This is how we kill an Artist

“The artist’s life is romantic to everyone but him.”

An Artist is Born

It begins, or ends like this: one day you’re in the back corner of a roadside joint, cutting carrots, washing the lettuce, sweeping the floors, digging the tip box, and the next you’re on the street with your photographs, and there’s nothing to your name but a few hundred dollars in the bank and some old work you’re trying to sell. Something troubles you. It’s not the dire finances, or the indifference of the man passing, but something else that goes unsaid among many troubled artists.

This is what I call the original sin of the artist. It’s the guilt he bares for having dared severed himself, willingly, from a predetermined lot chosen by those who raised him and thought themselves deserving of a lifetime’s worth of repayment, and the burden that naturally follows for having been forced to choose between the grace of the common lane — often the one chosen for him — and the punitive solitude of the open road — the one he chooses for himself. The guilt, and the burden, can kill the artist, depending on how much of it he carries (or, more accurately, how much is laid on him) and how capable he is of disposing both for the sake of his art.

This is how the journey begins for many artists. It is also how they often end.

The Artist’s Chances of Surviving the First Stage

For the artist who has had to fight for his right to be that, which is most artists, his way of life will always feel like an exhausting rebellion, and it is often the rebellion, and not the art for which he has rebelled for, that consumes his energy, his thoughts, his hours. But if art is an occupation that comes with its demands and labor, just like all the others, why does it continue to be the one that’s most aggressively warned against?

There is one reason that underlies all the other given, that is, the uncertainty of the artist’s lot, which, in the eyes of the capitalist who insists on the definite, the specific, the grounded, the tangible, makes it a very dangerous one. Ironically, though the role of the artist appears uncertain, the artist himself often harbors more certainty than anybody around him.

However, the external avenue of the artist, the one that is visible to others, will always appear precarious. No two artists apply the same formula. There are suggestions and cautions, plenty of them, but no specific roadmap to follow the way there often is with other occupations. And the most troubling aspect of their warnings against becoming an artist isn’t their skepticismwith the work itself, but rather, with its unlikely prospects of succeeding, according to their limited and relative terms of success.

Worse yet, the artist finds it very difficult to define “it.” Seemingly ordinary questions like, “what do you do,” or “when will the project finish” are agonizing and, frankly, even irrelevant. And when he tries to answer, it often sounds like an apology, a desperate defense, a scripted explanation. He cannot describe it and they cannot (or do not want to) think of any other way to see it but a series of long absences, failed attempts, and long overdue completions with hardly an audience to receive it.

Photo Credit: Aiyah Sibay

Everything is the Artist’s Fault

Many see art as a sort of purposeful defiance, a role chosen despite the warnings. So if the artist suffers along the way, it’s his own doing. On the other hand, a man returns from a conventional job and has a hundred things to blame for his unhappiness. His despair is always the fault of others. His occupation isn’t seen as a choice he made but an obligation he accepted.

His suffering is handled gently, his exhaustion pitied, his complaints understood and shared by many around him.

For the artist, however, his predicament is always his own making. If he returns from the studio with the same frustration, he finds very few, if any at all, to sympathize with him. And he must be careful with who he chooses to complain to. One slip of the tongue and he risks hearing those fateful words that may put an end to all his efforts.

It is all the more frustrating when working professionals, who are well aware of the miseries of the common workplace, insist that the solution for every difficulty an artist faces lies in finding ‘real’ work. It would never occur to them that there was a kind of suffering that had nothing to do with finances, or that there’s no work more consuming than the one that demands the hand to make visible the fleeting visions of the mind.

But more importantly, the idea that a person is an artist by choice is an unfair one. First, I believe that no individual willingly chooses to undergo the agony. Art is the thing that happens against your will. It’s like the unwanted child that tugs your conscience. You can move to a different state, change your name, your number, everything, but the child is still yours. It lives in you, however far you may be.

And art behaves the same way. You can stuff the canvases in the back corner of a closet you’ll never open, burn pages and pages of musical notes you spent the better half of your life writing, you can move to New Orleans on a whim, become a server at the first place that hires you. You can wear your hands out scrubbing the counters, mopping the floors, busing tables, cleaning coffee urns, and say it’s nothing at all, that it’s all you were meant to do anyway. And still, like the face of the child that watched you pull from the driveway, it finds you everywhere, in your lunch break, your Sundays off, in the streetcar back home. You are a damned artist, regardless of whether you accept the responsibility that comes with it or or not. It doesn’t matter. You can’t undo what you are, just like the father can’t undo his title, even if the law allows it.

