I have a confession to make. The title of this piece is a bit deceptive, because I don’t really think that the following four traits are limited to artists alone. I don’t believe that “artist” is a separate species of human, a special club you have to be born into. It’s true that some people seem to have fewer creative roadblocks than others, and possess great artistic momentum from day one.
But I am quite convinced of this: these traits describe what it means to be an unfettered human, free of the “get-back-in-line” prison boss we all carry around in our heads. We all want to play, to make things, to put on talent shows in the living room, to sing, dance, write…you name it.
How can I be so sure? Because I am a father. Nearly thirty years of parenthood has persuaded me that all children are artists, period. Is it plausible to believe that our creator gives each of us a brief taste of fantastic creative power as children only to slam the door shut just because we “grow up”? Be serious!
Someone told me recently that she “didn’t get the creative gene.” What blinding power is this that can so thoroughly confuse us about who we are? Not everyone will paint a masterpiece, but we all are destined to create art, beauty and meaning with our lives. And it is a destiny we must fulfill—soon—if we hope to rise to meet the challenges our civilization faces in the coming decades.
Some people already know in their bones they are artists. The following is meant to cheer you on, and give you the courage to be freer than ever. Others are hypnotized by the drone of creative repression they’ve been subjected to their whole lives. To them I say: time for a new vision of the you that is possible. Here’s a good start:
1. An artist is fluent in many languages—and only a couple of them involve words. To a creative person there are many ways to convey meaning and tell stories: motion, color, form, images, textures, sounds (some traditionally musical, some not; all containing music), touch, words, feeling, food, mathematics—on and on.
These are ancient languages that require one’s whole being to master. No wonder sitting in a desk at school or in a cubicle at work, restricted to a narrow band of the artistic spectrum—written words and numbers—can feel abusive at times.
For someone who is aware of the artistic nature of existence, the world never stops creating and speaking in new creations, inviting us to participate and add our own brush strokes. Which leads to…
2. An artist can’t easily compartmentalize life. “There is a time to daydream and a time to get to work.” “Doodle on your own time.” “That’s nice, but be sure you have a practical skill too.”
Have you heard these messages, or some variation? Do you tell yourself these things on a regular basis? If so, you are surely an artist. But chances are, it doesn’t matter how many times you are shamed (or guilt-trip yourself) into believing this tripe, it never sticks. That’s because it is impossible for you to limit your vision to only a tiny slice of the bandwidth of life for more than a few minutes at a time.
This doesn’t mean that artists have license to be flaky and unreliable. But how much better would you be at life’s mundane tasks if you were free to approach them as you are—with maximum freedom and creativity? Don’t wait for someone to give you that permission. Imagine the perfect creative life, hold the image in your mind—then take steps toward it every day.
3. An artist measures worth differently than others. There are good reasons why the phrase “starving artist” exists. First, art of all kinds is vastly underappreciated—and undervalued—in a mass market culture like ours. Powerful corporate interests have gone to great trouble and expense to be sure the public gets its art and entertainment from the same handful of mediocre merchants, period.
But it’s also true that artists themselves tend to live in ways that cause financial advisors to cringe—choosing time (for creation) over security, investing money in the means to make more art instead of planning prudently (with or without a “payoff”), and giving away their talents just for the pleasure of seeing something beautiful in the world.
Here’s the point: Being an artist frequently brings you into conflict with the encrusted consensus version of How Things Are Done. It is tempting to see that as evidence that you are doing something wrong. Ha! Quite the opposite. Accept this fact and just get on with being who you are, doing what you love to do.
Joseph Campbell said, “If you follow your bliss, doors will open for you that wouldn’t have opened for anyone else.” Doors of contentment, achievement, partnership, financial reward, brilliance in your creations you never thought possible. Doors that reveal new and creative ways forward in our quest for more sustainable and resilient living arrangements.
4. An artist knows that magic is alive and well. How? Because he or she has seen it in person, at work in the moment of creation—a song that seems to drop, fully formed, from the sky; a painting that appears to arrive through the canvas from the other side; a dream in which characters walk with writers, telling their stories; dancers who swear they feel like leaves on a breeze, as if they are being danced rather than dancing.
Yes, it is possible to turn making art into Hard Work and take it seriously as Really Important Business. But, once in a while, even people tempted by this approach are carried away in a transcendent moment they can’t explain. Julia Cameron writes that we mislead ourselves when we say artists “think up” creations—because in fact we “pull them down” from a river of magic flowing above us all the time.
Here’s the bottom line: what the world desperately needs now—as we face multiple signs that “business as usual” is coming to an end—is more creative and self-aware human beings who value beauty and wholeness over utility and profit.
What we need is a world full of artists.