Art is more than paint on a canvas, more than clutching a microphone or strumming a guitar. When you put a brush to canvas, create a line on the computer or stitch together pieces of fabric for a living you belong to an emotional fraternity that stands for something far greater. You are, as Pablo Picasso once said “a political being, constantly aware of the heart breaking, passionate, or delightful things that happen in the world, shaping himself completely in their image”. By electing to do so you make yourself available in an emotional way that most careers do not.
The professional world is built for those with thick skin and a short memory. Want to succeed in it? Climb over everyone else (and their differing opinions) until you’re the top gun. People do this every day with varying degrees of success. But art appeals to a much different collective. Art appeals to the unstable creatures who choose to walk or fly to the beat of their own drum. As artists, we create because what is currently available does not suit our physical and mental needs. We spend our entire lives searching for things that do not exist and in the process we continually tinker with existing ideas; altering the materials we’ve been blessed with in an effort to allow the rest of the world to see life through our eyes. In short an artist is a scientist with a paintbrush or mouse in his or her hand.
The problem with this is that exploring the unexplored can often lead artists down an all to familiar path. Famous Argentinian artist Alberto Greco went as far as to “creatively” ending his life by overdosing on barbituates . He described the entire process in a letter until his final breath (if you want to learn more and can read spanish checkout this link). Ray Johnson, a popular collage artist and pioneer of the Fluxus art movement committed “rayocide” by “artisticly” jumping off the Sag Harbor bridge in New York and backstroked into the sunset. His body was later found washed up on a nearby beach. There are numerous stories but the epidemic extends across the entire artistic spectrum. Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin for example, blended rock and jazz and psychedelics only to inevitably be consumed by the very same ingredients that fueled that rise to stardom.
Being consumed by the craft is not the only danger of being an artist. For many art is therapy. When that therapy is compromised, the results can often be catastrophic. At a young age, I picked up a pen and began scribbling images on sheets of paper. Not really understanding what I was doing, but finding that doing this put my mind at ease. As I got older and more comfortable in my skin, my subject matter turned from toy trucks and animals to more emotional expressive pieces that represented who I was and/or how I felt at the time. Art served as both a tool to sooth as well as a way I could understand and wrap my mind around things that I otherwise had difficulty comprehending in verbal or written form.
Every artist can point to reasons why they create. As an artist, one of the first things we are taught is that the number one rule of art is to break the rules. Art empowers those who create it which allows us to comfortably operate in our own worlds without having restraints. This empowerment gives us power to cope with everything from shyness to mental health disorders and everything in between. As the stakes rise and artists enter into the commercial industry a demand to consistently produce for the masses that previously did not exist is born. This demand reintroduces many of the same complications to our lives that we previously utilized art to conquer. These challenges, like any other, can often be overcome but as the scale of career success increases, so too do the negative effects. Curt Cobain began his musical career writing about small things like dis-functional love, relationships, partying and getting high. By the time his life came to an abrupt end at 26, he had penned songs such as “Sappy” and “Rape Me” which chronicle Cobain’s disdain toward the record industry and himself. Cobain, like many artists, had a difficult time with fame as he became more successful.
The world of art is about overcoming challenges and not dwelling on our setbacks. It is a career field that if handled with care can serve as an extension of life that may not feel like work at all. Famous artists should not serve as a deterrent, but as cautionary tales to study and learn from. Art is a labor of love, if not a labor at all and isn’t a career that we chose but a career that chooses us. Hopefully by studying famous artists of the past and present we can better understand our own career and lives in general, after all that’s the point isn’t it?