Why “Artists” Can’t Make Art

Save me from “artists”. I put that in quotation marks because I want to distinguish the specific group of individuals who claim to be artists but aren’t willing to put in the work that comes with the job. I don’t mean “output”, because I know quite a few self-described artists who have generated quite a bit of output, but they have certain deficiencies that will always hold them back from real achievement in their chosen field.

The first is that they will almost universally make claims to “originality”, and will refuse to study what has come before. I see a couple of problems with this. The most notable is that if you don’t know what came before you, how can you honestly speak to originality? Even if you came by something honestly, it may (and likely is) similar to something that has already been done, at least close enough to exist in a school or art that has already been done to death. Study gives you knowledge of what to stay away from if nothing else. Secondary to that is the fact that we are all of us influenced by everything that we are exposed to. Unless you grew up in a bubble and live in a sealed room, you are constantly being influenced. If you don’t take the time to study your art, you won’t even be aware of how you’re being influenced.

The other way they refuse to put in the work, and the more damaging in my opinion, is that (again, almost universally) they refuse to work for money. Some call it being “commercialized”, others call it “selling out”. I call it “working for a living”. Self-proclaimed “artists” who don’t want their “artistic vision” to be “corrupted” or “constrained” by others are artists who tend to go hungry. This refusal to work in their chosen field may have something to do with “artistic integrity”, but likely owes more to ego and vanity. The kind of people who don’t want to be told what to make are the kind of people who are creating for their own amusement and yet expect others to pay them for the privilege. As a friend of mine recently pointed out, most theater majors don’t go into carpentry, and there’s a reason for that: they’re not really interested in working in the theater; they’re interested in the spotlight. Sure carpenters get steady work, but they don’t get applause.

This idolization of idolization is at the heart of the problem. Despite what Andy Wharhol may have told us (and what reality television tries to sell us) not everyone will get to be famous, even for fifteen minutes.  Even worse, a desire for fame is antithetical to true creation. While fame may eventually be a reward for creation, it should be a side-effect, like a shadow that is cast by talent when in the presence of the light of hard work. The shadow is an ephemeral dream that has no substance; it is a signifier that comes after the fact, not before it. Those who focus on it will never grasp the reality it signifies.