How to know if you’re an artist (symptoms and diagnosis)

Sheila Chandra - Monday, August 07, 2017

Some people know right at the start of their adult lives that they’re meant to be artists. Some people know and never take the risk – maybe feeling bitter about it when they get to midlife, but valuing wealth and stability too much to do anything about it. Some people are born artists but never realise it. And some are just too nervous about their ability to lay claim to the term. Whichever category you fall into – and I’d guess you do fall into one of these because you’re still reading – being an artist is a vocation. A madness. A compulsion, which is painful if not followed. So here’s how to diagnose a bad case of artistry.


An artist can’t stop thinking about their craft

They’ll daydream in class, doodle, write themselves notes about it, write letters to their future selves, make impossible plans, work on their project in secret, skip meals in order to afford art materials or annoy their partners by taking over the living room and neglecting their half of the housework. It’s not really their fault. Persistent thoughts about their projects or craft is the first symptom of the illness that is ‘being an artist’. Those afflicted with artistry simply can’t help it. For them, it’s as all-consuming as any crush.


An artist will take risks and make sacrifices

Most people with the affliction of artistry will eventually find that the compulsion to create leads them to take huge risks and make personal sacrifices to find their way to a viable professional career. And not all of them will gain that goal. But still, they will almost always keep making the effort to try, much to the chagrin of their friends and family who wish they’d simply knuckle down to something steady with a defined career path. The artist concerned probably wishes they could too, at times. But doing that is not likely to make them feel truly fulfilled. We’re all here, not to make a living, but to give the unique gifts inside us. Artists know this better than most people.


An artist doesn’t have to ‘look’ like an artist

I’ve met people of incredible talent who don’t dare call themselves artists. You might think that’s because of their reverence for their craft and how much they have yet to learn. Sometimes it is. However too many times it’s because they don’t fit the ‘image’ of what a ‘proper artist’ looks like. This image is usually of a white, male, middle aged, middle class and able-bodied person.

I’ve met people who believed working class people couldn’t call themselves opera singers, people who didn’t think they were artists because nobody else had told them they were one (or their family didn’t believe them) and I too struggled to believe that I really was a songwriter even after I’d co-written my first album, simply because I was 19 and I knew no other young, working class, Asian female songwriters. And because my collaborators were white, male and everything else on the usual list.


An artist can come from any background

This is a really important point. Especially in these days of austerity when it’s often only people from moneyed middle-class backgrounds who can afford to launch a career the arts. Don’t let prejudices about class, age, race, gender or able-bodiedness – even those that live in your own head – get in the way of your path, or stop you from taking other artists seriously.

Watch out for that last one because it can sneak up on you. Make sure you’re not making a society-wide problem worse. Do you take Brian Eno more seriously than a talented young black and female teen in the inner city? Do you secretly (or even overtly) think that someone must have ‘helped her’ with her work (i.e. done it for her) or that what she does isn’t ‘proper art’, or that she’s a ‘natural’ and didn’t have to work to develop her skills? Then you need an attitude adjustment.


Definition of an artist: a person who creates art. That’s it.

For all the people out there who are worried that they may indeed be afflicted with a bad case of artistry and who are looking for a ‘diagnosis’….. Remember that the only qualification for being an artist is that you’re serious about your creativity and you keep creating work at a reasonable pace. It may not be that good at this stage, but if you’re serious it’s likely to get better. That’s all it takes. You don’t have to look or sound a certain way. You don’t have to have anyone believe in you – although that helps immeasurably. ‘Artist’ is what you do, not what you are.


Okay, I admit it, I’m an artist. Is there any kind of cure?

No. There’s no real cure. You may ignore your gift and become a stockbroker. But you’ll always feel slightly flat. For creative people, the compulsion to create is rewarded by a ‘high’. That means life always feels better when they’re creating something. And there’s no way around that. Luckily for the general public, this often results in spectacular artistic work that’s either free or incredibly cheap (considering what it took to create it) and available for everyone to enjoy…

If you’re thinking about taking the leap into a creative career, you’ll find all the tips on infrastructure that you need – from copyright to social media – in ‘Organizing for Creative People’.

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