Five Creatives on the Conflicting Natures of Artists
In my view, an artist is a person who makes something that did not exist prior to their vision. You can cut that a thousand ways and there is certainly no reason anyone cannot call themselves an artist. But, if you create something and it resonates with another human in a way that is meaningful, you may be defined as an artist. That resonance is often undefinable.
I am a fan of the abstract expressionist painters Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko. When I sit in the presence of their majestic and luminous paintings, in a gallery, I find myself in a different place. Reproductions don’t do it, I have to be in the room. Perhaps some of the artist’s fire projects from the work. It is a mystery, a mystery that expands my consciousness.
In these quotes we see the range of what an artist may be and it is vast.
“An intellectual is a man who says a simple thing in a difficult way, an artist is a man who says a difficult thing in a simple way.”
Bukowski was famously a serious barfly (see the Mickey Rorke portrayal in the film of that name) who loved to brawl and write poetry. In his poetry he follows his own dictum of making the complex inner life simple and plain when laid out in print. He knew you could not think your way through a poem, you had to feel it viscerally, like a punch in the face or a shot of cheap booze.
“The artist can within limits make what he likes of his life. It is only the artist, and maybe the criminal, who can make his own.”
W. Somerset Maugham
It is a recurring theme in my writing about creativity, and my experience of it, that it is pure freedom, the kind of freedom that a criminal who cares little about the rules takes pleasure in. The difference is that art seldom hurts others to achieve its goal.
You might say art is the secret the artist shares with themselves and only reveals with a knowing smile.
“An artist never really finishes his work; he merely abandons it.” Paul Valéry
Truth. Nothing is perfect, though there is certainly art that seems to be when experienced by others. But artists almost universally have to find a stopping point. Otherwise we would probably go insane with the obsessive need to make each piece better. But that would take the life out of it.
It took me a long time to pull back and let go of my second novel, to stop fiddling and tweaking. It was only when I gave it some space that I could be satisfied with it and move on.
“No artist is ahead of his time. He is his time. It is just that others are behind the time.” Martha Graham
Legendary dancer Graham certainly understood time as well as any artist, perhaps a little better. In a performance like dance, you are of necessity in the moment. You are capturing those moments and offering them up to the audience, only to be seen at that exact slice of time. If the connection is successful, time stops for them too.
“I passionately hate the idea of being with it, I think an artist has always to be out of step with his time.”
And here, Orson Welles, actor, director, and filmmaker shows the nature of his art. As an actor he knows what Graham means, but as a director he also knows that something sublime on film is a complex affair, very much like stepping out of time to invent a new one. When the lights go down in a theater and the film begins its journey, we literally see thousands of moments strung together to create a new reality.
Artists should never be judged on character. They should not explain their art. The art is the explanation and the character. The reality is that many artists are rotten humans or torn to pieces inside until they must create to relieve the pain. Both Pollock, dead in a drunken car crash, and Rothko, by his own hand, were driven by demons we cannot know.
Maugham, on the other hand, famously lived both a life of opulence in Provence, yet was willing to tramp through jungles to find the stories of the regular people who lived their lives in distant places. In The Moon and Sixpence, he explores the terrible darkness his counterparts experience through his fictional portrayal of a painter based on Paul Gauguin. This shows the breadth of the artist’s life from the successful writer to a painter who cares for nothing but painting.
There is nothing simple about it.