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How Do You Know If You’re An Artist?

How do you know if you’re an artist?

My friend Barry is basically an aging stoner in the Sunset District, but he’s an artist too. He wrote a book called Deep Fool that not many people read. It’s about his spectacularly wasted youth and some truly horrid things he did to himself and others. Deep Fool is monumentally depressing at times, sneakily amusing at others. It’s a good book that deserved more success, and I hope it gets it yet, but it probably won’t.

But that doesn’t make Barry one bit less of an artist. It just makes him poor and obscure.

My other buddy and opposite page-mate Manny Wolf wrote a book too. It’s called Almost A Foreign Country, a connected collection of essays and aphorisms that roughly outlines his life. It contains enough wisdom, and gimlet-eyed glances at America and the world beyond, for two hyperactive lifetimes. He sold some copies. Not as many as he wanted to (that is the definition of infinity, a writer’s book sales dreams) but some.

Manny is a teacher and friend, but mostly Manny is an artist, right down to his core. You don’t measure that by royalties.

In our culture, validation is money, and these are hard times for artists. The internet has just about destroyed the financial model for making a living in the arts. That cute kid with the guitar and the crooked smile dreams not of sold out stadiums, limos, groupies, sex and drugs, but of maybe getting enough itunes downloads to quit his day job at Dairy Queen.

Other artists have it no better. If Norman Rockwell were alive today you’d have never heard of him. The best he could hope for would be a job designing e-cards for Hallmark.

Except for a lucky few, the financial prospects for artists haven’t been this bad since they invented the copyright. How will the artist survive in the future?

Maybe we’ll go back to the old days, when the rich and powerful were patrons of the arts. But airbrushing the warts off the Viscount’s ugly daughter is hardly the stuff of artistic inspiration. I’m not sure we want to go back there.

What does that leave the artist? Everything but money. So what? If you’re a real artist you just keep making art.

There are compensations beyond money for an artist in America. You’ll have someone to identify with in every romantic comedy you’ll see for the rest of your life. There’s always an evil rich dude trying to get the girl, who loses to the cute poor guy, as long as he’s some kind of artist.

For some reason our culture promotes the fiction that artists are better people than your run of the mill Jill and Joe. Perhaps because artists write all the fiction. But don’t believe it. Artists are no better or worse than anyone else. They just have a jones for art. Whether anyone else pays attention or not.

But is it art if nobody sees it? Maybe. It could be art, even if people think it sucks. We try to measure art by popularity—except for the snobs who measure art by its unpopularity—but that’s an exercise in vanity.

We all know that Van Gogh couldn’t sell a painting to save his ear, during his lifetime, and now his work goes for eight figures. Couple of centuries from now Vinnie could be a zero again, who knows?

Maybe, thirty-thousand years ago, the really popular artists painted on tree bark. That cave art we swoon over today was painted by Abner Glug, who was so despised in his time he had to work underground. On rocks.

How do you know if you’re an artist? Simple. You do it despite. You give up your dreams of gold and glory, you take a job in sales, you run a chiropractor’s office, you go back to school to pick up that CPA ticket.

And when the lights are out and the kids in bed, you write your poetry. You grab your smock and start tossing paint on canvass, you sneak away to the garage and sand that duck decoy you’ve been working on for months. The one that will be your masterpiece. The one that will never lure a mallard to its death because it has a bigger job. To squat there, proud and painted on your wall-unit, squawking loud and clear to all who see it:

The man who made me is an artist.