What is an “Artist”?

Dishoom on a sunlit Sunday, chewing hefty squares of paneer tikka soaked in “super-hot” orange sauce cooled by limes. My extra-long (as they’d say in India) non-writer friend takes a slurp of mango lassie and gets a fennel seed stuck in his top teeth. Sucking it out he announces, “If you can live and be happy without being a writer, then you should, because it’s a difficult life. But if you can’t, then you will know and it will find you.” He’s quoting a writer friend of his who is about to have his book published, who at the time was actually quoting his old high-school drama teacher (and who knows who she was quoting, but whoever it was, they were right.)

In the tight-rope walk, the balancing act we all take as part of life, artists have an especially hard time because they are struggling and fighting to keep something they can’t give up. Much like a fumble in a field (if you’re a country girl) after downing a whole bottle of Peach schnapps, too dark/drunk/mortified to use a condom, these awakened artists, now fully conscious of the creative passion (whatever it is) that has found them, are bonded together for so much longer than after the third trimester. The art is for life, not just for Christmas. Granted, it’s not entirely like having a child, but the feeling that you are accountable to something bigger than yourself, the creative power, force, flow or maybe just your art, is weighty. It can be crushing.

An artist, inside my scattered brain matter, has only ever been someone who creates art. Simple. There are artistic, creative and eccentric types, all which we need to help decorate with coloured stitching the earth’s population, but artists make work, like a carpenter makes shelves or an electrician wires houses. If I don’t write, I am not a writer. I don’t seek any validation from anyone to tell me if I am one or I am not. It seems a very obvious distinction to me. The day I stop writing I will lose this title, even if I have several published works to my name. There is sometimes an awkwardness around calling yourself an artist for fear of rejection or for the fear it sounds pretentious. If you make art, own it. You work hard, you’ve probably made sacrifices for it and it’s important to own who you are and what you do. Don’t wait for someone else to give you that right.

A few years ago, I would have seen this quote as black and white. Difficult life equals no choice, a sentencing, a life on the electric chair. To live without writing is to be unhappy, to live with writing is hard, so therefore unhappy. To live is to be unhappy. I would also have assumed my non-writer friends would not understand this concept. But why not? Aren’t we all fighting for time to do what we love, to be heard and understood? A lot of my unhappiness in life has come out of focusing on difference. There are those who are “switched on” and those who are “switched off”. Those confined to office blocks, those who are free. Blue or red, black or white. Artist or non. Of course, there is much in between.

This responsibility you may feel, to yourself, to your work or to the higher cause, does not have to compress you, like sand into a diamond. Too much pressure and humans snap, their minds bend and twist into unhealthy forms. They produce remarkable works, but at what cost? Balance is key, happiness is important, a step back is not a failure, an adjustment can help you grow stronger over the long haul, rather than being spent in the sprint (like the boy in the field). You need to eat, sleep, shit, go to yoga, have sex (not necessarily in this order), meditate, phone your best friend in Australia, wash your socks. This is the fabric of life. As an artist, you must find time for your art but you must also find time for your life. If you don’t, what art can you hope to create, what will you have to tell the world? I listened to a DJ last week talk on the radio about how he’d missed out on so much of life, making sacrifices, because he got addicted to his projects. These were his friends, he’d been in a long-term relationship with his work and I can relate completely. But you also need life to create art, you need something to tell the world.

I used to think artists would be clustered in Paris street cafes smoking spliffs, reading obscure poetry and knocking back dark coffees spiked with whiskey or pranging out on acid tabs. These people exist and I’m happy for it. But then there is Mildred in IT who paints her cats (on canvas, occasionally on their fur), Craig who’s working on his novella in his lunch break, Brian who’ll chew your earhole off about Black sabbath but never mentions the song writing he furiously works away at till the early hours (unless you ask him). Camouflaged into the backdrop of everyday life are these regular people with balanced lives, these artists making their art, doing their thing.

Sitting in Dishoom, would anyone have been able to guess between me and my extra-long friend? The artist who kicks off her shoes, points to the bhang lassie on the menu and explains how that is the way to leave this planet in India (a Bhang lassie is an extremely strong weed-based yoghurt drink), an anxious twitch, but we’ve both seen dark spaces. The truth is of course that there’s no real trait to tell these souls apart, except for the passion that exudes when artists talk about their art. When they let flow and physically light-up about the thing that makes them tick, that thing they couldn’t live without, which makes their life so much harder but so much more rewarding. The thing that satisfies the itch but that will always make them scratch. The baby they had too young. The life that chose them.

My friend who was quoting his friend also said that this piece of advice – “If you can live without being a writer then you should” – was the best advice he had ever been given because, “it helped me realise that I can only control so much in my life, and the rest will come as it happens.” This is precisely it. If you have the itch, you’ll scratch. Over time, through the anguish and the pain, you’ll be rewarded with a deeper understanding of yourself through your own personal creative journey. Ultimately this is what success should look like, you aren’t trying to prove yourself to anybody else. In the artistic world, chasing validation can be dangerous and there’s no common path to show what “success” should look like. Just do your thing because you have to, remember to eat, sleep, water your plants, dance and don’t stress out too much. The rest will come as it happens.