Art in Perspective

I finally feel like drawing agin, and all it took was a well-placed insult.

Perspective is a hell of a thing. After a few games of chess last night, I found myself chatting with a new friend. He happens to also be an artist, so we started talking shop. I mentioned that I hadn’t been drawing lately; that I had a bit of a mental break about making art. Making art (or so I thought) had stopped being fun for me. So far, I’d pinned down my sudden aversion to illustration to my obsession with art contests. I’d been pressuring myself to churn out ever more refined work every day or so, but not enjoying the process.

From there, we proceeded to the modern ritual artists go through when they first meet. We exchanged a few images of our work in miniature on our smartphones and made polite commentary. To put it bluntly, his work came across as crude and messy. It looked more like he’d inflicted it on the canvas than crafted it. I passed along some of my finer work—pieces I’d invested twenty or more hours into, honing them to perfection. These represented every ounce of skill, effort, and patience I could muster. But, in truth, they never made me happy. None of them.

Then my friend said something that stopped me in my tracks. “The problem with your work is that you can see that there’s no passion in it.”

Okay, maybe I paraphrased that a little, but it was pretty close to that, if not that exactly. At any rate, I’m pretty sure that there are few more insulting things you can say to an artist than that. Naturally, I was indignant, but only for a second. Not even a second, actually. I was only indignant long enough to realize that he was completely right. None of the artwork I’d produced in the past year was truly inspired.

I started off tracing to get my chops back up, and the I immediately started entering contests. I drew what other people wanted me to draw. Even when I thought I’d drawn something for myself, I agonized about how other people would see it. I’d refine and refine and refine my work until all that was left was the line, shape, and value. I’d rip the heart and soul ripped out of it.

That’s not art.

I can’t claim to be able to define art. I’ve debated the subject for fun for hours on end and reached no satisfactory conclusion. I’m left with the infamous proclamation made by Justice Potter Stewart on the subject of hardcore pornography: I know it when I see it. Other people saw my work. They liked what they saw. They called it art, and to them it is art. It isn’t to me, and to claim it as such violates the principle of Right Mindfulness.

I suddenly found myself clearheaded in a way I haven’t been in quite a while. I was able to have a truly meaningful conversation about art. We talked about what it means to make art rather than to design artistic-looking pieces. Perhaps I got a little closer to understanding what art is, if only by identifying something it isn’t. I’ll have to think about that for a while. In the mean time, I find myself suddenly interested in drawing again.

This time, I’ll make art. I’ll make it for myself. It won’t be nearly as refined as the pieces I produced before. People will not understand. People will not like it. I don’t care—I’ll show them anyway. To design takes skill and craft. It isn’t easy, but it also isn’t art. To create art take passion and bravery, and maybe that is truly part of what defines art.