I want to become an artist – but am unsure whether I have something relevant to say and express. What kind of intention is required of me? v0.3

Art is often thought to require the expression of something relevant. Relevance is highly subjective though: what might feel relevant to one person, might not ever faze the next one. You don’t need a lot to understand what you care about, yet introspection will let you dig deeper into your tastes. Experience shows that many of them change over time, while others remain unchanged over years; both can matter to you. The more you create work that’s relevant to you, the more vulnerable you are: caring creates vulnerability. You might be attached to your work, and require courage to express and exhibit your deepest ideals. Your work isn’t just another performance or another short film, but an honest expression of how you view the world. Others might make fun of it, misunderstand or ignore it. This is disturbing, but to be expected: they might dislike it because they dislike you personally, or because it touches a topic they are deeply uncomfortable with. Neither of you might know this – potentially even resulting in weird antipathies: if you create a highly sterile work, some people will despise it for its lack of emotions. If you create a highly emotive work instead, some people will despise your over-abundance of public emotional release. It would be a huge misunderstanding to take either situation personally, or as worthwhile feedback of your work – it’s not. Neither should you thrive on positive feedback; feedback simply highlights the alignment of personal relevances and affinities, not the value of what’s relevant. Values are personal. Relevances are individual. Instead of discussing relevance, think about individuality as metric to judge your work: what matters is whether what you do is authentic – to you. Only you can judge your authenticity; if relevance is a currency, your individuality has the highest value. In a world of global brands, any individual approach will stand out as unique and rare: push for it. 

 

Art is often thought to require intention, but that’s not necessarily true. Of course we want to live in a world where our intentions influence situations, since it gives us the impression of power and control over the world. Reality often shows us the opposite though: randomness influences the world just as much. You often can’t influence more than your initial leanings and affinities. Work, network, business and personal development thrive on intention and randomness. Life brims with their synchronicities. Art loves intention as much as randomness. Unintended situations and mistakes can set the stage for intentional further steps. Order and chaos constantly overlap and expand each other. Your grasp of the situation, your sensitivity and empathy are the best possible navigation tools. Especially when thinking of art as process to express contemporaneity, and witnessing the many unintended aspects of life surrounding us, the “best” art might actually be the result of unintended choices: you can create sloppy work if you’re sloppy or lazy – and might expertly express something relevant about the Zeitgeist. Since the arts don’t feature monolithic, fixed quality judgements, you can use processes as sloppily or exacting as you want, without resulting in works that are inherently better or worse. There simply isn’t a connection between a work’s creation process, and whether it will appear “good” or “bad” to others. What ultimately matters is whether your practice is authentic to you. Instead of intention, focus your authenticity.

 

What’s ultimately required of you is the curiousity and determination to carve a niche that fits you. A niche offering processes and collaborations satisfactory to you; then with luck and business dedication, and a sound understanding of what success means to you, this success might actually follow. Along the way, unexpected situations will arise: conversations with people who care about your work; job opportunities and collaboration requests; these might influence your idea of success, and create an ever-more holistic version of it.

I want to become an artist – but I don’t have any talent or artistic skills. Will I have what it takes? v0.3

Sometimes it feels as if certain people are meant to be artists, while others could never ever become one. A lot of people still believe in the notion of pre-existing talent or excellence; in their world view, artists are often thought of as rare geniuses. This is outdated. In actuality, the idea of talent is mostly used as (self-)mythologizing marketing strategy – or even as defense strategy by those who don’t want to fail, or even start trying: “If I can’t do something today, for sure I’ll never be able to do it. After all, others can do it so well already: why bother starting?” If this was true, life would be static; we wouldn’t ever be able to learn something new: another language, a new hobby or craft. People couldn’t ever change jobs or raise children – simply because ten years ago they didn’t know how to do it either. Life wouldn’t feature change.

At the same time, people rarely talk about talent when discussing less romanticized, more down-to-earth activities (like learning to cook or how to ride their bike). Yet in the arts, especially by outsiders, it’s often used as metric of excellence. Considering the many hours required to master any complex craft, the reality of “talent” becomes obvious: while it can be a kickstarter, it will never outweigh someone’s sheer power of will: whoever truly wants to become a chef, skateboard pro or jazz guitar player, for sure won’t be hindered by their perceived lack of initial talent. Rather, they’ll approach the new field according to their character, and find ways to turn alleged shortcomings or flaws into their signature style – with a mixture of humbleness and boldness. In addition, remember that talent can at times be problematic: if it creates arrogance and a wrong sense of security about a field’s complexity, and one’s position within it.

