The Role Of The Artist

“The object of life is not to be on the side of the majority, but to escape finding oneself in the ranks of the insane.” ——Marcus Aurelius

In college I had a professor who told his students, “The older I get, the more I must unlearn what I’ve already learned.”. At the time I didn’t quite realize what that meant. He was a math teacher; who become a philosophy professor, and was speaking to my religious studies class. For whatever reason, his words stuck to me like a dry erase board. As I’ve gotten older, I’m beginning to understand what Dr. Spath was attempting to communicate.

Writer’s Note: I have replaced all of the gay slurs from my childhood with insults from the movie Elf. Carry on. 

Feb-49

When I was growing up, art wasn’t necessarily fostered. In fact, there was a lurking disdain for the arts among my class segregated peers. At my middle school—if you showed even the slightest inclination towards creativity, the kids labeled you a son of a nutcracker. In eighth grade I was the lead role in the school play. When a photo of the cast was taped across the office window, someone wrote “cotton-headed ninny-muggins” across my face in a permanent marker. It stayed that way for weeks.

Feb-2

When I look back, the only class I ever really excelled at was art. But there was no future in art. There was no future in anything. The future was bleak! What would I do with a poem, a drawing or a painting? Heaven forbid I tell my dad about my desire to become an artist. What a colossal waste of time! Meanwhile, he occupied himself with more important matters—like drinking beers to infinity and beyond, while staring into a vacant sky. Carrying books home from the library was, “pretending to look smart“. Starting a photography business after college was, “playing photographer“. “Get a real job”—and then slowly commit suicide. These were the concepts instilled in me—in a small town, where the minds of the people seemed to be as closed as the buildings that lined the empty streets.

Feb-46

Feb-44

“Your task is simply to find the one or few things that you can excel in, and make it your primary business in life to excel in those ways. To do otherwise, to disregard the treasures in which you are at least potentially gifted, is simply to waste your life — a path to nothingness that is, alas, only too common.” ——Richard Taylor

I’m not writing this to complain, garner pity, or cast a shadow on anyone. I’m writing this to understand myself. I’m writing my truth.

I’m attempting to reroute my brain like a circuit board, in order to find where the wires were crossed. I’m trying to unlearn what I’ve already learned.

This is why I’ve spent the better part of a decade studying creativity and the role of the artist—trying desperately to convince myself of it’s purpose & importance. Art is arguably fleeting and powerful at the same time. I’ve come to the realize that art is important; and to deny one’s self the pursuit—is to indeed commit a slow suicide.

Feb-18

Feb-14

“I am not in a contest. I never wanted fame or money. I wanted to get the word down the way I wanted, that’s all. And I had to get the words down or be overcome by something worse than death.” ——Bukowski

If you’re reading this and your childhood was like mine, all full of pockmarks—rejoice. Art comes from pain. Hemingway was asked in an interview what the best early training is for a writer in which he replied, “An unhappy childhood.” We’re off to a great start.

“I felt it more important to trust my instincts than to consider the salability of my work. Which is what all artists of genuine talent have done and should do.” ——Henry Miller

It’s not just the lessons from my youth that I’ve had to unlearn—it’s the constant barrage of bullshit that’s being thrown at us by society. In America, everything is reduced to a dollar sign. Even LOVE has been monetized. This Valentine’s Day—show that you care, by making a meaningless purchase. “Look at this ring I got it from a child, working on a landmine, isn’t that crazy {mock orange}?” Somewhere in China, where they don’t celebrate Christmas, someone is making lights, and garland, and wrapping paper. So it goes. 

Feb-1

Feb-17

“If you want to know what God thinks of money, just look at the people he gave it to.”——Dorothy Parker

If you’re not making money from something then it’s pointless right? This is another lesson that I’ve had to unlearn. Didn’t someone say the best things in life were free? The idea that, in order to be an artist, you must somehow make a living from your art—is a fallacy. All the artists that I know have jobs. The point of art isn’t to make money.

“The arts are not a way to make a living. They are a very human way of making life more bearable. Practicing an art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow, for heaven’s sake.”——Kurt Vonnegut

So what is the role of the artist in our society? Why should I, a cotton-headed ninny-muggin, pursue writing, photography, music, etc.?

