Sunday, May 17, 2009

What is an Artist?

I had a best friend who lasted longer than any set of tires, and we traveled together from the first grade of school until our late twenties. Many miles and years spent together, and many thoughts shared between us. He was an artist. That was how he defined himself, anyway. Once, when I asked him why he didn't complete a task, or why he wasn't more self-disciplined, he looked at me and smiled and said: "Mike, I am an artist. I have an artist's mentality."

So for him, (and he was very talented and very creative, and could sculpt and paint, and create just about any thing he could envision), there was a need to be spontaneous as part of his artistry. I saw it as a great excuse for procrastination and disorder, and acquiescing to the same basic weaknesses that I saw in myself. At that time, I was in college and pursuing a very vigorous set of courses and an extremely heavy course load, trying to make up for wasted years of loafing after high school. But his statement remained with me, because it defined him, as he defined himself. In order to maximize the beauty and thrill in his life, he required a certain disorder, and he allowed himself the luxury of lax discipline. This was what made him happiest. And since he lived with his mother, and had never had a job for more than about a week, and he knew he didn't have to ever worry about getting one, he was free to carve out his own special niche in the world.

My friend wasn't lazy by any means. In fact, he took on projects of gargantuan proportions, many of which were doomed to fail before the start, simply because only a highly disciplined mind could have stayed focused long enough to complete them. Mainly, I think he just wanted to prove to himself that he could do something, and as soon as he knew he could, the desire for completion escaped him. There were some very large projects that he did finish, and most of those were important to finally establish an income stream for himself, independent of his mother. He became successful as a businessman, and built his universe to suit his needs.

I came to believe that many artists were like my friend, and that they were disorganized misfits who just couldn't bear to get a job. So they labeled themselves artists, and they sang or danced or acted or wrote stories. I didn't have much respect for artists, as I saw them.

The label artist can be a derogatory term as it had come to be recognized by myself, but I have changed in my thoughts over the years, and I just realized this fact the other day, as I was writing an email to a friend. My friend had told me that she had made a few commercials, and that while doing them, she was a relentless perfectionist, and that she is normally not like that in her normal line of work, which is as an attorney. I told her: "That's because you are an artist, and an artist seeks perfection".

Those words rang in my ears and stayed with me for days, perhaps because subconsciously I had realized an important truth long ago, and it had finally risen to the surface in an innocent comment to a friend. An artist seeks perfection, but what is an artist? To answer that question, one must answer a broader one: "What is the nature of man?" (I use man synonymously with woman; a woman is just a special kind of man. But that is another blog entry entirely).

No one can describe the nature of man in less than a library, but I can reduce one aspect of man to a simple concept that allows me to explain my definition of an artist. Man is a social creature. From a zoological standpoint, this attribute gave him an advantage over fellow species of animals, because there was strength in numbers. Later, his cooperative nature allowed him to develop methods of communication and other skills, and again, he was elevated over his fellow animals, due to his social nature. Men want to share; it is inherent in their nature. They also, because of their intelligence, seek to order the universe in their minds, so that they can understand it and predict their own futures.

An artist is one who seeks perfection, I accidentally wrote to my friend. But more than that, he or she is someone who tries to share through whatever it is that they do as art. They may not realize this concept consciously, and many artists would probably decry it as a lie, but any fabrication of art is ultimately an attempt of understanding and indirectly, it is also one of sharing. You can describe many things as art, and I won't venture to be precise as to what is art and what is not. Anything that achieves a degree of perfection might be labeled as art, but that begs the question: "What is perfection?" We needn't concern ourselves with absolutes here.

I can look at a shirt that a native in Africa knitted and see great artistry in the maker's skills or beauty in its colors. Or I might look at the scribblings of a kindergarten student, and see abstract art in their renderings. But the person who is a true artist is never content. They strive to achieve perfection in whatever art project they take on. Their "perfection" is what works for them, and they might choose to stop before completion, just as my old friend, who let so many projects die. I label them artists not just because they chase their own private perfection, but because in so doing, it is their attempt to understand their universe and to share a particular point of view with others. It could be something as mundane as knitting a sweater, or as unusual as planting a row of yellow umbrellas across a mountaintop, but their creativity is a result of their humanity and their inbred desire to understand the universe and communicate their findings with others.

The best artists are those whose special talents help us to experience things that we might not be able to do on our own. They touch us on an emotional level and communicate directly with our soul. This could be from music, dance, painting, writing, or sculpture. It may be an architectural masterpiece or just a certain way a garden is planted, or how someone applies their makeup. They create a mood, an altered state of awareness for us, that we may never have experienced on our own. They open a window to their universe and invite us to experience what they are experiencing. It is a statement of themselves, and an affirmation of humanity and the uniqueness of the individual soul.

Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote: "Every man is my superior in some way." I try to remember that and learn from everyone I meet. So far, I have never seen that principle proven wrong. Because each of us has our own unique talents, and each of us is an artist in our own way. We all seek understanding, and often, without even realizing it, we try to share. When you are dissatisfied with something that you have done, or even with the current state of your own life, just remember: It's the artist in you, seeking perfection.

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