most forgettable movies cost hundreds of millions and employed thousands. Still, art continues to get made simply because it needs to be made.
That’s why I art. I art because I need. I seldom know where it is that I’m going until long after the artistic action is taken, but everything done is based on the simple fact that I need. What wells up inside of me and explodes forth is art. What byproducts are left when I struggle to understand is art. What else could it be? How much does it matter that it looks similar to something else that came before or something entirely different? The kicker is that whatever the art may be to others, is largely irrelevant to what I obtain from it personally. Whether it has value to anyone else is beyond the artists control. The art having value to the creator alone is the only artistic aspect that is remotely provable. Anybody saying anything else is just guessing.
Where the artist goes wrong is in needing validation, either in the form of attention or riches, over honoring their need to create. When that need is ignored, the artist gets confused. The artist forgets what drove him to art in the first place. Depression, weight gain, and self medication soon follow. Suddenly what was fun and worthwhile on its own becomes corruptive and sickening.
There’s a growing understanding in psychological and self help circles about the thoughts in our minds that do not belong to us. When we feel pressure and fear we can find ourselves hearing thoughts that did not originate inside us, yet we believe them, see them as accurate or even necessary without ever breaking down why we believe these things. Most commonly we hear the biases and beliefs of our childhood caretakers being reinforced from childhood. Designed for coaching us away from danger and fearful situations, they also teach us how to integrate in society for better or for worse. If your parents were constantly worried about your weight growing up, as an adult you could hear them reminding you how fat you’re getting every time you pass a pastry. How healthy you might be at the time has little to no effect on whether you hear that thought in your head when you walk by a bakery.
Artistically, these voices can completely separate us from the urge to create. Negative inner voices can make us feel our work has no value before we’ve even started it. Often before letting anyone offer an opinion on our art, we qualify it with multiple disclaimers in an attempt to manage any responses, dissenting or otherwise. We don’t trust that our art has value and fight our inner selves instead. We allow others to judge what we’ve created, take their judgments to heart, then believe their opinions over our own intuition.
As an artist, everyday I wrestle with these thoughts while listening intently for the only voice that truly matters in the end: my own.
Whenever I’m making something that matters to me and feel love and fun, but has no direct or immediate monetary value, I can faintly hear my mother asking “How much does this pay?” and my father lecturing me about the “importance of hard work and how what I’m doing is just play.” It never matters how good a writer I’ve become or how long I’ve spent honing a craft, the unsolicited, unappreciative thoughts of others can creep in, sap my fortitude, and grind my work to a halt. Every day I wrestle with these thoughts; I struggle time and again to remember why I began creating, and on the days I press on, it’s because I’ve managed to listen intently for the only voice that truly matters in the end: my own. The one that tells me not to worry about why and simply do.
Why do I art? Because I can’t see the future. I’ll never truly know who outside of myself will ever value what I produce. As a result, the only value-based constant I can trust is my own self care and the desire to create whatever I am driven toward. What we feel matters. What we think matters. What we make matters even if it’s just for us alone. But if we can bring others in the world along with us, even for a second, then we’ve done something magical in and of itself. Even if it never makes us rich or earns respect, we’ve needed, we’ve created, we’ve battled our inner traumatic memes, and we’ve shared an evocative moment across time and space that can never be duplicated anywhere else.