The Artist Discovers Himself

It would make all the difference if people began to view the position of the artist as something inherited, something that happens naturally. But the artist’s discovery of him or herself is hardly a celebrated event. Parents and friends often flood the artist with cautionary tales, stories of someone in the family who tried ‘it’ and look where she’s at. Worse yet is when the parents insist that their concerns come from a place of love when it often comes instead from a place of vanity. A child declaring himself as an artist is treated like a violation, a breaking of an implied promise. We give you this, and you give us that. They treat it like a life-long investment in stocks that lost their value. It’s no surprise, then, that an artist is often made to feel as if he has taken something away from them, rather than having offered something wonderful, something worthy of their efforts.

The response of the artist’s loved ones to his discovery of himself is often a great source of confusion. It goes unsaid that parents want the best for their child, and if they, who are the most loyal, the most concerned, the most devoted are warning him against becoming an artist, then there must be something there that he can’t see. If they say that art is too risky, the prospects too slim, that it works better as a hobby, then if only for their position as the artist’s parents, it must be so.

The ex-artist then begins the suicidal process of converting his artistic sensibilities into something he doesn’t have to spend the rest of his life defending. And suddenly, a man in his 50s finds himself somewhere he swore he’d never be and wonders what ever happened to the boy who used to sleep by his piano.

Worse yet is when the parents make the discovery themselves, before the child is aware of it, and they either see it for what it is, or mistake it for something else. Either way, many parents will often treat it as a behavior that has to be corrected, an obsession that has to be timed, a staggered line of focus that needs testing. How many artists, for instance, have fallen to the fatal diagnosis of ADD/ADHD when it wasn’t attention they lacked, but a fitting task onto which they could direct that attention?

Photo Credit: Aiyah Sibay

The Currency of Pain in the Art World

There are many behaviors and sentiments that are particular, and even necessary, to the artist and his work. Pain and sorrow and rage are all valuable currencies in the art world, though every artist will tell you he wishes it were otherwise. What is often medicated in a world that finds these sentiments obstructive to the everyday routine is what pushes the artist — against his will — to the canvas, the violin, the paper, the dance studio. It is no coincidence that often the most valorized and daring works of art are made by artists who have had a particularly difficult life. Pain is so valuable in the artist’s life that it is often their most painful experience that made them conscious of the artist that was lying dormant inside them.

It is what we take pills for that has marked the beginnings of many long and glorious artistic journeys.

The Misfit

“…we were all safe after that/ but none of us/ went on/ to make something/ anybody would ever stop and look at”
-Scott Laudati, Hawaiian Shirts in the Electric Chair

As for the behaviors of the artist, this too often falls victim to the unforgiving hands of a society that accepts only one kind of behavior. There is a common etiquette that we’ve subconsciously agreed to, whether we like it or not, and part of what makes artists appear so undesirable and destructive to many is that they often find these laws that we mindlessly adapt to be quite stifling and even dangerous to the artistic process. Each artist has a particular sensibility that needs to be nurtured for the sake of the work he or she is meant to produce, and this sensibility often appears outrageous, scandalous, and inconsiderate to many. Often, many artists don’t even get a chance to realize what they are because their temperaments had already been addressed from quite a young age. And those with lingering traces are trained to think of that part of them as a sin, an illness, or a vice.

I’m not certain we’ll ever fully be aware of how many artists we’re losing to this aggressive and popular “urge toward respectability and maturity” that Julia Cameron describes in the Artist’s Way as “stultifying [and] even fatal” for the artist.

The Artist Who Makes it Past the Warnings

For the few who manage to pass these impossible barriers, they find the second stage of their journey even harder. Instead of being able to focus on the work itself, he wonders, instead, how good will it have to be for his rebellion to be excused. Never mind that it wasn’t him who decided that to choose art is to choose a battle in the place of the peace he could have had.

In this world, art is a sin that only success can pardon. But the chances are slim, and not for the reasons that are often cited. In this case, not only is the artist faced with the agonizing task of converting his ideas into tangible creations, something that mirrors the imagined products of the mind, but he also bares with it the tugging desire — however hard he tries to dismiss it — to be forgiven. For that to happen, not only must he have something to show for the weeks gone by, but whatever it is, it must also be something that commands the attention of a large enough audience.

