For the artist, the first step to becoming an artist is to give up on being an artist. The aspiration to be an artist is tied to outmoded and misunderstood anachronistic cultural forms, tied to the application of recognizable talents of one sort or another to historically validated practices of one kind or another. Even when each of these particular talents and practices in turn were more central to the discipline of art than they are now, the most important lesson for any artist to have learned, then as now, is that to be an artist is always to be becoming an artist, that to have become an artist is the death of the artist, and that to know too well what one is doing is the death of art.
To know one’s work is not to know it. To know one’s audience is to have none.
Insofar as the aspiration to be an artist persists in the form of recognizable institutions of display, distribution, production, publication, investment, and education, these institutions are permitted to exist based on a fundamental misunderstanding on the part of the general public, and misunderstandings and willful, self-serving obfuscations on the part of artists and their supporters. Artists themselves are the embodiment of these misunderstandings, confusions, and outright deceptions, and benefit from them some of the time, and suffer from them the rest of the time.
What this teaches us is that the aspiration to become an artist is different than the aspiration to be an artist. All of the forms in which one can be recognized as an artist embody the impossibility of ever being an artist, and act as inhibitors to becoming an artist by tempting us to try to be one.
A practicing artist who is recognized as such - anyone, in fact, who materially benefits from the recognition of what they produce or enable to be produced as art, is in the worst possible position psychologically and politically to recognize these contradictions, and is thus the least reliable source of information on what an artist is and does, and what art is and does. More often than not, what they have to say about art and being an artist, however informative and well observed, ought never to be taken at face value, since presumably its primary function is to serve as a rationalization of the privileges they believe they receive, an advertisement for the particular misunderstandings they believe they benefit from, and most importantly as a mantra meant to persuade themselves and others that what they are doing is not merely as important as what everyone else is doing, but possibly more so. On the other hand, because they are so close to it, artists are potentially the best source of information on the discipline of art, since their entire existence is the embodiment of the problem of art in general, if only they, or we, can transcend or unravel their identity as artists.
Every artist seeks recognition, but as soon as one is recognized as an artist, and as soon as what one is doing is recognized as art, even if only by oneself, one’s work is in danger of degenerating into merely being art. Being art is not art. Becoming art is the only art, and becoming an artist is the only kind of artist to be.
Insofar as an artist says that they are an artist, without qualification, they ought not to be trusted. This is why so few artists are entirely comfortable labeling themselves as artists. The same principle applies to every recognizable kind of art. It is not simply a refusal to be held to account for the position they occupy. This refusal to be named is not a symptom of laziness or mere complicity. Now more than ever, to occupy the position of artist convincingly requires one to do so almost covertly. An artist’s most fundamental task is the procurement of cultural space for the production and consideration of art, which demands trust, first and foremost. Trust, therefore, is the most precious material an artist works with. As is true of all other materials, trust is not procured or moved by will alone. Insight, skill, and luck are required. It is never enough to simply say “Trust me, I know what I’m doing.” To become an artist requires letting go of status and tokens of competence. To become an artist one must let go of the ego, and “empty one’s pockets.”
Historically recognizable skills, such as good draftsmanship, elegant design, and sumptuous deployment of material properties and evident techniques have often been utilized by artists in an attempt to secure the trust of their audience. But too much skill too obviously employed breeds suspicion and contempt, as any successful artist will tell you. Art is a form of seduction, but insofar as it is recognized as such, it usually fails. The skills we recognize too quickly are not easily trusted. Other skills must be utilized if trust is to be won.
What we learn from the history of art is that art can involve any kind of skill whatsoever, conscientiously applied; but it always does involve some kind of skill, especially when it seems not to. If we cannot see the skill that is employed in a work of art it is because we are not looking for it, or because we are looking for it in the wrong place. But then, if we find ourselves looking for skill then it is already in the wrong place. This is why seemingly unskilled art is occasionally more interesting to us as art than obviously skillful art. It is not that the art of the untrained or unskilled is any more direct, any more pure, or any more authentic than that of the so called ‘professional’ artist. It is certainly not better art, by and large. It is simply more trustworthy, at least at first. Eventually the limits of the unskilled become routine and expected. Their work too succumbs to merely being art once it becomes too familiar. Once a thing becomes too familiar it can no longer be art.
