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Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The Modern Artist's Survival Guide

The quintessential, So-Deep-It's-Almost-Confusing List of Paradoxical Tips and Mixed Messages that are as Conflicted as Modern Day Artists and Their Relationship to Society

Hold on!  Yes, there's a chance you will never "make it" with your art (so you'd better love the shit out of doing it for its own sake).  There's a chance you will struggle and never taste success.  But if you give up...that chance becomes a certainty.  You will have setbacks that may make you feel like you wasted years.  Some days will suck balls (and not in the good way).  You will get knocked down and life will do the Bruce Lee make-sure-you're-dead kidney jump just to make it clear that you aren't supposed to get up.  But...you only have to get up ONE more time than you get knocked down.

Let go!  There's so much to let go of!  Materialism, delusions of grandeur, ego, grudges, popularity contests, that stupid race with the Joneses, the rage that has become your master...  Most of your life is nothing but fetters that hold you back from the place where art lives.  The more of that crap you let go of, the easier art becomes.  Just don't accidentally put your dreams in the "let go" pile.

What you need is a cheerleader. Doing art in today's world is double tough.  Find some peeps who will cheer you on in your darkest hours and who believe in you even when you don't completely believe in yourself.  If they'll wear the little pleated skirt to help encourage you, that's even better.

What you need is a taskmaster. Sitting around and believing in yourself won't get anything done and that art won't create itself.  Find someone who will call bullshit on your bullshit and kick your ass into gear.  You can't shit a shitter with your tales of how you'll start working right after this thing or you're just too busy right now or you haven't gotten enough sleep.  You need someone who Spock-eyebrows that crap and tells you the truth: that if you want it, you'll find a way.

What you need is a critic.  Someone has to say no to you, or you'll produce nothing but prequel-caliber George Lucas tripe.  You need a critic.  You need to be told that something isn't working how you think it is.  You need someone to call bullshit on your bullshit.

Ignore other people's negativity. Unconstructive criticism and hurtful commentary has no other aim but to tear you down.  Putting yourself out there means haters are gonna hate.  You can't control that, and you can't make all of them happy except by crawling back into your hole and dying in ignominy.  But you can ignore them.  Ignore the ever loving shit out of them.

Ignore other people's certitude. You are a flawed creature and an imperfect artist.  You need to improve.  Echo chambers and adoring fans feel good, but they won't do your art any favors.  Ignore anyone who thinks you can do no wrong.  Ignore them as passionately as you do someone who thinks you can do no right.  Unless maybe they want to do the groupie threesome thing....

Learn not to care what others think.  You live in a society that doesn't celebrate art or artists (unless they are commercially successful).  People will judge your career, your values, your decisions, your material possessions, your fashion, your choice of beverages, and even your My Little Pony iPad app--and all those things are apt to be lacking from their perspective.  (Because, let's be honest, My Little Pony rules.)  Best to learn early how blow them off (and not in the good way).

Learn to care what others think.  Artists already tend towards contrarian status.  Half of them are one rejection of a social convention shy of picking their nose in public and living in a tree.  But empathy is panacea in any art.  (Oh how ironic and paradoxical is that?)  If you're not careful, you're going to be the weirdo wearing the tutu at the DMV.   That takes "not caring" to the next level, but at that point a person can't understand humanity enough to portray it in their work.  Gotta ride the hard-to-hit/impossible-to-maintain sweet spot right down the middle of not caring that mainstream folks will not appreciate your second hand clothes and unapologetic explosive flatulence at formal dinner parties.

Wear your heart on your sleeve.  Humans are emotional creatures and you are funneling your passion into artistic expression.   Having passion is the first step, of course.  We live in a society that doesn't find any emotional expression from you appropriate, be it too happy or too depressive.  How dare you feel in a way that is expressed in something other than your clothes and musical taste!  You have to learn to crash through those walls...with a wrecking ball.

Be mysterious.  You might even want to be terribly mysterious.  Your art is the place to take your emotions.  If you're gushing and dumping and yelling and screaming and crying and getting your catharsis out in the world, you don't have as much to bring to your art.  Have the feelings, but always hold some of them back.

