I’m always surprised when someone introduces me as: “This is my friend Patsy; she’s an artist”. No one introduces their friend as: “This is John; he’s an accountant”. It’s as though when one is an artist, the person and what he does for a living are inseparable.
I understand why the artist herself would feel like her identity is profoundly linked to her work. After all, she’s on journey that forces her to figure out who she is so she can one day contribute original, personal work to the world. As authors David Bayles and Ted Orland attest in their wonderful book Art and Fear, “…becoming an artist consists of learning to accept yourself, which makes your work personal, and in following your own voice, which makes your work distinctive.” And of course, as an artist, one is always on the clock, because everything she looks at and experiences is material for creativity.
But here’s what puzzles me: why would other people feel that my work and my name must be linked and announced at the first introduction? Not that I really care, mind you. I love talking about my work. In fact I’m a little ashamed to admit that I often do it until I notice that people around me are looking for a way out of the artsy conversation. But it’s intriguing that others feel my identity revolves around my work. After all, artists are ordinary people with ordinary concerns and ordinary lives. Aren’t they?
This may be a sign of our times, and related to a general cultural view of what it means to be an artist. As Bayles and Orland go on to say, “… in the past few centuries Western art has moved from unsigned tableaus of religious scenes to one-person displays of personal cosmologies.” It used to be that the artist who created the work was irrelevant. Art existed long before human beings managed to over value their sense of self. I can’t imagine a cave dweller drawing an animal on a stone wall and exclaiming, “This is my work; it represents who I am and no one else.” Now, though, ‘artist’ has become a form of identity.
I’m convinced that our society has over inflated the importance of the ‘self’, the ‘me’, and the ‘I’. Social media reminds us of that fact daily. In reality, none of us really matters other than to the people who love us. And although I agree that the only way to create meaningful work as an artist is through finding your own self-expression, it’s never truly new or personal. And that’s simply because all of us are shaped by the world we live in. I doubt that any one of us can claim to be the only human being to have ever felt a certain emotion or experienced a certain thing. So, as an artist, whatever we create is always a result of a shared experience relevant to the time we live in, nothing more and nothing less. Maybe we manage to represent life in a way that is new enough to reach people at a deeper level, but that is as much as we can hope to achieve, and it’s good enough to be worth spending a lifetime working at it. Whatever recognition that may or may not come from the work we do is irrelevant and stands separate from the work itself. Personally though, I hope that time will prove that my work has been more important than I am.
Artists are flawed human beings aspiring to create pure work. Unfortunately, fear is often a major setback when one links one’s self to their work. “Consider that if artist equals self, then when (inevitably) you make flawed art, you are a flawed person, and when you make no art, you are no person at all!” So from an artist’s perspective, it’s better to not feel that “I am my own work” even though we work all the time.
My experience also tells me that the artist’s ego too often gets in the way of the creative process. The best way to create is to remove all preconceived ideas, controlling forces, and grand aspirations from the process and to put yourself at the service of the work. You need to be, as much as possible, an anonymous servant to the art so it will emerge and guide you where it wants to go. Your own natural inclinations and the effects of your experiences will emerge naturally without having to forcefully push them through.
Maybe some acquaintances feel that having an artist in their social group is cool and it improves their social status. In my case, though, I’m pretty sure that my friends don’t really care what I do. I’ve known them a very long time and they’re not that shallow. They just love me – no matter what I do. So they’re free to introduce me as they please – just as long as they’re willing to put up with me talking about my work.