Thursday, November 12, 2020

Living Like an Artist

I have long since stopped reading Ask Polly for her advice. Polly’s advice is so uniformly bad that it is seriously not worth the time. And yet, the saving grace of the column is the letters.

Earnest young people, people who do not know any better than to follow bad advice, provide living testimony to the consequences of taking such stuff seriously.

Around here, we base our views on evidence. So, we find much of interest in the following letter, from a woman who wants to be an artist. You believe that this letter comes from The Onion or some other satirical website. It is that far off the mark. And yet, we must accept that it is real and that the woman is sincere. Of course, the letter writer might be a man. These days, how can you tell?

You will notice that she describes her current occupation in rather vague terms. She explains that she is a programmer, but does not like being a programmer. Since she apparently has good interpersonal skills she is working to transition into a more clinical occupation. After all, this is an intelligent approach to career choice.

Were it not for the fact that somehow, apparently from Polly herself, she has gotten the idea that she ought to be an artist, we would have no issue with her career choices.

If we want to be slightly pedantic, she says that she wants to live like an artist. Whatever does that mean? Apparently, she has no notion of how difficult it is to make a living as an artist. It isn't all getting stoned and feeling free.

For the record, and before getting any deeper into the mire, here is the letter (boldface mine):

I’ve really been digging your claim of “artist” as identity. I’m always in awe of all the artists who write to you, who have a difficult time accepting themselves and being their true selves out in the open. Let me just say, I wish I were an artist by trade! I can’t think of anything more mesmerizing than believing that your feelings and self-expression are worthy and putting them into the world.

I, on the other hand, have a programming background, which I do not enjoy. Now I do clinical research, and I am on the technical side of things. I know my truest strengths are my interpersonal skills, and I am now trying to become a clinician. I am embarrassed that my interpersonal skills are my strengths, and sometimes wish I were meant to create. That’s what’s cool to me. How awesome is it to put all your energies into a tangible thing? I know I am here to connect, to problem solve, and to guide others in the ways a clinician does. But the part of me that has always wanted to be different and special and interesting is saying, “Really? That’s all you have to offer? How boring.”

I’m aware that I’m obsessed with the one thing that I feel I am opposite of because I have a hard time loving myself. So Polly, I don’t identify as an artist because that’s not what I do, but I think and feel like one. I have a rich imagination and feel my emotions so incredibly that sometimes they suffocate me. I love to understand myself and others, and I am always asking WHY. I’m sure a lot of your readers are wondering, “How do I live like an artist when I don’t create art for a living?” How do I channel my emotions and thoughts into something, even if I can’t do that all the time and my job sometimes depends on putting those things to the side? My binary mind (thanks to my computing training) is telling me you’re either an artist who creates or you’re not an artist. I think about this all the time and haven’t made much progress on wrapping my head around it. I would love to hear your thoughts on this.

Aspiring Human Who Would Like to Live Like an Artist

So, we have another casualty of bad advice columns.

We assume that this woman, who apparently aspires to be human, has gotten her notion of how to be an artist from Polly herself. That being the case, she does not have a clue about what it means to be an artist.

At the least, it means that you create art. Duh. It does not take too many little gray cells to understand that. It does take some acuity to understand that art is not about putting your feelings and self expression out into the world. It is not an exercise in publicizing your narcissism. Any artist who thinks that his or her job is to expose his or her deepest feelings will not be long for the art world.

Trust me, the world does not really care about what you really feel. Art becomes art when it speaks to other people, when it engages them, when it concerns them. If it’s all about the artist, it is not really art.

Strangely, she seems to have learned from Polly that if you have no talent for creating art, if you have no ability to draw, you can become an artist by making yourself into a work of art. In other terms, it’s like body sculpting. It might be like becoming a drama queen.

It is also completely self-involved. It detaches you from other people and leaves you alone. One remarks that the letter writer has nothing to say about any other people in her life. She is completely self-obsessed and self-absorbed. She would do far better to get out of herself and into the world. 

If she has good interpersonal skills, she is quite right to be cultivating them. She would do better if she stopped reading Polly’s absurd columns.

But then, she says that she is obsessed with understanding why? Generally, speaking this is the wrong question to ask. Understanding why you get things wrong will not show you how to get things right. I understand, better than most, that why is a therapy question. And yes, I know that a famous Canadian psychologist, apparently still recovering from an addiction to prescription drugs, says that WHY is the right question. It is not. The important question is HOW. How to make a decision and how to chart a course in life.  

In truth, before she got herself seduced by Polly the letter writer was doing it right. She is following the advice that Peter Drucker laid out in his pamphlet, "Managing Oneself."

That is, ask what you are good at and make yourself better at it. Which is precisely what she has been doing. We wish her luck and we wish that she would rid her mind of a rather specious notion of what it is to live like an artist.


Sam L. said...

There's enough banal and ugly "art" already. We don't need, nor want, more. Well, I don't; other people's mileage will differ.

Lowghost said...

Artist here. This a very unfortunate case of the grass is greener. I feel sorry for her. She must not know any artists, properly speaking. One of them would have set her straight if she did.

I feel inclined to comment only to say that Mr. Schneiderman makes a very important point. That is, Art has nothing to do with self-expression. Medieval and Renaissance artists called it dictation. If you look at evanglists profiles from early Christian art, from Byzantine art, they're all getting dictated to by an angel. When Modern Art happened in the 1890's with the painter Paul Cezanne and the poet Stephane Mallarme, none of that changed, they just needn't refer to angels any longer because the client was no longer the church. Autonomy happened. Artists have myriad ways to find inspiration, but it never comes from the inside. It's always about looking and listening to whats out there.

Anonymous said...

I think she believes being an artist will get people to pay attention to her. She is "mesmerized" by the idea of being special, interesting, and having her output in public. She thinks that an artist is impressive to people while her job is not impressive. Actually no one will care if she is an artist, a plumber, or a clinician. After age four, the amount of attention a person gets drops dramatically. Some people never accept this.