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I want to become an artist – but am unsure whether I have something relevant to say. What do I do?

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Contemporary artists need to understand (and embrace) their authenticities. Doing so usually results in work that’s personal, and thus vulnerable – which is not a guarantee for (economic) success, but has a high likelihood of feeling worthwhile: because you focus on what matters to you.

Art is often thought to require the expression of something relevant – but.. what is relevant? There cannot be an absolute answer to this question: relevance is subjective. It’s also volatile and temporary: people change their preferences and relevancies all the time. It’s important to understand that sometimes, we need to express something of relevance – yet other times, the sheer act of expressing something creates the relevance. The former uses expression to manifest an “external” idea and incorporates it into art (an artwork about love, societal criticism, the portrait of someone, etc.); the latter might or might not do that (it could simply be an abstraction created without deeper contextual intention), yet can still create relevance and emotions within viewers. That’s the power of art: people getting attached to an idea they never knew of, because of a film, a novel, a song or a sculpture.


What might feel relevant to one person, might not ever faze the next one, and might not even face themselves at a later time. This usually means that you need to focus on what’s relevant (a) to you, (b) today – because these are the two things you can try to understand (side note: it can be argued that focusing on what “you want today” puts you way too deep in what’s already established, and results in you being unable to anticipate what’s upcoming and fresh. A good strategy might be to always go in the direction of authenticity: focus on the topics, processes, aesthetics and works that feel important and authentic “to you, today”. This way you might still miss what’s upcoming and fresh, but did at least focus on something that will be hard to regret). Take time to write down topics, ideas and contexts; aesthetics, role models, experiences and thoughts that you care about; this can become the navigational map for the current phase of your art life.


Even if you have a good understanding of what’s relevant to you, you might still be unsure whether your personal relevancies can matter within the system of art. Let’s deconstruct this worry by discussing art as transgenerational group effort, benefiting from diversity: there cannot be a single artwork or artist that fulfills, all on its own, the “idea of art”. No single piece or person could reflect and highlight life in all of its aspects, depth, joys and sorrows – and that’s not even a problem. It’s more healthy (and humble) to understand art as a blend of opinions of ideas; not just of yours and your contemporaries, but of our entire species – from the deepest past into the widest future. Each one of us is but a pebble in the sands of time. We can all just express what we know and feel; yet if everyone does that, art becomes a chorus of diversity, only limited by the (mostly diversity-lacking) systems of the art world. Your work might be of little relevance to art history, but it’s very few artists where this is ever different. Influencing art history might not even be the best goal; instead, it might make more sense to focus on yourself: is your work relevant to you? If so, there’s a high likelihood you will continue to create and challenge it, and work on making it visible. Your personal relevancies are maybe the most essential aspect of your artmaking.


The more you create work that’s relevant to you, the more personal, and thus vulnerable life gets: caring creates vulnerability. That’s why artmaking requires courage – how else to express and exhibit your deepest feelings and ideas? Once you care, your work won’t just be 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 would be disturbing, but could happen: 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 other people will despise your over-abundance of public emotional release. It’s important not to take either situation personally, or as worthwhile feedback of your work – it’s usually not. Sadly the opposite, positive feedback, also might not help you too much (beyond the initial burst of joy, which isn’t nothing): feedback simply highlights the alignment of personal relevancies and affinities, not an absolute value of what’s relevant. Values are personal. Relevancies are individual. Vulnerability is human: creating work that’s personal makes you feel, and gives your life meaning.

Instead of discussing relevance, consider using individuality as metric to judge your work: what matters is whether what you do is authentic – to you. No one but 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. This effort might feel naïve, sad and laughable to some people – but that would be a difference in values (between them and you), and could not ever be an absolute judgment of value. You can handle that.

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