See the world the way it really is.  See the banal, the petty, the pedestrian, the tiny acts of kindness and cruelty unsung.  Read the comments on Youtube.  Notice beauty in its opposite, and ugliness in the sublime.  If you discover a bias or blinder, rip it from your face and look with eyes as perfectly untrammeled as you can make them.

See the world the way you want it to be.  Perfectly accurate truth isn't art.  It goes by names like "journalism" or "non-fiction."  An artist tells the truth by lying or by focusing or distorting an aspect of that truth just a little in order to bring it into relief.  The themes in art are teased out as the art is refined.  Learn to do that in your life and it will make you a better artist.

Forgive those who hurt you.  Nothing makes it harder to transcend the world into "art mode," or simply befuddle your ability to concentrate on creating something beautiful, like some petty grievance niggling at your mind like a commercial jingle that won't get out of your head.  Forgive.  Move on.  It's not worth it.  THEY'RE not worth it.  The last thing you want to do is give them that power over you and over your art.

Remember those who have hurt you.   Artists have a problem with letting themselves be taken advantage of.  Keep track of who isn't to be trusted, and don't collaborate with them on future projects.  Keep your distance for pragmatic reasons even if feeding that grudge cottage cheese and rage doesn't make it grow.  And if you really can't let something go, which is very human, after all, then use it.  Use the anger and bile.  Let the hate push you onward when all the fluffy bunny emotions are exhausted.  Because fuck them, that's why.

Know your limits.  Some things you cannot change....

Fuck your limits.  ....but until you try, you'll never know.

Be who you really are.  Creative minds attract creative minds.  If you bury that part of you--or bury any part of you, really--you will end up surrounded by people who like what isn't really you.  You will be avoided by people who you would like.  You will cultivate your facade.  Until one day you will become the person that you're pretending to be.  It will happen...even to you.  Even to you.

Forge your mask from hardened steel, and keep it with you at all times.  There's a world out there you have to deal with.  Call it the "real world" or whatever, but you have to live in it and pay your bills and go grocery shopping and deal with pencil pushers and cashiers and stuff.  Keep your mask with you so that you can deal with this world.  Just don't forget to take it off after you clear the check out line.

Embrace routine. In as much as creativity can be said to be anything, it is a habit.  Show up to be creative at the same time every day, and it will begin to happen.  Your muse will soon start acting like a pet who knows what time they get fed.  So make your life as routine as possible so that your art can be as wild and untamed as possible

Embrace change.  When change happens, embrace it.  Most people run from genuine change, even as they bash the artist for his precious regimens and routines, and do everything they can to avoid any real alteration of their lives.  Learn to love new opportunities and new experiences even when they are the juicy nugget wrapped in the shit burrito of your world turning upside down. Artists need to pay attention to the ripples that spread from change.  Art is about change, or at least the potential for it or resistance to it.

When you care what is outside, what is inside cares for you.  Not just an homage to the greatest anyone-can-do-it-if-they-try movie of all time.  Your brain is part of your body.  It does not exist psychically apart from physical reality, no matter what your culture thinks.  If you treat your body like a trash can, your brain can't generate its best creativity.

Appreciate what you have.  You live in a society where the pounding message from every corner is that you are incomplete, lacking, and wanting.  They would never sell enough toasters, cars, and handi-wipes if every TV show were interrupted every ten minutes with a message reminding you that you've got it pretty fucking sweet, all things considered.  Instead they interrupt your life as often as possible to tell you that you are not complete without their shit. So take lots of inventories of the good things.  If you focus on what's missing, of COURSE you're going to be miserable.

Never grow complacent.  Your life is awesome?  Awesome.  But you've miles to go before you sleep.  Get to it.  The fact that your identity and well being aren't wrapped up in having a Blu-Ray player in your SUV is great, but that doesn't mean you don't try to improve yourself and it especially doesn't mean you don't try to improve your art.  The struggle for improvement is part of the human condition.  You want to turn off the part of the message that says improvement means better stuff, not turn off the message altogether.

Recognize those who are helping you, even if they act harsh.  Not everyone who cautions you is poster child for the bumper sticker that, "Those who have given up on their dreams will try to get you to abandon yours."  Some have simply walked the road ahead of you, and are warning you of the pitfalls (often pitfalls filled with shit and rabid mammalian alligators) that lie ahead.  They're not saying don't walk the path.  They're saying "Don't walk the path like THAT way unless you like alligators with rabies and shit all over their teeth biting your leg."

