That is the question that many of us struggle with. I have been pondering it for years. My mother was a baker, and an artist. Although she doesn’t perceive herself as an artist, I still believe she is because she would mold the sugar or marzipan figurines for the cakes from scratch and paint them. When I was about five or six years old, I remember admiring her creative cakes and also recollect helping her painting some of the sugar figurines with food coloring, that was the first time I saw a paint brush! I remember staying up late with my mother until perhaps 3:00 to 4:00 am working on those ordered cakes. I will never forget a particular cake that my mother and I worked on, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. It was a colossal cake from a child’s eyes (perhaps around 36”x 40”) and it looked so beautiful and delectable! She even built the dwarfs’ house with wafers. I wished for a cake like that for myself, but I never got one of that scale! Later on during my high school years, I discovered the arts were my strong subject. I could complete the assignment, paintings and drawings assigned as full semester projects, in one day. It was the easiest course I ever had, and I thus managed to obtain A pluses while most of my classmates struggled. I have always loved drawing cartoons and wanted to become a cartoonist, but my mother, not surprisingly, did not understand a career in the arts and discouraged my desire to pursue such a career. During this time I realized that a career in the arts would be a challenging way forward and perhaps a difficult path to take. Thus, later in life, I pursued career fields unrelated to the arts. Eventually, as I matured my career goals have distracted me from my passion, the arts, and it has been difficult to define myself since then.
One day, it hit me, “I want to be an artist” I said to myself. But again, because of social pressures, I did not disclose this fact to anyone. Thus I started pursuing my arts as what they called as “hobby” and described my artistic endeavors as such. Nowadays, the definition of artist has expanded to include a wider group of people engage in various artistic activities. So I decided to call myself an “artist” as well. In fact, one can easily say it loosely and with confidence, “I’m an artist.” Some people will frown at you; others will appreciate your courage; others will empathize. However, the reality is one can be what one wants to be (in how one defines oneself for certain), but making a living as an artist is an ongoing challenge. It takes a great deal of courage, hard work, skills, connections (weak and strong links), gambling, luck, and stamina to enter into the competitive art market, which is surrounded by gatekeepers and bombarded with challenges and exclusivity. These realities have led me to interrogate the question To be or Not to be an Artist? Economics tell us that pursuing the arts as a career is not a sound decision since poverty is palpable in the arts. Abbing (2002) argues that the lack of job opportunities combined with time constraints and uncertain economics creates and exceptional art economy and limitations for artists to create their art. However, art educators continuously advocate for the arts, and tell us that we do need the arts to express our creativity. In fact, humans are homo creativus and need to create, and to engage and access their creativity by participating in the arts. Creativity in society is at stake, priorities have shuffled in the policy making for the social wellbeing of its citizens, and thus the arts have become the periphery and are being marginalized by many politicians of our time (see an article on Toronto Mayor who has no interest in the arts). In fact, many politicians preach financial security over emotional creativity. Thus we observe politicians out there cashing in on financial arguments that win them elections. While in the backdrop, artists remain on the margins and struggle to create. In spite of these challenges, many artists remain focus and committed to their craft, and thus willing to assume multiple roles, such as, pursuing jobs unrelated to the craft to survive and nurture their craft. While fulfilling society’s demands, most artists keep engendering a creative society while sadly receiving marginal appreciation for their contributions. This dichotomy of to be or not an Artist is not a simple human choice, is determined in most cases by social pressures. However, in my opinion, if you want to be an artist just be one. It starts with saying “I want to be an artist” and like I have since then, remaining committed to your craft.