An artist is one of the strangest and most audacious things a human can be. I say this because I find myself in the odd situation of being an artist, whether I like it or not.
I tried not to be one for a while, because being an artist was really unhelpful for my attempts to live a normal, on-top-of-my-problems kind of life. So I tried instead to be a serious professional human who focused on hard skills that earned real money.
But I’m not here to tell that story. Let’s just say I couldn’t shake this artist thing. It always came after me. So I’ve had to come to terms with it—partially by tearing it to shreds to see what the heck it even is.
I have never heard someone explain what it is to be an artist in a way that didn’t sound either too simplistic or like pseudo-deep BS to me. So I’m going to take my own stab at it. If I do it right, this might be the most useful thing I’ve ever written. At the very least, useful to the past version of me who won’t get to read it. Ah well, you can only do so much from the future.
Being an artist isn’t as simple as being a person with the skill to make beautiful works of art. It’s more like an exhaustive inner quest. An inner quest that happens to sometimes yield beautiful works of art—if you’re lucky.
This inner quest demands four things. Four things I’ve arbitrarily defined, because I’m audacious like that.
These are, according to me, the things that make an artist.
1. Become fluent in a mode of expression.
To be an artist, you need to be able to express thoughts and emotion—so you have to start by mastering a medium to express with.
This could be anything. Poetry. Dance. Fabric dyes. Garbage.
You’re going to need to become fluent in it, like you would a language, so that you can speak it without being mechanical.
I’m not talking about Malcom Gladwell’s arbitrary 10,000 hours deal when I talk about mastery. In my book (it’s an imaginary book), you master something when you can use it to accurately convey something inside you. That might take much less or much more time—depending on how challenging the mode is, what your natural aptitudes are, and how good a match it is for how you think.
In movies and pop culture, this seems to be the only part of being an artist that people talk about. (That and getting famous or rich, neither of which is likely to be part of this whole deal.)
But learning a craft is just a necessary tool. Onto the less-straightforward parts nobody seems to talk about.
2. Become ruthlessly honest with yourself.
You’re going to be pulling expression from your mind. So you need to accurately work with what’s going on in there.
This means you don’t get to hide things. This deeply-engrained cultural pastime is out for you. It’s going to be painful.
You don’t get to pretend to yourself that you’re fine when really you’re annoyed about something stupid that shouldn’t annoy you. Got traumatic experiences? Yeah, you’re gonna have to process every little bit of all of those, and pay intense attention to all the feelings. Do you happen to secretly be transgender in one of the most hard-to-explain ways possible? Whelp, you’re not going to get to just slide on by pretending to be normal. (LOL, shoot.)
You never finish this step. Every mind is riddled with things it hasn’t recognized about itself—whether it’s from repression, insecurity, or just because being a human is complicated.
The truer the art, the more in tune with their mind the artist is.
Being an artist is in part about spending your life turning over every inner stone. If that’s your thing (like it’s my thing) you can’t ever get enough of it. If it’s not your thing, it’s probably really not your thing.
3. Increase the depth and accuracy of expression.
As you start expressing your thoughts with your chosen medium, you’ll start to recognize two things:
- Sometimes you express your thoughts/emotions more accurately than other times.
- Sometimes you express them in a more rich and nuanced way.
Every time you make work, observe it and inspect it for accuracy and nuance. These are clues for how to gain accuracy and nuance. The more you practice, the more clues you get.
But you have to be willing to look at your work with that honesty from before.
What was I really trying to express? Did I actually do it? Did something distort what I was going for? Was I trying to impress someone instead of expressing my real thought?
Looking at your work and comparing it to what you know you meant gives you some of the most important feedback you can get.
It can help to have some highly trusted and sharp people in your life who can serve as extra eyes to recognize your flaws in expression. (Or your magical moments of hitting the target exactly.)
Personally, one of my favorite ways to get this kind of “feedback” is with music composition practice.
To work on expressing emotion more accurately, I improvise musical scores to shows at the local improv club. From my vantage point at the side of the stage, I watch how the music I play inspires the improvisers to express emotion. The closer I can get to inspiring them to express the emotion I intended to convey, the more accurate I was. It’s the perfect exercise, and I love that the theater lets me do my thing in shows that way.
4. Command your state of mind
You don’t want to be stuck only able to make art when you spontaneously feel something intense, or are randomly struck with inspiration. You want to be able to access states of mind on command, and draw as much meaning from them as you need.
This means you have to get good at not just knowing your mind, but navigating it.
(I do think that you can be an artist without this step, but you may or may not create work, and if you do, you might not create much of it.)
This is about building up the ability to remember and enter different emotional and intellectual states. Or at the advanced level, even manufacture them realistically.
Actors are a type of artist that strongly relies on this, but it can apply to any art form. It’s also the same kind of skill that can be used to deeply empathize with someone.
Practice shifting states of mind. Conjuring memories with strong feelings attached to them can be a very effective way to help yourself access different feelings. But doing it deeply and smoothly takes a lot of practice.
Artists are obsessed with their own minds.
I tried to describe the most rewarding part of art creation for me in a letter to a friend recently, and wrote this completely absurd phrase:
The mind just basks in contemplation of itself.
Artists aren’t necessarily obsessed with a craft. Artists are so obsessed with their own minds that they spend their lives trying to figure out what else is in there.
And while they try, art just happens to come out.
Didn’t I say it was audacious?