I believe artists have two roles: seeing & reporting.

The Role Of The Artist: Seeing

The aim of life is to live, and to live means to be aware, joyously, drunkenly, serenely, divinely aware. ——Henry Miller

Feb-9

Feb-10

Feb-50

Now that I consider myself an artist, life seems a lot more interesting. I pay attention. I listen to people. When I have a negative experience, I try to glean something out of it—a lesson, a joke or a story. Writing has made my life more meaningful——isn’t that the goal?

I go places that I normally wouldn’t go. I put myself into circumstances that might embarrass me——but I can draw from these experiences when I sit down to write. Everything in my life has potential. Everything is on fire.

The same goes with photography. I see things differently with a camera in my hand. Suddenly patterns and juxtapositions emerge out of the mundane. The way shadows dance across the garage walls. The way my wife sleeps. The cars on a passing train. The long slow movement of light across the floors & counter tops, as the sun rises and sets. Life is happening right now. This is not a practice round—this is it. Making art is one of the best ways I’ve found to be fully present and aware——to see, to live.

The Role Of The Artist: Reporting

“That is what separates the artist from the layman — the ability to recognize and the skill to transmit to others those observations and feelings.” ——Beaumont Newhall, In a Letter to Ansel Adams

Feb-45

So what do we do with this gift of seeing as artists? We share it. We make the world a better place by helping others see & feel. We shuffle between the conscious and the unconscious mind. We enter other worlds and bring back the little trinkets and soveniers that we find. We place them on shelves, we prop them up in our front yards, we hang them from our rearview mirrors, we give them to our friends as gifts. We paint, or dance, or write, or sing, or photograph beauty into existence.

“Creative work is not a selfish act or a bid for attention on the part of the actor. It’s a gift to the world and every being in it. Don’t cheat us of your contribution. Give us what you’ve got.” ——Steven Pressfield

Feb-7

“The role of the artist is to make the unconscious conscious.”

Hemingway believed that a good writer convinces the reader into believing he is a reporter—even when the stories and characters are invented by the writer’s imagination. The second role of the artist is to be a great reporter. It is our job to traverse the vast chasm between the known and the unknown. We peel back the bitter rind of the universe and reveal the sweet fleshy soul that’s hidden underneath.

Feb-47

“Understand me. I’m not like an ordinary world. I have my madness, I live in another dimension and I do not have time for things that have no soul.” ——Bukowski

I’ve spent a lot of time wondering about the point of all this. Why create? Why make art? Why spend so much of my life documenting, writing, editing, etc. To be honest, I asked myself the same questions as I slowly wrote this blog. I think we’re all looking for a reason for being here. We’re trying to justify a life.

We’re born, we live a short time, and then we die. Our art is what we leave behind. I suppose it’s proof that we existed. Whether or not that means anything at all——I don’t know.

But I think living life as an artist, at least in my humble opinion, is one of the best ways to spend our time while we’re here.

“This is what separates artists from ordinary people: the belief, deep in our hearts, that if we build our castles well enough, somehow the ocean won’t wash them away. I think this is a wonderful kind of person to be.” ——Anne Lamott

Thanks for reading,

—T

6 Comments

  1. The arts have definitely been under rated over the years. When my brother said that he wanted to go to college and study art my dad’s response was “What sort of job can you get by studying art?” – quite a nice one it turns out. Personally the older I get the more I find I immerse myself in my own art – writing, photography, painting/sketching. It makes me happy….it’s what I enjoy….it’s what I do.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. My brother became a graphic designer and worked for a graphic design company in the UK for many years. Now he works in a museum/art gallery here in New Zealand. Funnily enough one of my sons is also a graphic designer.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I think it’s cool you’ve always known you wanted to be an artist. I’ve never known what I want to do, except like, eat tacos. I think it’s cool how it’s made you see things differently too. Good read. 👍🏽

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for reading Julie. You ARE an artist. You’re a musician and you’re gifted with one of the most beautiful singing voices I’ve ever heard. I love hearing you sing, as do countless other people. Keep sharing your gift, the world needs it.

      Liked by 1 person

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