To become an artist is to experience dislocation as a virtue.
A person speaking spontaneously in a language they seem to barely comprehend without awareness of their limitations or in flagrant disregard of them is perceived to be a more trustworthy speaker than someone who seems to speak freely and eloquently about matters they seem to know a lot about. The potential fool is more trustworthy than the potential rogue, though we often mistake the one for the other. This is especially the case with art. This tells us that too much self-awareness is stifling and off-putting, and that sometimes it is better to be lost than to know exactly where one is going. But in the end, attempting to eliminate or bypass skill is a misdirected application of effort and attention.
Trying to eliminate skill is a waste of time.
The point of art isn’t to find a way to act without skill. The point of art is to apply skill skillfully. The artist who uses skill skillfully earns our trust. How this trust is used or abused is what defines the work, which is to say: the artist, and the audience their work produces. Skill itself requires a kind of trust – trust in the material, and trust in oneself. Through trust, trust is acquired. This is why the skillful work of art is ultimately superior to the unskillful work of art, as art. Although we may trust the sincerity of the unskilled artist, and appreciate their lack of artifice as a relief from the demands of skillful judgment required of us by more serious endeavors, we do not trust the fool to lead us, any more than we trust the rogue to do so; and ultimately, this is what the best art does.
The lesser work of art speaks to an audience that already exists, in terms that already exist, for ends that already exist, using means that have proven successful in the past for other artists recognized as such. The lesser work leads us nowhere but where we have already been before. But even the lesser work is not without merit, because it embodies the attempt to make a work of art, which is always better than no work at all, even when the results are disappointing.
A world with art is better than a world without art.
The superior work of art speaks to no one directly, in a language no one quite understands, producing a new kind of beholding, beginning with the artist themselves, held by a desire they cannot name for they know not what, promising nothing but itself. The difference between the audience for a particular work of art and the audience for works of art in general is that the best works of art do not find an audience, or speak to an audience that already exists: they create one. This, more than the particular object, gesture, or performance beheld as art, is the work of the artist. This is why it is correct to say that art is the most powerful form of advertising, and the most worthless from the point of view of the client – which is to say anyone who seeks to gain from it materially. The greatest work of art arouses desire only for itself.
To be free is not to be free of desire, but rather to desire what is. Therefore every work of art is an attempt to lead us to freedom. This is its ultimate value.
There is no art without desire. The most trustworthy art is almost no art at all. The best art is the most skillful in that it arouses desire for itself without seeming to do so. This is why we say the best artists make it look easy. Maybe it is. Sometimes skill is simply a matter of dumb luck skillfully applied – of recognizing one’s good fortune, and having the good sense to get out of the way. Children are often great artists because they use what limited skills they possess so skillfully, because they have to. It’s not that they are more honest, they’re just terrible liars. This is why so many artists look nostalgically to children as models of how to be an artist. Children are always becoming. This is what art aspires to be.
Although it is true that art represents our deepest dreams and desires, art is not democratic, because it does not seek our approval or consent, and it does not seek to represent anyone’s interests. Nor does the artist. In the end, leadership requires a decision, and cannot be based on consensus or approval seeking. Our approval or disapproval of the work is of absolutely no consequence to the work or the artist. Ethics and aesthetics are not one. This is why art is dangerous - because the impulses it arouses are so easily abused.
Every leader is an artist, and every act of leadership is a work of art.
The superior work of art is absolutely useless – except that it gives us a reason to live by showing us that we are not alone in our desire. Desire independent of outcome, realized in its awakening, is an affirmation of the will to live, and the will to choose. Even if life itself, and everything in it is an illusion, and every choice we make is based on false premises, it is impossible that the sensation of being awakened to freedom by a work of art could be a lie. The audience, like the artist, is useless, except as a ground for the work, and as the work itself.
This is the dream of becoming an artist: to be the work itself- always in the process of becoming.
