marcus westbury

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Are artists fragile?

March 18th, 2010 by marcus

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Are artists fragile creatures in need of nurturing and protection or are they robust and capable of fending for themselves? In my experience, artists are among the most resourceful, enduring, motivated, persistent and robust people I know, so where does the idea come from that they’re delicate, pampered creatures? I’ve even begun to notice that a lot of artists are embarrassed to use the word to describe themselves for fear of conjuring up the cliches.

There are many cliches about artists. One of the more persistent ones is that artists are all mad, eccentric but secretly slightly fragile. Another suggests that they are self-indulgent types who don’t live in the real world – that the whole idea of being an artist is some sort of thinly veiled excuse for a decadent lifestyle.

I guess you can blame Hollywood. The idea of the artist as a vulnerable, misunderstood – and usually self-destructive – genius has been a staple for so long it’s become a self-perpetuating template for lazy screenwriters. It doesn’t help that stories of genius artists briefly shining bright and slipping into self-destruction sell far more easily than paintings generally do.

I’d also blame the “lifestyle artist”. It’s long bugged me that there isn’t exactly a minimum standard required to call yourself an artist, so plenty of people call themselves artists for little reason other than they fit the cliches to a tee. More often than not, they blur the line between having a lifestyle and having any kind of actual artistic practice to the point where they don’t actually produce much in the way of actual art. “Artist” may not be the most respected of self-descriptions but it’s still slightly more socially acceptable than just admitting you’re a wanker.

It’s not easy against this backdrop to stand up for the actual artists. The people who actually make stuff and try hard to show and sell it, the actors who haven’t broken big in Hollywood, the diligent authors, the hard-working musicians, and the people cobbling together the resources to put together a picture book or theatre show.

There’s nothing pampered about that lifestyle. Far from being indulged, the lives of most artists are pretty much the reverse. They work hard. They do it tough. Almost without exception, they work a day job or a series of day jobs to get by. They sacrifice a lot to make what they are passionate about.

The artists who are grant-funded or commercially successful enough to give up their day job are few and far between. The rest are literally waiting tables, pulling beers, temping, or juggling professional day jobs and routinely putting in an extra few hours early in the morning or late at night. They surely work as hard as anyone. They are just as likely to be found serving at society parties for the minimum wage than attending them.

Of course some of the cliches have merit — but not always for the reasons you would think. A lot of artists need to be driven, occasionally even a little obsessive, in order to pursue their passions. It can occasionally manifest itself as distraction when trying to juggle with the day-to-day. Good luck if you are working on a day job with someone mounting a gallery show or a theatre production by night and all weekend — don’t be surprised if they aren’t 100 per cent with you in the weeks before opening.

This drive and occasional distraction is less about being an “artist” and more to do with the traits required to endure. It takes drive and singlemindedness to stick at anything for five or 10 years that creates a lot of work and generates little reward. Plenty of artists don’t have it but they tend to not remain artists for long.

Artists can also be a little vulnerable. They invite vulnerability by putting themselves out there. Pouring all your passion into something and revealing yourself isn’t easy. It’s doubly difficult if you have barely slept in the preceding month and a half.

I am not sure whether to try to rehabilitate the word “artist” or to simply give up on it. It would be nice to redefine artists as resourceful and enduring, imaginative and hard-working, and more than pulling their weight — usually. Failing that, let’s hope people will at least recognise that if artists are scatty, flighty, distracted and prone to tears, that the most likely reason – as a playwright friend pointed out this week – is that they don’t eat or sleep enough.

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5 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Hackpacker Mar 18, 2010 at 11:07 am

    It’s amazing how often Australian artists refer to themselves as wankers, often as an apology for being artists. We should own the word wanker rather than rehabilitate artist.

  • 2 Karl Logge Mar 18, 2010 at 8:44 pm

    Hey Marcus – thanks for writing that. That was a just the thing to read in the middle of the sleep deprived, over worked and anxious period that happens 1 week out from a show. Cheers!

  • 3 john walker Mar 19, 2010 at 9:15 am

    creatives are imaginative (kind), unrelenting and ruthless (of focus).
    Somebody once asked Evelyn Waugh why it was that he despite being a devout catholic , could at times be such a hard bastard.
    Evelyn replied “you don’t know what I would be like without it”

    Where this Idea of artists as being natural born victims came from Is beyond me.
    And Where the Idea of creatives as being people who sit around waiting for something to just happen , came from is… just weird.

  • 4 Janice Apr 12, 2010 at 9:25 am

    Saw this article cut out and stuck up at the VCA – excellent article and insight – you’ve nailed it!

  • 5 Information Security Apr 16, 2010 at 6:15 pm

    I guess you can’t generalise when it comes to personality types in professions. Are all IT people geeks? No, but of course there is a cross-section that are.