Thursday, April 01, 2010

How to be an Artist

Artists are athletes.

But unlike runners, swimmers, basketball stars or cricket players, artists are hard pressed to find specific instructions on exactly HOW to be an artist.

Seth tackled this idea beautifully in his latest best-seller, Linchpin.

And since his work has always inspired mine, I’ve decided to write my own version of the same idea.

If you’re an artist, want to become an artist, or know someone in the same situation, consider these twelve ideas:

1. Appreciate creativity wherever you find it. Even if it’s a clever sign made by a homeless guy. Creativity is what you do, and you owe it to the world (and to yourself!) to recognize, applaud and embrace all forms of it.

In the same way that the Dalai Lama encourages us to “honor any expression of faith,” gaining an appreciation for any and all things creative is your responsibility as an artist. Just another way of saying namaste to your crafty colleagues. Where are you afraid to see creativity?

2. Be completely selfish. Gandhi says we must become the change we want to see in the world. Ginsberg says we must create the art we want to see in the world. Therefore:

Write the book you would want to read on the toilet.

Post the blog you would want to read while waiting in line at the airport.

Release the record you would want to listen to driving down the highway.

Paint the picture you would want to look at as you sit down to dinner every night.

You'll thank yourself. Who are you (really) creating art for?

3. Be prepared to give yourself away. Real writers don’t care about selling books – they care about being read. The same goes for musicians, painters and performers: An audience is what makes the artist. Doesn’t matter who, where, or how big.

You’ve got to get out there and share your work with the world. You can’t stay in the basement your whole life. Otherwise you’re just winking in the dark. As George Carlin wrote in Last Words, “You’ve got to get up in front of people every day of your life or you’ll never learn who you are.” Who have you given yourself (or your art) away to this week?

4. Be unhesitating. Do you have something risky, dangerous and provocative to say? Go for it. Take a little artist liberty and slice into people’s hearts. That’s the best kind of art anyway: Bloody. Honest. Raw. True. Anything that disturbs people. After all, “Art is infection,” as Tolstoy reminds us.

The secret is to ask the following question as you create and, more importantly, before you share your art with the world: “What do I risk is presenting this material?” If the answer is “not much” or “nothing,” you haven’t cut deep enough. Go back and draw some blood. Get to the point where hesitation is possible. Then let her rip. What truth are you still waiting to express?

5. Develop a unanimous voice. As an artist, that’s all you’ve got: Your thing. Your sound. Your domain. Your territory. Your signature. Your unique delivery of creative material. Your voice. And if you don’t have consistent voice, you wind up creating work that’s unmemorable, unmarketable and unsustainable.

The key to developing and maintaining that voice is threefold: (a) use it every day, (b) improve it every day and (3) take time off to recharge it. Remember: Voice determines success. Is yours unanimous?

6. Stop copying the masters. That’s doesn’t make you an artist – it makes you a parakeet. Sure, you can expose yourself to (and draw inspiration from) other artists. But don’t be an echo. Don’t be a copy of a copy. Have faith in your creative originality.

And don’t feed me that “there’s nothing new under the sun” excuse. Screw the sun. When you dip your pen in your own blood, it’s always new. Are you the origin or the echo?

7. Draw people to the truth. Isn’t that the whole point of being an artist? Picasso certainly thought so. His theory was, “Art is a lie that leads to the truth.” Your mission is to take people there. Even if you have to fudge a little bit on the way. When you give a voice to your true nature, people will listen.

But if you’re not being yourself while you create, nothing you make will belong to you. That’s why you got into art in the first place, right? To express your truth? Draw people to it. Where are you drawing people with your art?

8. Employ only the approval of your heart. Create out of pleasure, not under constraint. Otherwise your art suffers the consequences of external expectation.

Screw your parents. Screw your husband. Screw your annoying art school friends. And screw those wannabe, jealous hacks that only come into your gallery on open house night to eat free cheese.

These people only wish they had some art to show for, but they’re too busy talking their ideas into the ground and listening to people who don’t matter. No wonder their collective creative output is a joke. Not you baby, not you. Whose approval are you still seeking?

9. Make your art incidental, not intentional. Art is the residue of a life fully lived. Forget about being a great artist – concentrate on being a great human. The art will come naturally and you’ll save a lot of money on supplies. After all, art is subordinate to life, not the other way around.

And as an artist, your first responsibility is to engage with life fully and creatively. Documentation comes in at a close second. Ayn Rand was right: “Plant the roots of your art firmly in the reality of your own life.” Are you first and foremost an artist with your life?

10. Remove the word “for” from your vocabulary. You don’t need a reason to create something. There is no “for.” Not for the money. Not for the girls. Not for the blog traffic. Not for anything.

You make art because you want to make art. Period. Anything else is heartless and should be burned at the stake. Give yourself permission to (not) need a reason. What’s your true artist motivation?

11. Seek out stretch assignments. Did you know Bob Dylan was a painter? When I first learned that, it helped me realize the following: It’s OK to try a new medium. Or express yourself in a completely new way. Or tackle a new topic you never thought you’d address. Anything to push your limits.

That’s the cool part about creativity – once you’ve expanded your artistic muscles, they never return back to their original shape. No stretching ever goes unrewarded.

The challenge is giving yourself permission. But the good news is that it always pays off. As long as you remember that if you’re comfortable, you’re not doing it right. Are you actively seeking out ways to be creatively stretched?

12. Never ship what you’re not proud of. I (just) learned that powerful lesson from the aforementioned Linchpin, the best book on being an artist I've ever read. Thanks to Seth, I now realize that something isn’t always better than nothing. When you sacrifice speed for quality, you lose. And so does your audience.

Sadly, way too many artists do this. And the final product winds up being an embarrassment to their true skill. My suggestion: Don’t fall into this trap. It’ll seduce you like a big-breasted redhead with full lips and ten-speed ass.

Practice a little patience. Exert a little self-control. Only ship (publish, release, etc.) when you’re willing to stand by your art firm and proud. What quality control questions do you need to ask yourself before shipping your art into the world?

REMEMBER: You are an artist. An athlete of the soul.

I hope these ideas help improve your game.

LET ME ASK YA THIS…
What art did you create yesterday?

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* * * *
Scott Ginsberg
That Guy with the Nametag
Author, Speaker, Entrepreneur, Mentor
scott@hellomynameisscott.com

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