On The Nature of Artists

Everyone who has given the matter any thought has their own definition of what "art" is, and none of them have much interest in anyone else's view of it. Oh, some might pretend they want your opinion on the subject, but what they really want is the opportunity to give you their own views on the matter, at great length. So when people bring up the subject to me, I politely tell them that art is an odoriferous pile of horse-flop of significance only to horseflies, critics, and other vermin. Usually that closes the subject. If not, I become rude. So this essay is not about art. It is about artists. People are more interesting than lofty abstractions, anyway.

Unfortunately, it is not entirely possible to write about artists without writing about art. The difficulty with art is not so much defining it (communication through symbols), as it is the fact that it is also a critical judgment (communication through symbols done well). Communication is the key. There. All done. That wasn't so bad, was it?

An artist is someone who wants to communicate. The good ones are not necessarily profound or wise, although that's nice to have in an artwork, from time to time. What distinguishes the good ones is an ability to take the viewer/reader/listener outside himself - to let him experience an aspect of life from a point of view not his own. What is it that drives someone like that? What makes the artist want to share such an intensely personal part of herself?

Artists are distinguished by two attributes: arrogance and insecurity. It is the balance and tension between these qualities that shape their personalities. Arrogance, because the artist has to believe that what she has to say is, or should be, of interest to other people. Insecurity, because the artist is never wholly convinced that her work indeed is, or should be, of interest to other people. It's a peculiar dichotomy, and makes for personalities that are never wholly what ordinary people would call well-adjusted. The views expressed by artists about their work reflect this ambivalence.

There are artists who will maintain that their art is for themselves alone. Some say that they are gratified if their work is well received by their audience, but that it really isn't necessary. Others will avow that they are completely indifferent to the opinions of others. In both cases, a crock. The function of art is communication. There is no other reason for translating one's inner world into symbols intelligible to others. Successful art requires too much empathy in the artist for true solipsism. Pretending that one doesn't care is simply a preemptive defense against negative criticism. It is sometimes a necessary defense, because an unappreciative audience hurts more than you or I can possibly know. If it can be managed, a successful pretence of indifference can be an effective armor.

There are artists who are, on the contrary, buffeted constantly by the opinions of their audiences. In one instant they can be buoyed by the regard of a fan, and in the next be completely devastated by a single cutting word. Their lives tend to be all highs and lows, with very little room for ease or placidity. Those that wish to stay sane need to take a personal retreat, from time to time. Frequently, even.

Tension. Arrogance and insecurity. One comes from an awareness of one's powers, the other from an awareness of shortcomings. I will read a particularly well written paragraph, or look at a dynamically executed drawing, and wonder how this artist can truly doubt herself. It must be posturing, must it not? Politically correct self-deprecation; a transparent attempt to attract fulsome praise. How could it possibly be sincere?

Understand, an artist's self-doubts are very real, and every artist will have them - even the ones who come off rude and arrogant in person, and even the ones who are hailed and famous. This is because the artist is also a craftsman. An artist is an architect of words, or musical notes, or images, or the display of emotion. Every artist is aware of the others that have gone before her in her chosen field, of the wonders they have crafted, and will despair of matching her predecessors' accomplishments, forgetting that those artists had the same doubts and trials. She will attempt to convey all of the complexity that goes into a particular feeling - the emotions, the reflections, the play of the senses, and despair of ever truly matching the immediacy of the experience she wishes to convey. Her life is a constant compromise between what she is able to achieve and what she wants to achieve. The support of friends can only go so far in defraying this pain.

So deal gently with the artist, my friends, however trying they might seem. They give us much, and there is very little we can offer in return.

Tim Eagen
January, 2002