A short piece from the latest issue.
“Make Good Art.” That phrase, coined by Neil Gaiman, is the one I keep hearing. I am an aspiring art student, so this makes sense. To be honest, it seems a tad obvious. It has required great self-control to hold back the quips that my sarcastic brain offers up. “Oh, yeah, I was actually going to go make bad art, but now that you’ve said that, I’ve changed my mind.” When I think about it a little more, “Make good art,” transforms into a more intimidating mandate. The simple command is vague and does not inform me on how I should begin to accomplish this. What does “good art” even mean, and according to whose standards? What other kind of art is there?
I assume this statement is intended to be inspiring. On some level, it is. Mostly though, it makes me wonder what “good” art, or any kind of art, really entails. The conclusion I have come to is that what truly makes art good is what the artist puts into it, not what anyone else gets out of it. In other words, many people could and did claim that Vincent van Gogh’s work was trash, but no one would be able to deny that he drenched that canvas with all of his beautiful, bleeding heart. The worth of the final product is always going to be subjective, but the skill, the determination, and the soul never will be.
Art is all about expressing a feeling and a perspective, right? The results certainly are not always going to be pretty; however, they should always be honest. Talent and grit are hailed as the most effective tools in life, and certainly, they will take anyone far. But what truly turns my life into art is awe. A profound sense of wonder, a love of beauty, makes me a better artist and a better person.
I hear about talent a lot. People talk to me all the time about the “incredible gift” I have as if being able to draw is some kind of superpower, like flight, or always having a zit-free face. They mean well, and I am not complaining, even though no one seems to listen to me when I assure them that it is just practice, many years of practice, but practice is all it takes.
My mother first let me loose on big sheets of spare paper, armed with pots of paint and a brush when I was two years old. I would sit at the kitchen table and draw for hours. Considering the average attention span of a toddler, this is impressive. Since then, I have not stopped. I began with stick figures like everyone else: cow-like unicorns, parents with bulbous heads, and hands sprouting so many fingers from their disc-shaped palms that they resembled pincushions. Time passed, and my colors became a comprehensible composition, my lines became more confident, and my fingers became tools that easily smudged the boundaries of shadow and light.
I do not believe God gave me any super ability. The special thing God gave me was the love of it, love for the process. Yes, I possess a natural adeptness at noticing shapes and patterns. I am able to translate what I see onto paper using textures and values, but the desire is my true talent. The only way I can describe it is an itch. When I take a break for too long or when I get an idea, my fingers get itchy. I have an irresistible compulsion to draw something, anything. My fingers ache to curve around a pencil and dance. The “getting good at it” part is just an added bonus.
They say to practice for ten thousand hours to become an expert at anything, whether it is drawing or making cabinets. Certainly, things come more naturally to some (I can confirm that math has never come to me, naturally or otherwise), but maybe, it is the other way around. Maybe, the passion to practice and learn is what draws us to success, instead of the success coming down to us with a neat bow on top. The passion, the magnetic purpose, that trembles inside my ribcage is love, and that is its own kind of superpower.
In American culture, grit is revered as a supreme ability. Grit is defined as determination, stubbornness, tenacity, and pride. A blank refusal to give up or back down, however stacked the odds, is what legend is built on. I love to hear the stories where the underdogs work without quitting, beating the arrogant ones who had everything going for them. Supposedly, all success requires grit, sometimes more than anything else. I do not exactly disagree. In a world where I will certainly be rejected and discouraged, I will need to be stubborn. In a world where degrees cost more and mean less than ever, I will need to be hard-working. In a world of fierce competition, I will need to be tenacious. In a world where there will always be someone better than me, wearing a thick skin will protect me against the crippling arrows of doubt. For an artist, grit is necessary. However, it is even more necessary to have something to be gritty for. Grit, determination, stubbornness, tenacity, and pride all alone would be a damn shame. Hard edges and thick skin can very quickly become cold eyes and a chipped shoulder.
To be an artist is to be vulnerable, allow things inside, and let them affect us. Being hard and gritty is a good method of not letting anything get in the way of a goal. Grit is being able to outlast rejection and loss. Sometimes, to let things hurt is to let things heal. The stereotype of the tortured artist is not for nothing. Artists have to feel things twice as deeply to craft emotions into art, the pain along with the joy. In my head, grit is the gravel that lines streets and the painful rocks that get lodged inside my shoe. Sometimes, it is good to be the grit that goes on being grit no matter what, but only if it is balanced with being the bare feet that walk on dewy grass, wade in cold streams, and get bloody and blistered. Only to be soft means that survival will be unlikely. Only to be hard means that living will be impossible.
What is more necessary than talent or grit? What is the secret, the key ingredient for really good art? For me, it is a sense of wonder at the lovely, rotten world in which we live and the astonishment at how it can be both at once. If I never had a sense of awe and insignificance when I stood among mountains and looked even higher towards the stars, I could never make good art. If I never paid attention to petals strewn like spatters of ichor across a sidewalk, or had never listened to a beautiful song and felt its truth echo inside me and raise the hair on my arms, or had never been amazed at the weightiness of a silent blizzard, I do not know if I could ever make good art. If I cannot be dazzled by the way the sun turns its eyes from endless midnights to pools of amber fire, or be captivated by the cities of texture and color on a mossy log, then how could I truly value the way a palette of chaotic paint fills me with joy, or the way the terrifying expectance of an empty canvas fills me with fire? If the photos on the news of children baptized in ash and blood did not fill me with sadness, I do not think I could make good art. If the injustices of thousands of powerful men did not fill me with rage, I do not think I could make good art. If the spear of unutterable separateness had never pierced me, I do not think I could make good art.
Years ago, I lay down upon the grass and spread my arms over a tiny piece of the world, and as I let myself sink just a tiny bit, I felt the Earth spinning. I felt the massive, unexplainable thrum of gravity holding me down as we all tumbled blindly through nothingness, and I looked into the sky and realized I was looking up forever to the edge of the universe. After all, just because I could not see it did not mean it was not there. I was stunned to be so small and to be a bright thread with a purpose in the tapestry of the world. I was filled with numinous awe at the fact that I was a necessary brushstroke in a cosmic masterpiece dripping scarlet with love. Our lives are art, and we can paint with kindness, hatred, and wonder.
In my humble opinion, a pair of wide eyes and a heart that can be moved by the most insignificant whisper are more important than a hundred years of grittiness and a thousand proofs of talent. Art is lurking around every grimy street corner, waiting for someone who is searching for it. Beauty is hidden inside every pair of lungs, waiting to be breathed into the world. The space between the infinite dancing atoms can be the canvas, so I think I know how to make good art, whatever that might be, whether it is doodles on a textbook or a perfectly baked cake. Find the talent. Find the obsession deep inside. Follow it. Forge every last ounce of determination into a sword that is sharp enough to cut through doubt. Pry that vulnerable, sparrow-quick heart from its cage, and let it feel every damn thing. Feel the joy, the pain, the anger, the beauty, and the swirling current sweeping up to the stars. Feel the perfect love that hums in the very core of the planet, and let that frail heart sink into the horizon-wide embrace.
That is what I am going to do. When I say goodnight for the last time, my bright thread will have touched the lives it needed to and woven around the ones who felt alone. My life, my brushstrokes, will have made something beautiful. My fingers will never stop itching or dancing. I will never let myself give up or let my heart harden to rock. My eyes will always be open, and I will never get tired of staring out of plane windows. I will never become numb. I will make really, really good art.