This is how it feels to be an artist.
There’s never enough time. Everything you have to do takes you away from where you should be: working, sleeping, bathing, cleaning, eating, exercising, relaxing, dressing, smiling. It always has: you started too late in life, you didn’t work hard enough, you spent all those years in math class, working at Carvel Ice Cream, hanging out with friends. So much time wasted: and wouldn’t a real artist have spent that time making art? You know those artists you read about who ignore food and sleep and companionship when they’re working? Those are artists. You’re not an artist.
When there is time to spend on art, you spend it the wrong way doing the wrong things. Everything’s the wrong thing: you have too many ideas, and no idea which idea is the right idea. There’s supposed to be a click in your head when the right idea comes and settles into its place in your brain, and then the art will just flow out of you like milk and honey. But there’s no click. So you just pick something, something that seems interesting, maybe the most recent idea, because it’s often exciting when it’s new. Then as soon as you pick an idea and start working on it, something clicks in your brain, and you realize: this is the wrong idea. That other idea would be better, that old idea, the one you’ve had enough time to think about and really develop. What were you thinking, working on a just-born idea like that? So you change, and work on the other idea. It’s not the right idea either. But you know better than to change again, because you tried that thing once, working like that artist you read about who kept nineteen different projects going at the same time, gamboling about his studio adding a dash of color here, a touch of spice there, probably singing operatic arias and feeding the birds from his hand, like Cinderella, as he did so. But that never works for you. You have to do one thing at a time. So you keep working on this idea. Even though it’s the wrong idea. Because you need to do art, and if you don’t use the time you decided on and set aside for it, the time you clawed away from work and from sleep, you’re not an artist.
So you work. And it’s lovely. The world falls away: you don’t feel thirst or hunger, none of the needling of need, and your thoughts, blessedly, turn off. There is a glorious silence. Heaven forbid you have somewhere else to be and a time to depart, because you’ll miss it. Then again, if you don’t have a reason to stop, you may surrender all the light of the day, all the peace of the night, to your work. You arise from your working space with pins, needles, cricks, stiffenings, aches; now you’re hungry, now you’re thirsty. Now you’re an artist.
And it is to be hoped that you finished what you were working on. Because coming back to it after a stop, it never feels quite right. Time away from it gives you time to think about how wrong this idea is, and how it’s not coming out the way it’s supposed to come out (like milk and honey, it’s supposed to flow like milk and honey, to fall magically from your unconscious to your hand to the paper), and how you can’t quite make it feel the way it felt in your head when it was just an idea, and looking at it now you can’t remember what you were going to do next, and now you realize that you did that thing wrong — what were you thinking? That is terrible. You’re not an artist.
It’s only right when it’s finished. When something’s finished — and long finished, not ink-still-wet finished — then you sometimes look back at it and think, “Damn. That is good.” And then you think, “How the hell did I do that?” But right then, it doesn’t matter how: you did do that. That was you. That makes it all worthwhile. Because you’re an artist.
Except nobody else sees it. Nobody else cares about it. You send your work away to the people who buy and sell art, and they never even look at it, because they’re not concerned with art, they’re concerned with buying and selling. And you and your art won’t make them any money. You read of famous artists who were rejected over and over, twenty times, thirty times, before they were accepted, and they say “Never give up! Ignore rejection!” So you keep trying — twenty times, thirty, fifty. A hundred. Maybe you’re not as good as you thought you were. Maybe you’re not an artist.
But never mind: it’s art. It’s right there, and you made it, and it’s good art, you think. So you ignore the chorus of twenty, thirty, fifty, a hundred small voices in your head that say, “No, that’s not what we want. That’s no good. You’re doing it wrong.” It helps now if you have loved ones who support you; they can drown out those voices. Mostly. Though their voices come with one other, a little one, dry and creaky and quiet like Jiminy Cricket and the Cryptkeeper rolled into one, and this voice says, “They’re only saying that because they love you.” But it’s only one voice. It’s easy to ignore. For a time.
