No Such Thing as a ‘True’ Artist: Persistent Myths That Need To Be Retired

I was inspired to write this post when I saw this image by artist Sean Landers:

It is a deliberately insincere and provocative slogan, designed to wind people up. So I’m going to ignore the joke about suicide and focus on the myths of artistic creation this piece brings up, as I think they are still present in the perception of artists and how they work.

In our society, there is a persistent myth of the great work by an individual genius that changes everything. Many artists and writers fall foul of this fallacy 1, wanting to produce a singular piece of work that will outlive them, wanting to create the best painting that’s ever been done or the most heartbreaking, insightful novel that’s ever been written. The only problem is that this approach is flawed.

Art is entirely subjective. Sure, you get some pieces that change the direction of art, but that doesn’t mean they are the best. Instead, everyone perceives art and books and culture differently. Trying to create the best thing that was ever created is a fool’s errand. because you are never going to please everyone. When Michelangelo’s David was unveiled, I’m sure there were some people who thought Eh? What’s all the fuss about? To use a more familiar example, I’m sure you have had the experience of going to a film that you loved but other people you were with hated. You were sat in the same screen watching the same film but somehow had completely different experiences. You can’t create the single best work of art any more than you can make the best cube of air. Art is messy and complicated and our reactions to it are often confused, contradictory and all over the place. The world is not simple. With seven billion people on the planet, the chances that you are going to get everyone to some kind of consensus is near impossible.

Because of this, the story you thought to be utter genius might be received poorly while something you didn’t think was worthy of attention is lauded. As an individual, you have no way of knowing whether you have reached the ‘peak’. Personally, I don’t think there’s any such thing. I think you work on one piece or one story, make it as good as you can in the time you have, then move onto the next. Neil Gaiman said it best:

Remember that, sooner or later, before it ever reaches perfection, you will have to let it go and move on and start to write the next thing. Perfection is like chasing the horizon. Keep moving. 2

There’s no such thing as the ‘peak’ of creation and no such thing as perfection, there’s just one thing after another. You improve slowly over time and challenge yourself in different ways.

Furthermore, those pieces that change the world and change the direction of art are often decided upon retrospectively. It is only after you look back and see what influenced what can you decide how influential or important a piece of work is. even then, the picture is incomplete and messy. A novel written in the nineteenth century might by change influence a number of writers in the twenty-first, by the whims of fate. As we look back, we get a false impression of these staggeringly important works. There’s no real way of knowing how a piece of writing or a painting or anything will impact people while you’re creating it.

The phrase ‘True Artist’ makes my skin crawl as well. There’s no such thing. If you make art, you’re an artist. As simple as that. If you make paintings and never show them to anyone, you’re an artist. If you write poems and put them on Instagram, you’re a poet. Anyone seeking to claim there is a certain pattern of behaviours that you have to follow in order to be a ‘true’ artist is just seeking to tear people down and make themselves feel important. The same goes for anyone attacking a means of publishing and production. Just look at the attacks the poet Hollie McNish encountered just because she puts her poems up on Youtube and performs them live. This kind of snobbery is sadly usually against women and minorities, seeking to delegitimatize the art they create and the distribution methods they use. This is one positive of the internet, it has started to tear down the gatekeepers and those who decide what is ‘true’ art and who is a ‘true’ artist. Unfortunately, this idea is ingrained in our current society and is very resilient. If you make any form of art in any way, you are a true artist and don’t let anyone tell you differently.

At the end of the day, art is about sitting down, focusing hard for a long time and creating something that didn’t exist before. These myths of the ‘true’ artist and of one singular piece of genius are insulting at best and damaging at worst. If you have the pressure that you have to create something that will change the world, it puts a lot of pressure on you. You shouldn’t try to be the best or follow other’s rules for success. You should focus on what works for you for each piece that create and try to make it the best you can. You will learn as you go on. But knowing when you’ve reached your peak or thinking there are certain things you have to do to be a true artist are just myths that need to be retired. Sean Landers knows this, which is why the wryly sarcastic piece of art retains its power.

  1. Try saying that fast.
  2. From this list in The Guardian

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