Recognize those who undermine you, even if they act kind.  The most dangerous allies are the ones smiling too sweetly who speak saccharine words about your art even as they extol the virtues of a "grounded career," "living in the real world," or "not losing your head."  They may truly have your best interests at heart, don't get me wrong (truly).  But they are NO good for you as an artist.  No matter how well they treat you, or how supportive they sound, if they are pulling you away from your art, be wary.  And be careful.

Choose your relationships wisely.  Surround yourself with other artists, supportive people, creative types.  People who GET you.  Who GET what's important to you. People who find meaning in the same things.  People who won't snort derisively when you say it's time to write. People who won't guilt you when you head is in your next project. These folks are vital to being an artist in this world.  They will be your peeps and your community and your tribe.

Plus these people will fuck you even if you drive a Segue and live with six roommates.  It doesn't get any better than that.

Choose your relationships whimsically.  Even if you could control everyone you liked, you wouldn't want to.  Let life get messy.  Let something get out of hand.  Lose yourself in a friendship or a love that you know is going to be a hot mess.  Fall for your FWB.  Bang someone just because you think their boots would look great on either side of your head.  Have a fucked up fling.  Have a horrible break up.  Befriend someone who talks to you on the bus. It's okay to get a few things wrong. Life is like that. Art is like that too.

Enjoy the little things.  Stop.  Breathe.  Take a moment.  Life moves pretty fast in this society.  And in the words of one righteous dude, if you don't take a moment, it can pass you by.  The world is filled with ladybugs landing on your hands and gentle breezes and sunbeams and palms pressed to cheeks with meaningful glances and conversations that somehow go on until dawn.  Slow down.  Let these things happen.  Enjoy them.  The raging stress ball of (whatever--career, family, drama) will be there when you return.  I promise.

Don't sweat the small stuff.  I'm not going to say it's all small stuff.  It isn't. Some of it is stage four cancer or genocide or global climate change and there's nothing small about it.  But some of it is a busted iPod, running ten minutes late, or a forgotten date that is just a number on the calendar.  Keep it in perspective.

Live for today.  There's only this; there's only now, and all that stuff. It's later than you think or something. You only live once, or some crap. You don't have to bungie without a cord to seize the day. Just remember not to make so many plans that life happens to you while you're busy making them. There's a bus out there, or a carcinoma, or a tumor or fluid filled lungs or paraneoplastic syndrome or a monster truck with spikes and a buzzsaw shooter....or something with your name on it. Tomorrow. Next week. Twenty years. Who knows? What would you regret not doing if you died in your sleep tonight? What are you putting off because "there's plenty of time." Because priorities are fine....if that's really what's holding you back. But infinitely putting off something that should be a higher priority until tomorrow (in perpetuity) is not fine. What if there isn't time? Carpe all your diems my friends. Every single one is the most amazing gift this fucked up universe has to give you.

Plan for tomorrow.  Unprotected sex with strangers is foolish, even for the diem carpeingest of artists.  Cheating on someone (or even with someone) isn't whimsically messy life...it's ugly and there will be fallout. Your body won't last if you trash it. Shooting up heroin is not Y.O.L.O.  Live in the now like there aren't infinite tomorrows, not like there aren't going to be any. Save up for retirement. Floss your teeth. Don't eat that triple bacon cheeseburger with the smothered and covered fries unless it's a special day. Start exercising if your blood pressure is a little high. Living for today doesn't mean forgetting that there might be thousands of tomorrows.

Love the world.  There's something amazing about this world that as an artist you should have your finger on. It's extraordinary. It's magnificent. It's breathtaking. Life teems and pulses everywhere given the slightest chance. Humanity is even breathtaking. Look at a skyscraper, a modern day computer, or a freeway overpass and let yourself actually see the marvel of human cooperation and engineering. This world is pretty fucking spectacular if you let yourself see it. You don't even need to believe in a higher power to find wonder around every corner. The world is....incredible.

Hate the worldly.  You. Don't. Need. So. Much. Stuff!!  (Your art will pay the bills exponentially faster if those bills are small.)