If discussing talent and arts, here’s a controversial idea: Contemporary art is an especially amazing field for those without talent, simply because it doesn’t feature a unique, static set of expectations towards content or form. Resultingly, there isn’t (and can’t be) a specific set of skills required to become an artist. If you’re blind but want to paint, if you want to film but can’t afford camera or editing software, if you’re insensitive but want to sculpt, then for sure there can’t be a better place than the arts. Don’t misunderstand: the arts are not a place for dilettantes. Amateurism and incompetence will always stand out as signs of bad quality – but the arts even have room for these: Since tastes are subjective and temporary, what might be perceived as “bad” by someone at some time, will feel like actual bliss to others, or the same person at another time. For an artist to make proper “bad art”, they need to embrace and expand on specific ideas of that quality – which is far away from operating naively. As long as you pursue your work authentically, continuously questioning and expanding it, and ignoring destructive criticism, then your work can thrive – entirely independently of preexisting talent or skills.


That’s why in today’s world, the most general requirements to becoming an artist are 

  1. your will to be curious, and 
  2. the endurance to establish your own work processes, based on your curiosity.

Instead of the cliché sufferings, artists should expect the hardships experienced by any emerging entrepreneur or business person: slow recognition and sales, a lack of structure, all sorts of financial worries, the requirement to do side jobs, the doubt of whether it’s all worth it. 


Because of fine arts being such an open field, there can be an additional depth to the fear of failing, of not being good enough. This fear can manifest itself by frequent, irrational comparisons to everything done before, done now, or yet undone. While you slowly deepen your understanding of the art world, you will at times see art through a tainted, stained filter – there’s always the danger of becoming cynical, to start despising the art world you crave to get accepted by. It can become difficult to appreciate or enjoy someone else’s works and achievements – including your own. By expecting this potential danger, cynicism becomes a choice: it’s possible for you to instead engage the world with a realistic kind of positivity.

To transcend these fears of failure, you first need to face them. For this, let’s not define the artist’s job by what you might like and enjoy about it – but by the hardships you’re willing to endure: are you up to face the challenges listed above, and find your own path through them? While this book suggests many strategies, the meta-advice is to 

  • stay utopian (“I know I can manifest this feeling/thought/idea!”),
  • while firmly being rooted in the realities of our world (“I know I have to work hard doing x/y/z to make my work visible!”).

Artistic skills and traditional notions of talent really have nothing to do with these.

What general challenges do I have to expect as artist, and how can I lessen their blow? v0.2

Instead of clear goals, the arts offer openness and ambiguities. They allow you to set up extremely individualized paths, within which almost anything can be done: you can choose your own processes and semantics, use specific media and materials in unexplored ways, and even define your own quality ideals – just to name a few. Noone can really tell you what to do in the arts; you need to define your reasons of operation on your own, through endless exploration, accompanied by the omnipresence of (often unexpected) successes and failures. To understand what you might want to do, you need sensitivity and self-assuredness:

  • Self-sensitivity: you need to refine your sensitivities to understand your personal wants and urges. The lesser these sensitivities, the more you depend on external stimuli to guide you – which rarely represent your personal ideals. The stronger your sensitivities, the higher the chances to actually fulfill them, and to be satisfied.

  • Self-assuredness: you need to refine your ego, so that you can actually trust your sensitivities. Your self-assuredness guards you from all sorts of transgressions and missteps – at the ubiquitous risk of becoming self-centered and ignoring the world.

 

To succeed as an artist, you need to somehow “master life”; you need to find strategies and solutions for all sorts of problems, and slowly distance yourself from the bottom of the food chain. With introspection and care, you will find and establish beneficial processes, environments and collaborations. Your visibility will grow. The following major challenges will require your long-lasting attention:

 

