There are only three things in this life worth exploring: love, beauty, and death. In those things are all that makes life worth living. And making art that comes from your soul requires confronting all three. That’s why I believe that art is life. It helps us see our experience on this planet through a transcendent lens and lets us touch the numinous. It moves the ancient currents inside us and gives form to things and feelings that we have no words for. Things that soar above human experience. Things that speak to us only through art. We get a whiff of that ethereal splendor and we use crude tools in an attempt to express the inexpressible. We beat on skin drums and clang about on tin bells trying to make glorious music that reaches the ears of heaven. And we fail far more often than we succeed. But we do it anyway becasue all feel those things, even though we can’t explain them. They are what makes life worth living at all. Without them, life is a process of working, consuming, and reproducing. We might as well be birds. This is what differentiates us from every other life form on the planet. And some of us serve as conduits to those numinous things for the rest of us. We call those people artists. Because we live in a culture that needs us to fit in, it is hard for artists to do their work. The artist’s job is, by definition, counter-cultural. Artists function as a camera obscura on the world, showing us what we can’t see, sometimes what we don’t want to see. It’s easier to be a doctor or a lawyer than to be an artist. I’m not trying to minimize the difficulty of those noble professions or the great skill required to practice them. What I am trying to do is to legitimize the artistic struggle. I’m asking the world to recognize that the artist is on a solo quest across a barren land. And, unlike the doctor or the lawyer, there is no map that can get him where he needs to go. The only use our culture has for artists is in the service of commerce, to distract or to sell goods and services. Beyond that, we artists are forced to live on the fringes of society. We get called “weird” because we dress funny. We’re labeled “dangerous” because we question and poke and prod and thumb our noses at convention. They call us crazy because we make them think and heretics because we challenge what they hold sacred. And so they certainly don’t want to do anything to help us do our work. God forbid. Instead, they tell us to get real jobs. But without us, they might as well be birds. Take away the likes of Mozart, Van Gogh, and Shakespeare and what’s left? What’s left to think about, to aspire to, to raise us to the rapture of the cosmos?
If you have a muse and you are not heeding it, beware! You can try to be a bird. But, my friend, no matter how hard you try, you ain’t no bird. Make no mistake. Making art is hard, bitter work. It’s lonely, the hours suck, and most of the time it’ll scare you half to death. After all, you’ll be putting a piece of your soul out there and everyone else will think you’re a loon. It also means that when the muse calls, you go, everything else be damned. This may consign me to a life of solitude. And that’s scary. Who’d have me? Most people can’t understand my way of life. When my muse is speaking her voice is so loud that I can’t hear anything else. If I’m doing something instead of my work during those times I’m only half there, half aware, half listening. And I’m usually only half awake because when I’m riding the daimon I don’t get much sleep. Other, more “normal” people find that frustrating, even intolerable. Who’d blame them? But if I try to live any other way then I’m no good to myself, much less anyone else. And then there’s the work. The discipline and the peaks and valleys of the creative life can be brutal. How do you think you’ll feel when you spend long, dark hours pouring your very soul into a piece of work, sweating over every detail, only to have the person you show it to say something like, “Oh, that’s nice, but does it come in blue? My couch is blue.” REALLY? So why am I telling you this? Because if you’re still here, then I suspect you’re at least a little like me. You have a calling. You sense that there’s something inside you that makes you different. You see the world differently than everyone else you know. You want to make art but you’re scared. Scared of what it might cost you. Scared you’ll be rejected. Scared you’ll fail. So you have a million excuses about why you don’t do it. Bills, family, job, responsibilities, blah, blah, blah. Believe me, I’ve heard them all and used most of them myself. Here’s my advice to you: GET TO WORK. Don’t deny yourself or the world your contribution. The price is too damn high. There’s no magic formula, no secret workflow or tool, no one last piece of knowledge that’s gonna put you over the top and make you ready. And none of us has the time so don’t even try that one on me. If you’re happiest when you’re throwing on the wheel, sitting at the easel, or with a camera in your hand, then get to it! Whatever your medium is, start the work. That’s the way to begin. And do it every day. Even if it’s only for a few minutes. Don’t worry if you think you’re not good enough. Who cares? None of us ever thinks we’re good enough. You have to be willing to make an awful lot of bad work before you can make anything good. And don’t do it for the approval of others. If that’s your motivation I promise you you’ll be disappointed. You have to be your own cheerleader because there’s sure no shortage of people who will tear you down. Do it for yourself, because you have to, because you need to, because the very doing makes you happy. That’s enough. And here’s the dirty little secret of every artist: none of us has the slightest goddammed idea what we’re doing or where it comes from. If you catch a serious artist in an honest moment that’s what they’ll tell you. If they tell you otherwise, they’re either a liar or a fool. It’s all about the work. The muse rewards only that. She doesn’t care how much sleep you’ve had, how low your checkbook balance is, or whether you live in a cardboard box. She honors work. If you work, she’ll eventually show up, but not until then. Inspiration is born from work, not the other way around. It’s a basic law of the universe: a body in motion tends to stay in motion and a body at rest tends to remain at rest. So I’ll boil it down to a pithy statement for you. Print it out and tape it to your workstation. Tack it to your wall. Write it backwards on your forehead. Here it is:
People who want to be artists wait for inspiration.
Real artists get to work.
Right now, you have to decide if you’re a bird or a bee. Birds do what birds do: they fly together in formation, never straying too far from the flock. They hang out with the other birds and get real jobs and do all the things the flock expects them to do. Bees, on the other hand, go off on their own. They fly in circles making a nuisance of themselves, driving everyone nuts. People run when they come around or swat at them to make them go away. But the bee just ignores everybody and continues about his business. Here’s one thing about the bee that’s important for you to remember. The birds think the bee is crazy for flying in circles. But the bee is looking for that most beautiful of things: the flower. He wants to pollinate that flower. Then the flower can reproduce and that process makes the rest of the growing things in the world grow. And that, my friend, is the life-giving force of nature. So artist, do your thing. It’ll be the death of you if you don’t. And if you do, you’ll give the rest of the world the pollen that all our lives worth