But never mind: it’s art. It’s right there, and you made it, and it’s good art, you think. Maybe you just have to do something a little different. Maybe that other idea would be better. This one doesn’t feel right. That’s why it was rejected. It’s no problem, adding this piece to your collection of finished and unpublished pieces; someday they will write books about these, have displays in museums and galleries of your early work. This will be known, someday. It’s art, and you think it’s good. You’re an artist.
You do it again, and again, and again: lose yourself, finish a piece; let some time go by so you can see your work instead of seeing only a collaboration of flaws you couldn’t fix. No: this one’s good (“No good,” shout the fifty, the hundred.). And now you have a new plan: you’ll put it on the Internet. The hell with those fifty businessmen, those hundred empty suits, those Philistine fat cats; you’ll take your work in front of an audience yourself, take your message straight to the people, no middlemen. This is the digital age: you don’t need some corporate shill passing judgment on your work; all you need is a blog. You’re an artist.
You start a blog, maybe an online shop. You post your work. You wait.
One Like. Thanks, Mom.
Hey — now there are two Likes! Oh — never mind. It’s a spam bot.
Where are all those people? The ones who told you they loved your work? Who said you were great and talented? Who said they’d buy your work if it was published?
They’re buying other things. T-shirts and new shoes. SUVs. Vacations. Coffee. Beer. Concert tickets.
Nobody buys art.
You try not to count the years. Sometimes you look at what you’ve done and you’re proud, you think, “Look at that. That’s a legacy.” Sometimes you look at the same work and you think, “How much time have I spent on this?” How much of my life have I given to this?” You think, “This isn’t right. I can’t be doing this right. Maybe I shouldn’t do this at all. I’m not an artist.”
But what else can you do? What are you, if you’re not an artist?
You think about why you became an artist. Obviously not for the money, you laugh — though it would have been nice to have made a lot of money. Or even some. Enough to buy something you could point to and say, “I paid for that with my art.” You can’t do that with a cup of coffee or an extra donut.
So why did you become an artist? Was it wrong? Has it all been a mistake? Is that why nobody buys your work? Why you’re only up to twelve followers on your blog, even though you have one hundred, two hundred, five hundred friends on Facebook? Share your art, get six Likes; share that kitten video, though, or that status about losing weight. Hell, asking for support in your choice to be an artist gets you a bigger response than your actual art does.
Now you feel a little bitter. A little mad at the world. We don’t live in a time or a place that values art. We should: art brings beauty and truth into our lives in a way we can abide, with just enough joy, just enough mercy to allow it to settle to our souls and become a part of us, making us larger, fuller, more whole. All the memes on the internet can’t match one genuine piece of art — which is why so many of those same memes are built on stolen art.
Yeah: that happens to you. Someone takes your idea, or takes the whole thing, your work, your art, and sells it themselves. You find out; you’re pissed; you look into the law — there’s nothing you can do. It’s the digital age, and nobody buys art. Everybody steals it. The laws protect those who make enough money to buy the laws.
You get a little more bitter.
Your art gets angrier. Sadder. It’s not as good, any more. People certainly aren’t going to buy it now, now that you’re ranting at them.
Now you face it. The end. You’ve tried long enough, done everything you could, you’ve done your best.
Do you give up? Surrender to the inevitable? There are too many good artists out there, and not enough people who buy art; the supply exceeds the demand. You’re just not good enough. Or is it lucky enough? Are you better than those who are making money doing what you do? Is there a secret to their success which you don’t know? You read the blogs of people who tell you they can give you the secret to making a living as an artist, but here’s the secret: you have to convince people that you know the secret to making a living as an artist, and then you get them to buy that secret — which is that you have to convince people that you know the secret to making a living as an artist, and then get them to buy that secret. Art is no longer a scene; now it’s a scheme.
So what do you do?
Do you give up?
If you give up, you’re not an artist, and you never were: everybody says that artists never give up, that artists are compelled to make art, that that compulsion is the only reason to be an artist: because you have no choice.
But it’s artists who sell art who say that. Just like the ones who say “Never give up! Ignore rejection!” are the ones who eventually got past the rejection to acceptance.
Not you. Maybe not yet: but maybe not ever.
So do you give up?
Are you an artist?