  • Work: You need to find the right emotional and mental spaces to push your work forward, in regards to content and form. You need to stay sensitive to your works’ potentials – even though you are the person most immersed in it, and thus the most prone to being blind to it. For this, you need to establish tools of realization and understanding: (a) discussing your work with yourself (through introspection, writing about your work, etc), and (b) discussing your work with others (through studio visits, social media connections, exhibitions, etc). You need to be able to convey the potential of your visual-mental universe. You need to become not only a builder of worlds, but also that world’s brand ambassador. You need the tools to let people know about your ever-changing, -transforming and -growing artistic vision.
    Your work might start out positively basic, with just a pencil and some paper – but soon enough, you will feel the requirement of more complex infrastructure: a studio with storage space, proper lighting, camera equipment to document your work, a computer with the appropriate software to edit your works and portfolios, plus a reliable data backup. The better these solutions suit your needs, the more focused you will be able to work; the more complex they get, the more energy will be required for their maintenance. Finding solutions that strike the right balance between ease-of-use and complexity, between minimalism and efficiency, is an ongoing challenge. The  better you understand your needs, the more adequate your decisions will be.

 

  • Network: You need to establish a network of trusted, loyal, reliable collaborators from all sorts of sub-fields. This might include graphic designers, photographers, curators, text writers, frame makers and generalist craftspeople to help you build specific works or shows. You need people who can offer financial support, but also those whose feedback lets you grow (instead of being stuck with people who use your work as platform for their agenda: to hurt, damage or dominate you, etc). You need people with networks stronger than yours, who want to use it to your advantage. Support doesn’t always come as encouragement or acquiescing yea-saying though; at times, it arrives as benevolent criticism – which is necessary if your actions are morally, spiritually, emotionally or economically unsound.
    Your network is based on individual loyalties, and thus a complex result of how you engage with yourself and others: there will be no lasting loyalty from others if there’s no loyalty towards them; and neither is likely to exist without prior loyalty to yourself. Networks are based on self-care and care for others: your self-care focuses your mental, emotional, and physical health (healthy living and eating, reading and doing sports, psychotherapy or yoga); the less you care about yourself, the less loyal you are to yourself. Short- and long-term goals can require opposing loyalties, which makes this topic challenging: the more you understand the world and your needs, the potentially better your decisions. Your care for others shows in your capacity to listen, support, protect and provide for others: lunches, coffee talks, late phone converstaions, family vacations, evenings or weekends spent together. You can rarely make up for uninvested time: if you continuously prioritize your work before your kids, partner, parents or friends, it will likely result in spiritual loneliness – even if you, in theory, have a family and children, or a long list of social media contacts. Weirdly enough, your network begins with self-care; but it can only thrive on your attention to others.

  • Psychological knowledge: Both your work and your network are built on human interaction – even if you work on your own, far away from others, you’re constantly surrounded by and embedded within yourself, a fellow human being. Being alive means to question life, and our potential place and purpose within it. That’s why you will benefit from establishing a deep psychological knowledge about the inner workings of humans: it will help you better understand yourself, and to better know what to expect from your collaborators. Who supports you, and who wants you to fail? Who cares about you and who doesn’t? These questions sound basic, but often require knowledge and experience garnered over decades. You want others to understand and work towards your goals, without requiring you to be pushy or off-putting. By properly understanding people’s motives and your mutual attractions, you can often find ways to connect. You need to be able to accept help in the first place – if you’re unable to do so, you’re usually on your own; life is possible, but harder that way.

    We would all benefit from “mastering” human relationships; which would let us understand what’s actually going on between (and within) us all the time. It pays off to work on this. Doing so requires a deep inspection of yourself, your childhood, your traumata and pains; the more you know about yourself, the more you can know (about) the people around you, since each of us has their own traumata and pains, and their subsequent, individualized coping mechanisms. The more you understand and transcend your pain, the better you can relate to and support others. Life is more humble then. Books, benevolent friends, and obviously psychotherapists or coaches can serve as tools to get there. It requires a lot of insight to understand whether which of these tools are helpful, and actually work in your favor. Accumulating these insights is based on making mistakes, and trying to learn from them. Psychological knowledge is based on failure, and thus very similar to the artistic process. Embrace it.

 

It’s impossible to sidestep life’s blows, but we can lessen their impact by anticipating them. You can expect certain challenges and anticipate potential solutions without being overly paranoid. The more you understand life’s complexities (other people, new situations, the pitfalls of a structured, domestic life, etc), the more you will appreciate strategies that navigated you safely through them. Memories of failures can be used as platforms for future success. By being circumspect, open-minded and relentless in approaching your life and work, you will gradually find a path that will make it all a little easier.