What does it mean to be an artist in the 21st century?

And who gets to be one?

What does it mean to be an artist in the 21st century? As an artist, this is a question I’m deeply interested in.

Of course, there are many ways to define art. Here are a few:

Art doesn’t have to be beautiful. Art doesn’t have to be good. Art is restorative. Art is healing. Art is a portal to other worlds and possibilities. Art cannot easily be controlled or uniformed. Art is free thought in motion. Art is soul talk. Art helps us better understand things deep inside of us that we don’t have words for. Art helps us remember things we forgot we already know. Art brings us back to our senses and the sensual. Art helps us integrate ourselves. Art restores our humanity and meaning to life. Art soothes our nervous system. Art stimulates new thoughts and ideas. Art transforms time. Art is freedom.

So…who gets to call themselves an artist?

“I suggest that the great art belongs to all people, all the time — that indeed it is made for the people, by the people, to the people.” -Dr. Maya Angelou

When I decided to claim the title “Artist”, it was not without some paralyzing fear and trepidation. In fact, it may have been the bravest thing I’ve ever done.

I avoided the title for a good nineteen years. I was always working in the arena of the arts, but I was an “Arts Educator”, or an “Artistic Director”, and so on. I wouldn’t touch the title “Artist” all by itself, with a ten foot pole. Too risky. Too scary. That title wasn’t for me. It was for famous people.

My heartbeat quickened slightly. This was not the question I was expecting. “The most honest decision…I can make?” I thought…This was a point of no return.

Then one day, I was sitting across from a friend in a coffee shop. I had unexpectedly quit a lucrative, six figure job in the corporate sphere two weeks prior. Suddenly free of all commitments and responsibilities with some savings in the bank, I had the jittery feeling that the world was my oyster.

I was contemplating what career choice to make next and all possibilities seemed open, though no path felt clear. Should I join a new startup? Return to teaching? Accept a recent offer as director for a nonprofit? I had some options on the table. I shared all of this over coffee with my friend, an accomplished opera singer, painter and art historian.

He looked at me quietly. He examined me inquisitively. I waited for him to say something polite and supportive like, “Wow Cara, that sounds like a lot of good options, that’s going to be a tough decision!” But he didn’t.

There was a long pause. Then, he nodded wisely, taking me in. He looked into my eyes. “So, what’s the most honest decision you can make?” he said, unflinchingly.

Now it was my turn to pause. In fact, I think I may have blenched. My heartbeat quickened slightly. This was not the question I was expecting. “The most honest decision…I can make?” I thought. It was none of these things. This was a point of no return.

“All great artists draw from the same resource: the human heart, which tells us that we are all more alike than we are unalike.” -Dr. Maya Angelou

I knew the answer to my friend’s question as soon as he had asked it. It terrified me. It was the one thing I had not even considered an option. It was the one thing I was trying to ignore. This was a moment of truth and deep knowing bubbling up and catching me completely off-guard. The kind of knowing that no one else can define or validate for you. You just know you know. The kind of knowing that is between you and your heart and your soul.

I could feel the burden of “what ifs?” creeping in and anchoring to my heart should I choose one of the safer career options.

I looked at him, nervously. “The most honest decision I can make…is the one thing that I haven’t put on the table, because it’s too scary’,” I said. “I want to be an artist. And I want to live abroad.”

I said it. Out loud. It was abstract. It was radical. I had no idea exactly what it meant or looked like. I only knew with every fiber of my being, that it was the most honest decision. And there it was now, hovering between him and me and the coffee steam.

I knew that whatever I did next would define me. If I didn’t claim this dream in this moment of my life when a door was swinging wide open and I was free of obligations, then…when would I ever? And if I didn’t choose the “most honest decision”, what would that say about me?

I could feel the burden of “what ifs?” creeping in and anchoring to my heart should I choose one of the safer career options. I had already carried “what ifs?” around for years while hiding behind other professional titles that were “safer” and more socially acceptable. If nothing else, I wanted to be more honest with myself. I wanted to live with as little regret as possible. I might fail miserably, but at least I would know I had honored my heart and tried.

“Creativity takes courage.” -Henri Matisse

One month later, I moved to Paris and began calling myself an Artist. Then doubts began creeping in.