As Cameron explains, what we refer to as the artist’s “block” often stems from a “fear of abandonment,” which began at the time an individual “tried to become [an] artist against their parents’ good judgement.”

And to insist on it, despite their judgement, “means you’d better know what you’re doing…you’d better not just be an artist. You better be a great artist if you’re going to hurt your parents so much.”

Under this unreasonable pressure, the value of the artist does not lie in his work, but in its potential to be something much greater than what it is. In other words, it’s not how well his story is written, but who will publish it. It is not the heart-trembling music played to a friend in the corner of his kitchen, but what venue will host it. It’s not the marvelous painting he’s finished after 6 months, but which gallery will accept it.

This is not only an unfair burden, but it hinders the artist’s ability to create, a process that is, even, without any exterior conflict, a precarious and challenging process in itself.

Photo Credit: Aiyah Sibay

The Looming Threat of Success

It’s a fatal line that begins with guilt and ends with a sort of perversion of the very thing that was once their greatest pleasure. Because the artist can’t help but see his line of work as an “adolescent rebellion” and because he still insists on it, he begins his journey as an artist not with a feeling of liberty (which is necessary for the artist) but with an overwhelming feeling of guilt. This guilt, in return, “demands that they set a goal to be a great artist in order to justify his rebellion.”

And there lies the salvation of the artist, like a desirable object placed in the midst of a field of lions. The artist fights for his freedom, then realizes that his only chance to be forgiven lies in his success. The irony then becomes that the artist feels miserably bound to the very thing for which he sacrificed everything for. He now has to tailor his art to fit the slim probability of success. “It serves, and in serving, becomes a slave.” As Albert Camus explains, “Any artist who goes in for being famous in our society must know that it is not he who will become famous, but someone else under his name, someone who will eventually escape him and perhaps someday will kill the true artist in him.”

Photo Credit: Aiyah Sibay

Another Artist is Killed

Though the artist may insist his liberty is far more important than their forgiveness, the guilt often lingers. And this is where most give up. They’ve fought for their right to be artists, then, all of a sudden, they can’t seem to make any art. Why? Because “the need to be a great artist,” as Cameron describes, “makes it hard to be an artist…the need to produce a great work of art makes it hard to produce any work at all.”

As an artist myself, I’ve found that the unspoken “need to produce a great work of art” leads to exactly the kind of debilitating effect that Cameron describes. It hinders an already challenging task, it paralyzes the hand, it shifts the process from authentic creation to self-censored restrain. And this is why everyone insists on maintaining art as a hobby; it is one of the ways in which we could safeguard the most precious parts of ourselves from the eye of the public that forgives nothing. We agree to “play” on their terms. We bind ourselves to a respectable occupation during the day and do the art in our ‘free time.’

Ironically, these so called “part-time” artists are often the most successful, the most daring. They do not have to waste their energy trying to justify their calling. They were excused from the beginning. All their energy was put into the work itself. It is for this reason, and not for financial security, that the artist begged to push his art to the side.

The Artist Who Dies Trying to ‘Make It’

I believe no artist has made anything worthy trying to ‘make it.’ That may be the intention he begins with, but he will always realize soon enough, as many of us did, that the hands can’t be coaxed into making something meaningful if it serves a distant, faceless audience.

For the love of art, every artist will have to bow in humility before his lot and say yes to oblivion, at least for a while. He must give himself willingly to the arms of solitude. But many artists, for fear of remaining unknown — a fear harvested by the same people who deemed his way of life a perilous and unjust digression — will throw themselves into their art the way one does when he tries to ward off a terrible and almost certain fate.

That kind of art is produced by the hands of fear and not by the hands of an artist. How the art will be received concerns him more than the art itself. And it is not his fault. The artist was free and hated for it. He was free and suffered immensely from being so.

The most genuine artist makes art for the same reason a man in passing pursues a beautiful woman. Both are conscious that any yearning to arrive at a desirable end corrupts the purity of the act. Both are aware that the end is irrelevant, fleeting, and even distracting. But how many artists are brave enough, or strong enough, to produce for the simple and selfless desire of love without considering the fatal possibility of an absent audience?

Perhaps you’d be more forgiving if you knew how little disparity lies between an artist who ages in the corner of an art market, and one who falls into the graceful hands of fame.

