12/16 What is an artist? What is worthwhile art?

The other day I tried to draw my girlfriend's face with a Purple Prism Color Pencil as she sat and posed for me--my first attempt at life drawing in months. It was fun at first, until I was overwhelmed by the thought that what I was drawing sucked. Bad. "What am I doing?" I asked myself. "How can I consider myself an artist if this is the level of work I'm capable of producing?" The longer I worked on it-- the more I asked myself these questions-- the farther the piece spiraled from me. What ended up on the page failed to capture any semblance of her beauty, and I was embarrassed when she asked me to show it to her, even though she insisted it wasn't that bad. (It totally was.)


A few weeks ago I reached out to a writer friend of mine, praising her recent work and expressing my envy of her talent. She responded by saying that such envy was ironic, because she had recently told her boyfriend that she was jealous of my writing (which shocked me, because she's seriously brilliant).


This morning, one of the women I work with, an incredibly talented visual artist named Emily, came into the studio and started complaining about her finals. "I hate seeing everyone's work during final's week," she told me. "Everyone's stuff is so good, and it makes me question why I even try to pursue art in the first place--" this coming from one of the best artists I know personally.


It seems to me that every artist I know-- every musician, every painter, every writer-- suffers from a kind of impostor syndrome; they act like musicians, painters, or writers, but deep down they don't see themselves as such. Deep down, they question whether any thing they've ever created is "good," or whether they're simply wasting their time. I myself suffer from such self deprecation on a constant basis, and have been forced to consider time and time again: What is an artist? And what is "worthwhile" art?

On the first day of class this semester, my creative writing teacher posed the question "what is a writer?" The entire class answered unanimously, "someone who has been published." My teacher wrinkled her face in despair, and for the next fifteen weeks tried to beat this mindset out of us. "A writer," she told us, "is someone who writes. It's really that simple." She encouraged us to write for no one but ourselves. "Don't worry about who's going to read it. Don't even worry about whether or not it will ever be read. Write," she said, "because you love to do so. You are already a writer."


Okay, I thought to myself, anyone who writes is a writer. Anyone who makes art is an artist. But this only half of the equation. What is a good writer? A good artist? And what is a worthwhile creation? By classic standards, I don't think a single drawing professor or art historian would consider my girlfriend's portrait "good--" certainly not demonstrative of classical skills. But are classical art and literature the only "worthwhile" modes of expression? What of Picasso's cubism? What of John Baldessari raising his arm in front of a camera, declaring "I am making art?" Have not both of these men been praised as brilliant? What of all the writers whose works were published long after their death, whose genius earned them not a single cent in their lifetimes? Was the time spent on their masterpieces wasted simply because they could not sell them? Were the masterpieces themselves bad because no one would buy them for hundreds of years (if at all)? I don't think so.


Now, I won't try to define what constitutes "good" artwork, because the definition of "good" itself varies so subjectively between each person, much less between, say, academia and pop culture. One man's trash can be another man's treasure, and one man's treasure another would look upon as trash. As for what constitutes worthwhile art, however, I feel much more comfortable weighing in on. Referring back to my teacher's comments, I think any creation that is made with love is worthwhile. Anything that that a person creates that fills them with joy in the process of its creation, fills them with love of the moments they spend working on it, is worthwhile. I don't think artistic expression derives its worth from its price tag or the legacy it leaves-- nothing lasts forever, anyways-- but from the impact it has on its creator, the bliss it instills within them.


Even though I've sold art in the past and been in two shows and three publications this year, I still ask myself "Am I an artist? Am I a writer? Is my work good?" But the truth is that anyone who makes art is an artist. Anyone who writes is a writer. Period. The last question is innately flawed, and serves only to damage a creative person's confidence. Another, vastly more important question must take its place, if any of us creatives are ever to overcome the impending sense of our own incompetence: Do I love what I'm creating? If so, and even if the finished product never sees the light of day, then what you make is worthwhile. Even my unsatisfying Prisma portrait would have been worthwhile had I cast aside my expectations, and simply let myself enjoy the process.





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