Friday, May 21, 2010


Artist noun: an especially ambitious failure expert possessing great powers of creativity and imagination.

When I consider all the artists I know, writers, painters, sculptors, musicians, and on and on, I ask myself, "what do these people all have in common?"

They make stuff.

But to me, creativity can't be the core of the definition, because people who are not artists make stuff, too.

I have always, ever since I was a very small child, been in love with arts & crafts stores. I was 6 and my mother was knitting sweaters and crocheting blankets, and she would take me to this magical place full of paints and chalks and canvases and sculpting clay and inks and papers and my mind would spin with the possibilities.

But I saw a deep and meaningful line between "arts" and "crafts": the "arts" side of the store was full of blanks: empty canvasses, unmolded clay. The "crafts" side of the store was full of "kits" with full-color pictures showing you exactly what you were going to make.

I hated being told what to make.

When I was 8 I won an art contest in my school with a shoebox diorama of the Mesa Verde indians (based entirely on books, I'd never been within 1,500 miles of Mesa Verde) and I used the $20 prize to buy my first ever personally-owned (not school-owned) art supplies. I kept the shoebox diorama until I decided I could use its parts for a new art project. Then it was gone.

Artists never rest. Some artists are perfectionists, some are constantly moving on to the next thing, then the next. Some, like me, have a terrifying amnesia for what they've done before. The past barely exists for me, only the future, the next thing and the next, is real. Ask me what I've done, I'll have to get my CV out to remind me. Ask me what I'm about to do, I'll nail you down for hours.

Some artists, like my boyfriend, are fairly obsessed with the past. Elements of the past are the elements of his composition, and he makes them live eternally. But always he is moving on to the next and the next. No artist sits upon a made thing and says, "I am artist for once I made this."

Artists are ambitious. They might not be ambitious career-wise, they might not be early risers, they might not like to shmooze. But when it comes to advancing their art, artists will stop at nothing.

But the core of my definition is "failure expert." That's because I believe it is the most important thing.

  • To be imaginative is necessary, but not sufficient; lots of imaginative people don't even make stuff. They're just dreamers.
  • To be creative is necessary, but not sufficient; lots of people make things that are more craft than art.
  • To be ambitious is necessary, but not sufficient; lots of non-artists are ambitious too, but wanting money or sex or power is not an art (or if it is, it's a dark art -- an unholy cross of performance art and sorcery). 
  • But to be willing to fail and fail and fail your entire life and never tire, to thrive on doing, and never give up, to hold up your failures as things of beauty, to see the value in those failures even if no one else can, to see that the route to success often lies through the minefield of a thousand failures, to go and let your soul be naked and to be unashamed, to become, in short, one who always practices and never perfects, a failure expert... this is necessary but not sufficient too. 

If they are all necessary but not sufficient, why is this last the core of my definition? Because few people outside of artists are willing or able to become experts in something whose rewards are internal or intangible. The only other examples are religious prophets and madmen, but I repeat myself (rimshot).

Kidding aside, artists actually are very much like insane prophets. They try to bring the light of a Truth to the eyes of others. They want to change not your life but your living of it, they want to change not your mind but your soul, even if they don't believe you have one.

In the ancient world they blamed the muses, an idea artists still play with today: the idea that artists are conduits for a higher mind, possessed of a genius that is not their own, that, once it's passed, they can't even very well remember.

But the muses, if they existed, would be wise in whom they chose to speak through, and I think they would look for someone like I describe in my definition: "a particularly ambitious failure expert possessing great powers of creativity and imagination." That tolerance for failure, that willingness to try anything in the face of anything, that strength, is the most central and essential part of it all.

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