The uselessness of art is mistaken as egotism and individualism, when in truth it is the unrelenting demand to be useful – to justify one’s own existence in ethical or economic terms - the dream of pure instrumentality - that isolates us. Art shows us that our existence does not require justification.
A society that does not treat each person as an end in itself produces the ego as a defense, so that ultimately, the ego is a tool of everything that is not free – a hopeless defense against the will to obey. The preservation of the ego is the enemy of art and the death of freedom. Non servium – “I will not serve,” is the one desire we all have in common. A desire to be treated as ends in ourselves unites us all, and is the basis of both the beautiful and the good. Any act of generosity that does not begin with recognition of this basic fact is ultimately no kindness.
Art awakens and embodies our desire to be free of the ego, though often enough the desire to become an artist is an expression of the desire of the ego for recognition. But no amount of recognition will satisfy the ego, and no amount of ego satisfaction will make one a better artist. The ego is a critical response to trauma. The work of art is a non-critical rejection of trauma.
Given the relentless instrumentalization of all things and all persons within our society as it is presently constituted, it is entirely understandable that so many of us dream of becoming artists. Nevertheless, the decision to become an artist is often made too early, and encouraged too soon, due to a lack of information and a lack of imagination as to what it means to become an artist. The choice to become an artist is overshadowed by the desire to be one, which is something else entirely. One thinks that one is tempted to escape, but one cannot be tempted by what is not truly within one’s grasp. One is merely tempted to run, and tempted to believe that there is some point in doing so. Just because one is free to run, it does not mean that one is free to escape. One wants out, and so one chooses art as the way out, under the false assumption that there is some way out. This is the primary misrecognition that an artist must overcome in order to become an artist.
There is no way out, and one never really knows what one is choosing.
If by art we mean an escape from the way things are, as art is sometimes perceived to be, then without hesitation we can truthfully say that there is no art, and never will be. But no matter. One must choose, so one simply does, based on the best information available at the time, and adjusts one’s expectations as one learns what one has chosen. There is no need to regret one’s decisions if one is willing to examine them and take into account what one learns upon doing so.
One who chooses to become an artist on false pretenses can still become an artist, but in order to do so they must first examine every impulse that led them to want to become one in the first place. Only then is there hope for them to become an artist. Becoming an artist requires that one accept that there is no way out, and in the end requires a conscientious engagement with all of the forms of complicity and compromise that one thought one could avoid by becoming an artist. The impulse to leave – to avoid these problems – is trustworthy and ought to be listened to with the utmost attention; however, the familiar ways that this impulse is answered and instrumentalized – the recognizable options that channel this impulse to escape – the various familiar routes – can only lead us back to the problems we are running from, and can only be addressed with the utmost cunning and tact if they are to leave open the possibility of art.
Being an artist is impossible, but becoming one is easy.
It goes without saying that the choice to not become an artist is always made too soon, either because one has too limited a view of what an artist is and does, or more often because one knows all too well what it means. But thankfully, the decision not to become an artist is always reversible. All it takes to become an artist is a sincere desire to become one, and a sincere investigation into the meaning and consequences of this desire.
A good art story is one in which an artist gives up being an artist in order to make better art. Another good art story is one in which a non-artist decides to make art because they are not an artist and would like to become one. This is how one becomes an artist. The most unbelievable art story, which is to say, the least trustworthy, involves an artist who can’t remember a time when they weren’t already an artist. Anyone who is rewarded for living such a story now is rewarded on a provisional basis, and ought to be suspicious as to why they are being allowed to live as an exception. More often than not a person living such a story is not rewarded for it at all; as well they should not be, as what they are really asking is that they be permitted to live as an exception to all of the rules and limitations that govern life for every other person who has ever lived. This is why artists are resented by non-artists. And this is why everyone secretly dreams of becoming one.
Choosing to become an artist begins with a demand: Treat me as an artist. But the demand is met by first treating oneself as such. If one refuses to treat oneself as such, then others follow suit. To truly treat oneself as an artist, one must accept and live the paradox that to be an artist means to never be an artist, but to always be becoming one.