What lies between them, often, is only a slim creek of chance. I don’t mean the line of luck that is either written or left out of their conflicting fates. I am referring, instead, to the coincidental past of every artist who was either granted the chance to produce freely and authentically, or, was shamed into becoming someone bound to an obsessive and apologetic way of making art.

The latter works in the fields of his art and is miserable for it. He begins to hate it without being aware of the reasons behind his sudden disinterest. What was once the only liberating area in his life suddenly becomes the most frightening and oppressive. He packs his supplies, applies to a job he swore he’d never take, and abandons all his efforts. And they who warned him look on, pleased with the accuracy of their predictions, with neither of them being aware that it wasn’t the art that failed him, but the crushing debt with which he entered a sanctuary that closes itself to anyone who comes without absolute freedom and pure intention.

Instead of dismantling this unfair burden and attempting again, the artist wrongly blames himself, his lack of skill, the art itself, the competition, and because he has heard a thousand predictions for his failure by now, he has little immunity to overcome the virus of doubt and failure, and hardly any encouragement to sustain him during the long spells of creative drought, which are inevitable in the course of an artist’s life.

The Artist’s Survival Kit

“I was a kid who had a lot of time to focus on the things I wanted to focus on.”
-Bilie Eillish

The freedom of an artist is no luxury. It’s an absolute necessity. What a surgical instrument is to a doctor, and tools are to a landscaper, freedom is to an artist. “Art lives only on the constraints it imposes on itself; it dies of all others.” The medic is trained in med school, the lawyer is trained in law school, and the artist is trained in freedom; he learns to wander, to study the silence, to train the eye, the hands, the ear to perfect a craft that relies deeply on the strength and uniqueness of each of these elements. Supplies are acquired. Training is paid for. But the liberty of the artist is elusive, fleeting, and fought for with the artist’s life. And yet, somehow, freedom becomes the loan the artist spends his whole life paying for.

And this why: freedom is often confused with idleness, selfishness, and worse, a thing reserved for children who can afford to ‘waste time.’ Sure, freedom has its allure, its brilliance, but — and this is the part that is often overlooked — “it is made up especially of duties.” It is a necessary ‘privilege.’ So let us give it generously to the artist, if not for him, then for the sake of the work that deserves it, and which, anyhow, is made for our sake.

Most artists accept the obligation that comes with their freedom, but they also accept that it may take years before that obligation manifests itself into something that can be exhibited, performed, read, or heard. He rehearses, experiments, sketches, drafts, but at the end of the day, week, or month, he may not have much at all to show for it, nothing he could hold up to say, “See? I too deserved this day, this liberty, this life.”

Photo Credit: Aiyah Sibay

The Artist with Empty Hands

We have, as members of a society that quantifies the day with a subjective scale of productivity, “inherit[ed] the obsession with product and the idea that art produces finished products.” Certainly, over a long term, it does, and at the end, it often justifies the years it took for its conception. And only then, in that glorious moment when the artist draws the curtains and unveils his work, is he forgiven, his behavior excused, his rebellion justified, even celebrated, and his absence pardoned.

That is all well, but suppose all of this was offered to the artist at the beginning of his journey. How many artists did we lose to our habit of reserving our kindness for those who finish well? What great artist did we lose because those around him did not trust him enough, did not believe that an artist can be incredibly productive without a product to show for it for years?

Here’s an example. Cauparnum, an Oscar-nominated “miracle” of a film, took 5 years in the making, 3 years of research, 6 months of filming, and more than a year of editing. Leo Tolstoy rewrote each chapter of Anna Karenina about 9 times. Khalil Gibran pocketed the manuscript for The Prophet for years because he wanted to make sure each word was absolutely perfect.

Without a completed product to show for the months and years gone by in a society that demands it, and without the firm support and trust to hold him through that time, we destroy the foundation of the artist, that is, “the creator’s faith in himself” and in his ability to create. We kill an artist, and with it, the miracle that could have been ours.


Photo Credit: Aiyah Sibay

Aiyah Sibay

Aiyah Sibay is a poet, photographer, and calligraphist. She has worked as a writer for the UN and the Middle Eastern publication, Barakabits, and as a columnist for The Diamondback. She was a Litfest finalist, Beacon Street poetry finalist, and a winner of the “Writing Migration Literary Competition” at the Forming Black Britain Symposium and Cosmographia’s poem of the month. Her photography, fiction, and poetry have been published in Stylus, Inkwell, Voice Catcher, Track//Four, Sukoon, and in an anthology by Cosmographia.