I go to a prestigious art school. You hear about our graduates all the time. I don’t fit in with my classmates because they’re avant-garde, outgoing, and rich.
As for me? My parents live in a small town in Appalachia. I hang out with people who make me laugh and who work in offices or stores. We don’t know people who’ve been featured in New York Magazine and we’ve never been to 1Oak.
My friends seem okay with being regular ass people. But I’m not. Deep down I have more in common with my classmates than I do with any of them. Because we want to do great things. A life of humility and modest service to others is not enough.
People say it’s okay if I’m not a big deal. They say this is because I’m a good person, and good people are loved unconditionally. They tell me this viewpoint is a sign of maturity. But I don’t want to hear it. So I’m refining my friend circle. I’m becoming closer to the people who encourage me and distancing myself from anyone who prepares me to fail with dignity.
Being an aspiring artist means your self-esteem is dependent on the approval of people who don’t care about you. Think about it: the love we give to famous artists is the most conditional love ever. They have to relate to people they will never meet. Successful artists don’t just tell every story they think is important. Because they’re not themselves. They’re a medium.
As an artist, you want to tell universal truths in a unique way. (And when I say artist I mean writer, painter, actor, etc.) You take pieces of things you see and you work them into your philosophy. You’re supposed to see more than other people, but deliver the message in a way that doesn’t come across like you’re teaching them something.
In other words, you’re kind of an oxymoron. You have to be relatable and iconoclastic at the same time. Just a slight overcalibration to either side of the scale will make you a talentless hack or a pedantic asshole.
You feel like you’re not doing enough. Out drinking? You should be writing. Hanging out with your friends? Why aren’t you meeting other artists? The mainstream art world is selling an aspirational message. It doesn’t encourage you to find inspiration from doing mundane things with obscure people. Even though those are usually the most interesting stories to tell. (I think they’re also the stories people want to hear, but unfortunately being a famous artist usually means you have to get past a hell of a lot of gatekeepers.)
You feel pressured to be obsequious. Maybe the New York crowd will let you in if you kowtow to them. They like it when you write essays coyly referencing literary figures whom the average person doesn’t know or care about. But to be truly great, you have to have a perspective that’s truly yours. You can learn technique, but either you have the capacity to think for yourself or you don’t. You’ll find out pretty fast if your perspective is unique. Finding a timely niche and dealing with the politics is the hard part.
Lots of people who understand you in other ways don’t care about the nobility of your struggle. They care about being good to the people who are close to them. They might even be sanctimonious about it, like shame on you for being the narcissist who doesn’t think that’s enough. Having kids is the subtle, unselfish way to seek immortality. You’re blatantly looking for it through fame.
Every time someone likes your work, it feeds your soul more than if they loved you for anything else. Maybe you’re smart or funny or a wonderful friend. But above all, you are an artist. The approval of strangers for your objective qualities matters at least as much as the approval of your family for your character.
On the plus side, you have an automatic path to self-actualization. Art is how you process things. The better you feel you are at it, the better you feel about your ability to understand the world. I don’t know yet if it’s more fulfilling to be proud of your work or to be recognized for your work. The concept of “selling out” implies the former. Any Hollywood hit implies the latter.
I’m not above artistic dishonesty to make money. But so far I don’t seem to be good at it. I have pieces of fantasy books that I’m sure won’t be published. My other pet project is a memoir. It’s helping me get closure. I don’t know what failure feels like yet, but right now I’m happy I can take in information, rearrange it, and bring it back out with my wisdom imparted. I have a hunch that it’s worth the pain.
You also have a story. It’s yours. It can be fact or fiction but you are the only one who can tell it. On an objective level, yeah the best artists are the ones who tell the truth in a way everyone can relate to. But even if you’re the only one who understands your vision, you’ll still learn a lot from using it to create things you’re proud of. Your world may be humbling, lonely, and filled with revelations that in the end only matter to you. But at least it’s interesting.