Monday, April 11, 2011

On Being an Artist

I'm probably going to ramble.  I apologize in advance.

For a while in my twenties I hung around with a group of friends who were crazy.  Most of them were artists or wanted to be artists.  They lived together in a house and I lived on the outside looking in.  We spent nights getting drunk and smoking and doing the things that twenty-somethings do.  We read obscure books and not-so obscure books like Kerouac and Plath and Burroughs.  We listened to old rock and obscure rock and punk rock and we ran around naked, beating our chests and making crazy, violent, amazing art.

Sometimes we'd sit around with wine or beer or whatever we had on hand, and speed write.  We'd write whatever we could as fast as we could in the time it took to smoke one cigarette.  Then we'd go around the room and read it.

I had insomnia so bad back then that I'd stay up all night making art.  Painting and writing and drawing and singing.  I had art crawling under my skin, dying, begging to burst through the seams and come out.

One of the girls broke old TV's and turned them into landscapes  from her brain.  The backyard was a minefield of glass, the ashes of her dead television sets.  She used doll parts and anything else she had on hand.  Poverty is a great instigator for invention.

The guy who lived there mostly painted.  He had this idea in his head that in order to BE an artist, he had to suffer.  Happiness was an enemy.  Only through pain could great art be created.  He was good too.  Great even.  He was also frequently too stoned to do more than sit around watching Golden Girls repeats.

Over at this blog is this post about how to steal like an artist.  You should go read it.  It's probably more coherent than I am.  One of the things he says is that art isn't simply about what you make but about what you leave behind.  I'm mostly paraphrasing.  It's brilliant really.

I don't drink much anymore.  And I don't really see those people.  I still listen to punk and read Kerouac.  Sometimes I go back and I look at the art that I created back during those times.  The journals and the paintings.  Sometimes I'm blown away.  It's crazy, violent, amazing art.  It's also incomplete and diseased.

These days I work an 8-5 job.  I watch movies and TV.  I hang out with good people and lead a stable, normal life.  Twenty-something me would have see 33-year-old me and called me a fucking sell-out.  Maybe he would have been right.  I did just spend all of yesterday shopping for household items for my new place, for my life of domestic bliss.  But then I could have shown my twenty-something self my art, the art I'm creating today.  And it would have blown him away.

Art and the artist are linked.  They're one.  But in order to become a real artist, I had to put up walls between my life and my art.  There's only one place in which those walls come down, and it's when I'm sitting in my chair, letting all my crazy, all my violence, all my magical fucked up thoughts out onto the page.

I read this fantasy book recently called THE WAY OF KINGS by Brandon Sanderson.  Good book.  In it, there's this stuff called Stormlight.  And one character, an assassin, can breathe it in and perform feats of great magic.  To hold the stormlight, he holds his breath.  And even still, it bleeds out of his skin, leaks from his eyes.  Art is like that.  If you try to keep it in, it will tear you apart.  You can't hold your breath forever.

I believe I mentioned that I was going to ramble.  The more I think about it, the more I consider myself lucky that I survived BEING an artist.  These days, I just like being normal and letting the art be something I do when no one is around.  I'd rather people not find out I'm crazy when they meet me.  They've got my books for that.

Also, because I never had the courage to say it to my friend:  suffering and pain don't make you an artist, making great art does.


  1. When I was young I hung out with a lot a graffiti artists and other guerrilla street artists. Most of them ended up dead or in jail. Or both.

    I was never the talented or creative one, at least not by comparison, but I do have stories to tell, and I find it more important nowadays, also in my thirties, to manage to support myself so that I can tell them.

  2. Matthew - I think the really creative ones are those who can do it and sustain it. Those who can do that which they love and not let it consume them.

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  4. Whoah, your 20s were exactly like mine! I really enjoyed reading this. And it's funny because I too have been looking at my old journals lately as we pack up to move to a new place. The poetry in there is amazing though looking at it now it seems that I was just about as likely to be committed as ever published. I like how you said it - "incomplete and diseased." Sometimes I wonder too what 20-something me would have thought of now-me. Sell-out? Maybe. But also proud.

    p.s. One thing this post needs is pictures. I really want to see a portrait of the author as a young punk :)

  5. p.s. I somehow accidentally deleted the comment so reposted.

  6. Also, I wanted to share a quote that inspired me back then (and still does) when wrestling with the question about whether to believe that in order to be an artist, one needs to suffer.

    "In art and dream may you proceed with abandon. In life may you proceed with balance and stealth." - Patti Smith

  7. No pictures! LOL. I'm usually pretty able to avoid cameras. But there was a lot of blond hair and piercings.

    You know what's funny is that Patti Smith is one of the people I was thinking about when I wrote this. She's also one of my favorite artists.

    Committed is a good way of putting it. I remember being so close to the edge during those years. Everything felt more real but when I look back now I realize how distorted it all way.

    It's crazy how much we've changed. One of the things that article I linked to said that struck with me was about how art is about what we leave out as much as it's about what we put in. I left a lot behind when I emerged from those years of madness and I think that it was for the best.


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