Keep your eye on the prize.  Whatever it is you want to do--enrich your life, have a well-respected critic notice you, have a show at a venue people recognize, publish, pay the bills with your art...or maybe just pay the PHONE bill with your art--don't lose sight of that.  Your journey will have lot of crossroads with half-way measures or things that are sort of LIKE your art but not your goal.  (In writing, there are all kinds of professional writing gigs that make money--even good money--but aren't creative per se, for example.)  Don't lose track of what you want.

Remember the journey beats the destination.   Keeping your eye on the top of the mountain doesn't mean you don't stop during the hike to look around.  Fuck, that's a beautiful tree.  Oh shit, that deer came right up to me.   Damn, even the view from here is pretty amazing.  I really want to try THIS trail.  You may even find the destination turns out to be different than you first thought, but that doesn't happen if you're a close-minded fanatic about it.

Play!  No study of creativity and imagination fails to underscore the importance of simply letting your mind wander.  Fiddling with ideas in a non-urgent way.  Flitting from topic to topic in a mercurial way.  Not everything has to have a goal or an objective.  Waste some time.  Lose an afternoon.  Do some art in a discipline you suck at.  Do some art in your discipline that will never see an audience but is just for you.  Stare out the window and watch the hummingbirds.  Make love in a hammok because it's the middle of the afternoon.  Help the cats nap in a sunbeam.   Let your mind play.  In the end, that time will be better spent for your art.

Work! Your art isn't going to produce itself.  Get your ass to work.  I don't care how creative you think you are.  If the only place the idea ever lives is between your ears, you aren't being an artist.  You're being a daydreamer.  Get some perspiration going.  Don't make me bust out the success/work/dictionary cliche and my best step-dad impression.

Nothing is more important than loving others.  Artists across time, across disciplines, and across the world have something in common. A real, genuine artist (and not just someone who with a refined skill set in an artistic talent) is almost always a creature of extraordinary empathy. Even if they have other foibles that might seem antithetical like narcissism, substance abuse, anger management problems, greed, arrogance, or even misanthropy they still retain a quality of extraordinary empathy that most people just can't quite grasp.

Nothing is more important than loving yourself.  The world out there doesn't like artists.  It doesn't respect their decisions, their values, or what they find meaning in.  It really doesn't like those who it can't tell what to care about (and what to buy to assuage those cares).  And that world has so much power.  That world can make you doubt your life in the span of a commercial.  You have to have tremendous self love, or you won't last an hour.  It's so important, when the ground underneath you feels like it's collapsing away, to know that the world is what blows, but you....well you are pretty gosh dang awesome.

When you doubt your power, you give power to your doubt.  Do not go there, my son.

Most importantly embrace ambiguity and delight in paradox.  An artist cannot share society's discomfort with grey areas. Be they moral ambiguity, cultural paradox or just a question to which there isn't yet an answer.  These are the shadows where artists live.  These are the dark corners that artists flood with light, darken further, or conjecture as to what lives within.  That is WHY the world delights in their vision.  They see what others do not.  They make old things wondrous and novel and unknown things things familiar.  They show the world the shadowland between light and darkness is not a place to fear but one of amazing beauty.  It might not seem okay to have no opinion, not know the answer, or have an idea so nuanced that everyone on every side takes umbrage.  Everyone may hate that you can't just take a side, won't agree with them, or are perfectly comfortable with more than one answer.  That's what it means to be an artist.

Now take these visions and insights, and go create something beautiful.


  1. Your so clever, BUT only mammals get rabies :/ xoxo bg ;)

  2. Thanks for sharing! Made me smile and so true...especially the "Worldly" gem.

    In in a fully truthful and supportive way, I think you meant "forge" instead of "forage".

    1. You never need to be so gentle about pointing out my grammar errors. :-) I make a lot of mistakes, and I'm not that great at catching them (yet). Thanks for the catch!!!

    2. Fixed! And thank you...for both parts of your comment.

  3. Its so true! Being an artist is a paradox!

    1. Either a paradox, a contradiction, or a delicate balance.

  4. Nice Mystery Men references!

  5. love this but maybe you'd change a couple of words if it were written for a woman audience.

  6. This article itself is art. Thank you so much, for the advice I was looking forward to.

  7. This article itself is art. Thank you so much, for the advice I was looking forward to.