As an arts researcher and visual artist, I felt compelled to debunk some of the stereotypes and standing myths that were raised by the public about what it means to be an artist.The article We need artists to solve the challenges of this century, published in the Globe and Mail on June 12, 2012 and written by OCAD President Sara Diamond, generated a variety of mixed comments, the majority of which reflected stereotyped perceptions of the artist. Some of which I address here.
The majority of those who commented online interpreted the author’s claims, generalizing what it means to be an artist. Various commenters disagreed with Diamond’s claims that artists are designers, thinkers, or innovators, and I share this disagreement at times, since nowadays, anybody can be called an “artist” regardless of their artistic skills. The importance of the arts and culture get lost in translation. Consequently, these conflicting views produce mixed messages on who is an artist and who is not, and what is art and what is not.
The stereotyped personality of the artist was critically raised. There is a pervasive myth that artists are bohemians who do not want to have a 9 to 5 job and depend on government funding in order to make a living. However, my research and interviews with local visual artists has allowed me to prove the contrary and to have a deeper understanding of what it means to be an artist and what it takes to make art. There is a universal consensus that being an artist is the toughest job on the planet (ask Charles Saatchi!), it is not only mentally and physically exhausting, but it is also often unrewarded. It is a constant struggle just to survive in the field. The majority of local artists carry financial burden, face time constraints to create (as most of us hold second or third jobs), and lack, most importantly, the recognition of their community. The majority of local visual artists and musicians I interviewed actually held 9 to 5 jobs, were highly educated, and lived within their means in order to be able to keep producing art. They were humble, excited about what they do, and worked harder than the average person—that is, longer hours without compensation—just to support their creativity and their passion for the arts.
My personal journey has been to understand what it means to be an artist, and my research has allowed me to conclude that artists have one common key attribute—that is, the need to create. It is not that simple of a thought; in order to create, one needs to think, to imagine, to design, and to work very hard to achieve this goal. Thus, I have to concur with Diamond’s assertions that artists are designers, thinkers, innovators, and imaginative, although I believe that this is true for the most part. In fact, artists are constantly exploring and seeking out the next “new” idea. Indeed, they are the catalyst for innovation, as eloquently explained by Diamond throughout the article, and this leads me to believe that our local artists have the potential to “solve the challenges of this century” if only they are respected by the community and given the opportunity to create and make changes in the status quo society in which we live. From an artist’s perspective, I strongly believe that art is not just a leisure activity (“or at least not always”); it is an outlet for creative thinkers.
One of the manifold challenges artists are faced with is alienation, both from society and from the community. They take a gamble by living a life of economic austerity, with the hope that they will someday gain the recognition of society. For centuries, artists have been trying to gain acceptance for their efforts and talents, and thus have had to rely on elitist groups (patronage) to support their craft. We live in a capitalist society in which the only recognized artists are the ones that are able to commoditize their work and make it to the top. Although it is much easier to get exposure thanks to technology, it has become increasingly difficult to be picked out of the crowd, as competition is fierce. We idolatrize celebrities as “Gods”—a great deal of people worship, for example, Lady Gaga, Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons, amongst others, regardless of what and how they contribute to society, if at all. Above all else, we have missed the true meaning of the arts, and the value of our culture and our community building.
I wonder, why there is backlash against our local artists, why our community is skeptical to give artists the chance to excel in their craft in order to engage us all and foster our local community with creativity, love and passion. Why do we have the tendency to idealize fame and fortune, support celebrities that don’t represent our community, and make the rich richer, rather than support the ones with the potential to better our city. I empathize with some of the public comments in Diamond’s piece that artists are “not all that,” but they hold a very important quality shared by the entire human race: the passion within and the urge for change. I believe passion not only moves mountains but also compels action, which is what our city needs. Numerous visual artists continue to practice their art, despite their financial shortcomings. In a sense, what every artist wants is peer recognition, flexibility and community support–financial gain is a bonus but is not all-important (Richard Florida, 2012).
I am not trying to convince you that what the city needs are artists; I am sharing what it means to be an artist, and the importance of respect from the community. One commenter stated, “We have no respect because most artists today – contrary to the author – are uninspired poseurs at best, and mentally disturbed hacks at worst.” Instead of an artist being stereotyped as the modicum of eccentricity and being perceived as a disturbed second-class citizen, artists need to be acknowledged for the contribution they make to their community, or at least for their innovation and cultural building. It is understandable that the arts and culture have been viewed as a part of leisure and entertainment, and that is perhaps why many Torontonians are reluctant to support the arts, and consequently, the artist. I imagine not accepting or believing in the artists in your community translates to not believing in culture at all.
In the art world the question of taste raises consideration. Whether one likes or dislikes a particular art work is a matter of taste, a personal choice, the work of the artist should be respected nonetheless. We all like different songs and different types of music, different clothes, and different forms of entertainment. One needs to hold an optimistic view on the possibility of embracing the arts and welcoming the artists in your community. In a fascinating and eloquent book about taste by Carl Wilson entitled: “Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste (33 1/3)”, Wilson questions why millions of people love Celine Dion, whereas millions of others can’t stand her. It is just a matter of taste, isn’t it? Although I am not a fan of Celine Dion personally, am indifferent to her work, I respect her as a representative for Canadian artists in the global arena, an area in which Canadian artists are lacking.
What does it mean to be an artist then? It means to work for the economy of love; it takes hard work, multiple skills, commitment, community, strength and focus—all in the aim of a passion that could result in innovation. Most artists have a flexible mind-set, are willing to question, and go the extra mile. Visual artists, in particular, observe their surroundings through a different lens, bringing a rich and diverse perspective to problem solving, as their mere goal is creating and innovating. In several occasions, they aim to create something better, a world restored with hope and enthusiasm. Why not add an artist to your team? Why are we discouraging talent?
Competitiveness and capitalism are the main challenges of this century, where society demands the use of our skills in order to gain profit. As such, most of us go to work to use our skills in order to make a living. Artists are no different; they put their skills to work, hoping to use their creativity to enrich their community. Perhaps, as one commenter stated, artists are not “special,” but they are essential to our community. Artists work for love, passion and innovation not necessarily to serve economic demands or neoliberal agendas. One would hope that great things would follow if we gave them the support they need. We have already lost a handful of talent internationally; for instance, Berlin is supporting some of our Canadian talent. In our community, if we do not support, respect and recognize our local artists and encourage them to create locally, we will never find out if we, as a community, missed out on the opportunity to build upon the next generation of cultural engineers that will make our country stand out in the globalized community in which we live. We need our artists in the city and we need to support them, as they may hold the key to solving the challenges of this century.