A few nights ago, my boy Jack and I went for a drink at a dive bar near our life-drawing class. We’d spent three hours in a warm room drawing a naked lady and it was time for a beer and further discussion of a central question: why were we doing it?
What was the point of filling up paper (or my case, an iPad screen) with lots of drawings of a stranger? Was it art? Was it exercise? What should we think about the drawings we’d made. Should we share them with other people? Should we hold on to them? What had those three hours been for?
The central question is one that Jack has been asking himself a lot since graduating from art school: why continue to make art?
Jack’s doing well these days, working on movies and TV shows. He’s no longer worried about how he’ll make a living. He’s joined a big union, gets great benefits, and works as much as he wants to doing something he finds interesting. So unlike a lot of his classmates, he doesn’t need to hustle to pay the rent, doesn’t need to suck up to gallery owners or teach art in grade school or sell prints on Etsy or scrounge for design and illustration assignments.
When I encourage him to keep sharing what he’s making, he asks me why. He’s not sure the point of uploading his drawings to social media. What’s that for, he wonders, chasing likes and comments. Why gather followers if he doesn’t have anywhere to lead them?
And then again, why make stuff in the first place? What make paintings? Why take photos? Why draw naked people in a warm room in Los Feliz?
His questions are somewhat academic. Jack can’t stop himself from making things whether we come up with a good answer or not. But it is a good thing to discuss in a dive bar: what’s art for?
We agree that the world of professional gallery art is corrupt and irrelevant to our motives. Their system of commodifying art, of turning authentic creative struggles into something to buy and sell to the overprivileged, has nothing to d with the actual merits of the creations being hawked. The standards they set, which are perpetuated through the art school system, are irrelevant to whether or not well-fed people should scratch their creative itches whenever they want. We’re not interested in art trends or critics or exhibitions and prizes.
But how does one progress in one’s art? And what does progress mean? And again, what’s it all for? Is it okay for art making to be just a hobby? And what does “just a hobby” mean? That seems to suggest it’s a lesser pursuit, trivial, a self-indulgence, a pastime that helps us pass time.
Maybe it is. And so what? We do so many things with our days that are ‘trivial’. Watching TV. Surfing the Internet. Reading social media. Staring out the window. Playing with our pets. Following sports. In facts, those things are what living is actually about. We work to “make a living”. Our past times are the living we’ve made. Surely we can look at art as just one more part of that.
Art is also a pursuit. It’s a pursuit because we are always pursuing ways to advance. We aren’t satisfied with what we make, satisfied enough to consider it done and dusted, so we push ourselves forward to improve our skills, to try new media, to learn fresh techniques. Being creative means always being a little dissatisfied, pushing for novelty, looking for new ideas and experiences. That’s what makes us humans, what separates us from other species, this restlessness, and I think it exists in its purest form in art making, in questing just for the sake of discovery. If anything, the commercialization of art is a distraction from that purpose, an end game that seems to settle the question of “why”, that claims the answer is money or fame or merit or acclaim.
It’s not. The answer is just the next question and pursuing it is what keeps us going, exploring advancing, making more.
And art is a calling. It’s a call we all hear when we are little and all too many of us stop heeding when we reach middle school. It’s that itch, that whisper, that urge that pushes us to doodle in the margins, to turn our trip to the DMV into a 3-act opera, to dye our hair blue, and buy flowers at Trader Joes. We want to change the world in some way. We want to make something that’s never been before. We want to take a nothing day and suddenly make it all seem worthwhile.
Sure, we could flatline, thumbing through our feeds, gumming the same ham and cheese, binging at the Netflix trough. But we can’t for long, not without feeling life is just wretched and pointless and lame. We have to get up and start bringing new things into the world. What those things are, where they go, how much they’re worth, whether they’re good enough, none of that is the point.
What matters is that we heed that call, let that siren summon us to new territories, put us into the flow, that narcotic ecstasy our brains make on their own, that raises us above the humdrum, erases the chores, the stress, the bosses and taxes and tumors and sagging paunches, receding gums and hairlines and bank balances and lets us just be creators, mighty creators like God, like Zeus, like our forefathers and -mothers, bringing forth life and flowers and sketches of shoes and naked people and all the rest of the fruits of our wonderful restless minds.
Art is also a conversation. It starts as one between parts of ourself, between our memories, our fears, our joys, our archive of experiences, our influences, our dreams, our skills, and then it becomes manifest. It steps out into the world. We have the choice to just leave it in our sketchbooks, our flat files, our waste paper baskets. But that always feels wrong. Our creations want to be a part of a dialogue. To tell the world, I felt this, I discovered this, I dreamt this …. did you too? We yearn to communicate to quell our loneliness. To assert our existence. I am here. I made this. It came from in me.
Sure, tell me you ❤️ it. Sure, give me 👍🏽. But that’s just a pale ghost of what I truly want. Which is to connect, to share, to join with you so that I won’t just vanish into the gloom, a faint, fading ripple.
And when I see what you make, read what you wrote, hear what you sing, I am made more complete. I am inspired. Your art becomes an ingredient dropped into the cauldron of my imagination. Our minds meld, and issue forth a new creation.
Jack and I agreed, sitting under the football game on the big screen TV, that it does matter. What we make does counts. Not because it is beautiful, or rare, or under the gavel at Christie’s but because we matter, our lives matter, and this is what we do.
To make art is to strip yourself naked and show some part of the world your scars and wrinkles and all you’ve learned as you earned them. With your art, you say, I’m not perfect, I’m not beautiful, and you don’t need to favorite me or share me or pay for me — but I am here, and I made this.