The Paradox of Being a Professional Artist

Before we go any further, you might want to put on some extra clothes. You might want to stock up on some extra B vitamins. Maybe some extra brain cells. If you’re reading this in public, stop until you’re wearing your best good underwear. Even before this, you might want to get on the list somewhere for a donor liver.” (Palahniuk, pp.18).

This is the warning from Chuck Palahniuk as he sucks readers into the pages of the ‘coma diary’ being kept by Misty Willmot, a failed artist whose husband Peter is now living as a perpetual vegetable following an attempted suicide. The book dictates the rise and fall of the couples’ loveless marriage, whilst Misty herself struggles to unravel the meaning behind the nihilistic messages her husband has left behind.

Peter fell in love with Misty’s work when they first met in art school, convincing her that she could be exceptional in her craft if it weren’t for the lack of passion for what she produced; caught up in what others were doing and trying to emulate the current ‘trends’. Peter explains to her the paradox of this, helping Misty realise that an artist cannot be successful if they have no sentiment for their work, deluded with the idea that the more hours put into something, the better it will be:

We want creativity to be a system of cause and effect. Results. Marketable product. We want dedication and discipline to equal recognition and reward. We get on out art school treadmill, our graduate program for a master’s in fine arts, and practice, practice, practice. With all our excellent skills, we have nothing special to document. According to Peter, nothing pisses us off more than when some strung-out drug addict, a lazy bum, or a slobbering pervert creates a masterpiece. As if by accident. Some idiot who’s not afraid to say what they really love.” (Palahniuk, pp.63-64).

Unlike more logical, knowledge based, careers such as engineering or IT, artistic ventures require ample emotion and desire. Yes practice and devotion are necessary, but if that practice and devotion relates to something you can’t feel a connection with then it’s doomed from the get-go. Whether you are a sculptor,  writer, poet, comedian, painter, or designer, if the subject in question is of meagre interest to you then how can you expect to fuel affection long enough for the project to succeed.

George Orwell spent years living homeless before he made it as a writer; William Boroughs a heroin addict most his adult life. Eckhart Tolle spent 2 years meditating on a park bench; Henry David Thoreau spent 2 years living off the land at Walden Pond. On paper these writers could not be more different, however principally each wrote about what they were passionate about, what they loved. Orwell’s parents were shocked and embarrassed to read about his hardships, but he was not afraid to reveal them to the world. Boroughs brought to life the drug underworld like nobody before, and arguably since. Tolle is now regarded as the most spiritually influential person in the world; Thoreau as a major figure in the transcendentalist movement.

The paradox as an artist is that no matter how many bone-crushing hours you spend on a project, if their is no emotion or love behind it then these hours may actually be tallying up against you. Doubt and insecurity will creep into your work and you will constantly be thrown off by external movements. Pick a topic you have passion and love for however, and these hardships will retract to background noise. If you express joy and fervour towards something this will rub off on others. And even if the project doesn’t succeed, at least you’ve gained experience and had fun in the process.

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