How dare I? Who was I to be an artist? What did I have to show for?

Choosing the title Artist required that I grapple with these difficult questions…on a daily basis. Self-doubt, particularly around our own creative impulses, is so well instilled in us from an early age. Choosing “Artist” is taboo. It means you are counter-culture whether you like it or not. It means finding yourself and redefining yourself at the same time.

Maybe the only prerequisite to being an artist then, is to be willing to live with vulnerability, fear and uncertainty in exchange for freedom.

An artist must cultivate a unique relationship with fear. As the best-selling author Elizabeth Gilbert explains in her book Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear:

“Your fear will always be triggered by your creativity, because creativity asks you to enter into realms of uncertain outcome, and fear hates uncertain outcome.”

Self-doubt can be paralyzing, and it often is. The life of an artist means navigating and managing perpetual fear, anxiety and uncertainty. Every. single. living. day. It requires that we keep choosing creativity over fear every time. Or at least as many times as we can muster.

Maybe the only prerequisite to being an artist then, is to be willing to live with vulnerability, fear and uncertainty in exchange for freedom. To be willing to march to the rhythm of our own drum. To be willing to wake up every day and face our self-doubt and imposter syndrome, naked and alone.

And maybe, it’s worth it.

“An artist feels vulnerable to begin with; and yet the only answer is to recklessly discard more armour.” -Eric Maisel

It is not an accident that the arts have been economically marginalized and undervalued by American capitalism. Artists are difficult to control. They have their own ideas.

Art sits in opposition of the “time is money” paradigm. Art requires us to decolonize time.

Think of how many musicians, writers and painters have been hated and hunted by governments. Artists threaten the status quo. They play by different rules. Art requires vulnerability. It invokes empathy, connection, self-worth and understanding, while the world simultaneously undermines them. Art is out of sync with the structures and systems so carefully designed to separate, categorize, capitalize and manipulate. Therefor in America, we have been taught to believe that the arts are superfluous, low-priority, strictly recreational, and even unnecessary.

In school we are taught that sports and the military are important and worthy of funding. Music, dance and poetry, not so much. We don’t need them, we’re told. They are separate from real life. Plus, anyone who fancies themselves an artist is probably lazy, delusional and not to be trusted.

Art sits in opposition of the “time is money” paradigm. Art requires day dreaming. It requires imagination. Imagination requires curiosity. Curiosity requires wonder. Wonder requires idle hours, space and receptivity. Art requires us to decolonize time.

Julia Cameron, author of The Artist’s Way asserts that creativity is our deepest nature, is spirituality itself:

“Creativity is an experience — to my eye, a spiritual experience. It does not matter which way you think of it: creativity leading to spirituality or spirituality leading to creativity.”

In truth, art is essential and innate. It is our connection with the divine. Imagine church or synagogue without music. Imagine scripture without poetry. The human being needs creative expression as much as it needs meaning and purpose. So much so, that even something as utilitarian as food, literal fuel for the body, we turn into art.

“We must never forget that art…is a form of truth. If art is to nourish the roots of our culture, society must set the artist free to follow his vision wherever it takes him.”-John F. Kennedy

Artists are society’s compass. We point the way to deeper truths and meaning, for ourselves and for the world. Artists are the heartbeat of our culture.

Six years into claiming myself as an artist, I still wake up every day and battle uncertainty, taboo and self-doubt, like every other artist I know. I do the daily mental gymnastics of reasoning with myself that what society and the industrial complex tells me is the most valuable way to to spend my time, attention and energy is out of sync with what my specific job title demands. I must remind myself that the definition of productivity has been hijacked to mean, “Stay busy at all costs. Feel guilty if you don’t”.

The actual definition of productivity in the dictionary is:

“Having the power of producing; generative; generative creative; producing readily or abundantly; fertile; causing; bringing about.”

As an artist, these definitions apply. My actual job is to stay as creative as possible in order to generate and produce art abundantly. To do that, I must live in the land of dreams, inspiration and possibility. To do that, I must stay close to my inner thoughts and feelings, to my vulnerability, natural impulses, curiosity and play. To do that, I must live poetry. And maybe poetry is the most productive thing I can do.

“The object isn’t to make art, it’s to be in that wonderful state which makes art inevitable.” -Robert Henri

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