What should artists sacrifice for their art?

Sheila Chandra - Monday, July 17, 2017

It’s long been conventional wisdom that ‘true’ artists should make sacrifices for their art. But that’s rather a vague directive. Some have taken it to mean that they should complicate their lives with suffering via a drink or drug habit, or other dissolute activities, in order ‘create from their pain’. This assumes that you haven’t got anything of value to say as an artist unless it comes from pain – which simply isn’t true. Most professional artists are pretty content, and still create great work.


If artists don’t need to draw from pain, what are their sacrifices?

The world doesn’t treat artists well. In fact, it’s more than a little suspicious of them. If you want an easy life, pick a well-respected career where there are concrete milestones in the form of job titles, promotions and raises. The first sacrifice that all artists make is that of living with risk – in financial and professional terms. This means that often, their families aren’t pleased that they’ve chosen a professional creative career and may not support them until they’ve ‘proved themselves’ − and sometimes, not even then.


Why would anyone be an artist then?

Well, it’s a vocation. A madness. Something you feel you just have to express or you’ll burst. This is what makes artists driven people – and they have to be, to survive. But while artists do have to make sacrifices, they don’t need to make it any harder than it is, to have a successful creative life.


What else do artists sacrifice?

In most jobs, simply hitting or exceeding specific and measurable targets is enough. That may not be easy but it’s infinitely easier than what an artist has to do. Fine art requires something absolutely essential but intangible. It needs to ‘transport’ the receiver. So an artist may be great technically but leave the viewer or listener cold. That won’t do. Instead, they have to put their whole soul into the work consistently.


Great artists love their audiences

This is the central thing that artists do. Their artistic talent is a ‘gift’. But no gift can delight the receiver if it’s not beautifully made, wrapped and presented. Similarly, an artist has to slave over the making, wrapping and presenting of their ‘gift’ to their audience, if they want that audience to be moved. And if they do this consistently, the audience gets a chance to love them back.


Love requires sacrifices

This is the key to understanding the sacrifices that it’s proper for artists to make. It doesn’t mean living in squalor or creating pain or drama in your life so that you can consider yourself a ‘true’ artist. It simply means making the sacrifices required to be brave enough to give your audience the best you’re capable of. That may mean making work that the galleries and record companies or publishers you know don’t want you to make, because it’s not populist. Or it may mean working when you’re ill or recently bereaved because you don’t want to let an audience down and no one can deputise for you.


Love makes you vulnerable

Most of all it means revealing what’s really in your creative soul. And that’s a very vulnerable process. No one in the world has your unique ‘voice’. And while that’s a great thing, it can leave artists feeling nervous about revealing their true selves via their work. But the thing is, this very vulnerability is key to producing our best work; to risk saying something in a new way, or even saying something that hasn’t been said before. There’s always a chance you’ll be criticised for it, even savaged – when you’ve spent years, largely alone, developing your vision.


So why do artists make sacrifices?

As I said, what audiences crave from artists is transformative or transporting experiences – something that both surprises and moves them. Creating those takes all you have, with no holding back. And the passion and vulnerability it takes to do that, is what being an artist is all about. This is the core of the sacrifice artists make to give the world what it needs. After all, isn’t breath-taking art a form of love given on a huge and inclusive scale? Isn’t that why the world so needs it? And why would you slave for years to offer it, despite the risks – both financial, emotional and professional – if not for love?

If you want to know more about how to structure your professional creative career to give yourself the best chance of happiness and success, download a free excerpt of ‘Organizing for Creative People’

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