The day after my girlfriend of ~2 years broke up with me, I walked into work to find out I was getting a big bonus. I was handed my check and left alone in a big room. I stared at the zeroes on my check, they didn’t make me feel any better. The night before, I had written for three hours, that made me feel better. It was at that point that I realized that I should be a writer, in some capacity, if I wanted to find fulfillment in life.
The pieces I published about that time—“How to Fall In Love With Someone Who’s Never Been In Love Before” and “How To Deal With The Fact That They Are Never, Ever Getting Back With You”—helped me in two ways. First of all, it was cathartic to pour my heart out like that. Articulating my emotions helped me sort out and bring closure to the relationship. Secondly, it was fulfilling to get a response back from the world—people emailing me to tell me that my article helped them, sharing their own stories in the comment section, etc.
Through a piece of writing, I was able to connect with other people. And I guess other people felt like they were able to connect with me. So everyone felt less alone. That’s the power of art.
People hear a song or read a story and it takes them away from their lives. They’re escaping their alienation by realizing there are other people out there with the same problems, the same hardships, as them. Going through a breakup and listening to a Drake song is helpful. Feeling “existentially desperate” and reading Camus is helpful.
It’s not just consuming art, but creating art which is important—for everybody. And everybody makes art, even you.
Let’s define art first. Art is anything that expresses yourself. Let’s not be snobs and think art should be a certain way—art is the Mona Lisa, it’s a third grader’s scribbles, it’s a sentence written on a napkin, it’s a trap rap song. Since most people aren’t artists as a career, they express themselves through their hobbies. The art of music. The art of gardening. The art of magic tricks.
One of the greatest parts of life is simply getting better at a hobby. It alleviates existential despair by giving you a goal to work towards, and it’s just plain fun. I started swimming and playing chess in the last two months, and it’s exhilarating to see much easier they get every day.
Whether they’re creative hobbies (music, writing, etc) or curatorial hobbies (gardening, swimming, etc) they’re all artistic. I express myself through the set of laps I do at the pool. My mom expresses herself through the combination of herbs she cultivates in the backyard. It’s creating: a workout or garden or song where there was previously none. And because they’re arts, the best of them—sports plays, gardens, food, music, articles, etc—have an aesthetic beauty.
When somebody gives up their hobbies, their creative interests, a part of them dies. We look at our parents who wanted to be painters or writers or musicians in their youth, who don’t do those things anymore. No wonder they’re so anxious and sad. When you give those things up, you kill the inner child inside of you, you become very old all of a sudden.
There’s a reason why artists like Kanye West act so childlike. Art and creativity, at its heart, comes from a very pure, childlike place. When you’re young, you make stuff, without inhibition. You invent stories, scribble with crayons, sing songs. Youth is associated with creativity, old is associated with cynicism. The happiest adults I know never stopped creating or pursuing their hobbies.
Most of human existence is centered around escape—we are random creatures on a random rock who are all going to die, so some of us try to transcend that looming hurricane fate by doing drugs, by pursuing fame, money, or power. Those are unsustainable ways to escape.
A great way to feel bigger than yourself is to make or consume art. Getting lost in listening to a song, or writing in a journal, is like opening a hole in reality and joining the paper people chain of those who’ve had similar problems to you. It gives one a sense of unity.
Art is salvation in that way. When overwhelming, painful relationships come over me, like my childhood dog dying, the best way I have to address is to write about it. When I went through a breakup three months ago, I made a rap song about it. Something about writing it, finishing it, and then sharing it with others, is like a completion of the emotion. The last refuge you have for extreme, irrevocable sadness—let’s say your dad died and you never had a chance to say goodbye—is to make it into material.
In a capitalistic world where everything is for a purpose—for recognition or money or attention—the only thing that is free from that is art. Sure, it’s often commodified, but that doesn’t mean yours has to be. Art, at its heart, is made for itself. Done for its own sake. It’s so unnecessary but necessary.
Every organism needs self-expression. Part of my job includes taking care of chickens. In one guidebook I read about them, it said that an important part of a happy chicken life was for it to be “expressive.” If chickens—with their small, reptilian brains—need expression to be happy, so do you. William Winter once said that “self-expression is the dominant necessity of human nature.” He’s right.
And you are artistic. You might like taking photos, or blogging, or tweeting, or cooking, or coding, or chess, or skateboarding, or whatever, but I know there’s something that you love to do that expresses who you are. Don’t ever give that up. If you do, you’ll be unhappy forever. Sorry but it’s true.
Read the companion to this piece, “Art Isn’t Sacred,” here.