What Is An Artist Anyway?

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Painting by Gustav Klimt

“It takes so much to be a full human being that there are very few who have the enlightenment or the courage to pay the price… One has to abandon altogether the search for security, and reach out to the risk of living with both arms. One has to embrace the world like a lover. One has to accept pain as a condition of existence. One has to court doubt and darkness as the cost of knowing. One needs a will stubborn in conflict, but apt always to total acceptance of every consequence of living and dying.”

~Morris West

Over the years, I have come to realize that the greatest trap in our life is not success, popularity, or power, but self-rejection. Self-rejection is the greatest enemy of the spiritual life because it contradicts the sacred voice that calls us the “Beloved.” Being the Beloved constitutes the core truth of our existence.

~ Henri J.M. Nouwen ~

We meditate not to attain enlightenment, because enlightenment is already in us. We don’t have to search anywhere. We don’t need a purpose or a goal. We don’t practice in order to obtain some high position. In aimlessness, we see that we do not lack anything, that we already are what we want to become, and our striving just comes to a halt. We are at peace in the present moment, just seeing the sunlight streaming through our window or hearing the sound of the rain. We don’t have to run after anything. We can enjoy every moment. People talk about entering nirvana, but we are already there. Aimlessness and nirvana are one.

- Thich Nhat Hanh

What does it take to be an artist? Well, what does it take to be fully human? Why do people say that you have to suffer to be an artist? What does that mean? Why don’t people say we have to suffer to be human?

What does talent have to do with it?

We live in a culture that believes in goals and goal setting. The idea that “aimlessness and nirvana are one” is a very Eastern idea. It shows an awareness of what happens psychologically when you aim for a specific effect. You lose your ability to see the whole, to appreciate and mentally encompass the universal.

In the Western world, only mystics operate outside the ethos of narrow focus. Artists are often mystics because deep vision is required to represent the world in a way that communicates to an onlooker who may not be an artist or mystic.

Seeing both the details and the larger whole is the business of art. Looking at the Klimt pictured above, it’s obvious he saw both very clearly. What is remarkable is how patiently and masterfully he was able to communicate what he saw. Both the details and context are represented with consummate mastery, vision and passion.

When I was in art school, Klimt was considered a “decorative” painter, not a top tier artist. He was not in fashion. I was too young to realize how parochial my teachers were. I had to learn to look and think for myself, to make my own judgements.

Making art is a kind of meditation. You learn to approach the work with a quiet mind so you can see the small and the large in a coherent context. My studies in art school focussed on the technical. You worried first of all whether you had enough talent to be an artist. Students who got A’s were “talented.”

When I got to Italy the focus changed to vision and passion as the primary requirements for an artist. I think that’s right. The first thing you have to identify is what you love. If you don’t know that you can’t proceed in anything. You have love what you do.

Expertise follows love, not the other way around. An artist must have a heart big enough to love the world and want to represent it so that others can see and love it too. This goes for artists who represent the exterior world as well as those who show us their interior landscapes.

In this process, we learn who and what we are. We come to an acceptance of our humanness. We come to know ourselves differently. We develop vision. We grow our passion. We find where the roots of love are.

Written by

I occasionally write fiction and also about creativity, loving, language learning and travel. I’m a longtime painter and reader.

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