What Makes an Artist an Artist
Opus:20050916 Nbr:1 Essay
For years past number, people have pondered what it is that separates the artist from the common man. To be sure, each one has known, or at least heard of, a person who, with little or no formal teaching, excels in some form of artistic endeavor. There is the “Wunderkind” or “Child Prodigy” that produces work phenomenal for a person of their age and training. There is the “Backwoods Da Vinci” who, with little education exhibits a genius years ahead of its time.
Yet even for those who have ‘come up through the ranks’, so to speak, by being educated and trained in a given art, there is still an ability, a talent, a ‘Giftedness’, if you will, that transcends the skills and abilities of their similarly trained and educated peers that clearly sets them apart as being true artists. These people, the “Wunderkind”, the “Backwoods Da Vinci”, and the “Truly Gifted”, I leave for others to ponder and philosophize about.
The ones of interest, for the purpose of my writing here, are the “Rank and File” Artists. The ones who have the desire to be artists, but for whom artistry is an effort. Granted, the effort might be minimal, but still it takes effort for one of these “Rank and File” Artists to excel. The “Truly Gifted” artist is perhaps a “One in a Million” or “One in a Billion” occurrence. The “Rank and File” Artist, on the other hand, is more likely “One in a Hundred” or “One in a Thousand”.
So what is it that separates the “Rank and File” Artist from the rest of the “Rank and File”? It is my belief that the
difference between such an artist and the common man is the same as the difference between any one who excels in one field of endeavor over those who do not excel in that field. Outside of the “Obviously Gifted”, whom I have chosen to leave for others to discuss, there are a number of factors that separate those who excel from those who do not excel. These factors include, but are not limited to, the following:
1. Ambition – The desire to participate and, possibly, excel in this area of endeavor.
2. Suitability – The corresponding of one’s personality, drives, motivations, life style, &c to this area of endeavor.
3. Feeling – Being able to express, through the work one does in this area of endeavor, the full range of emotion and passion one can experience.
4. Dedication – The single mindedness and commitment to pursue this area of endeavor and not be dissuaded or distracted.
5. Ability – The talents, capabilities, &c needed to be able of accomplishing things in this area of endeavor.
6. Discipline – The putting in of hours upon hours of practice and study in the esoteric and arcane details of this area of endeavor.
7. Knowledge – Having a good comprehension of the esoteric and arcane details of what to do in this area of endeavor.
8. Wisdom – The insight to comprehend when and where to properly apply the knowledge in this area of endeavor.
9. Understanding – The discerning of why the particular portion of knowledge must be applied at the given time and at the given location to produce the proper result.
At the core of an artist is the desire, the craving, the obsession, if you will, to labor at what they do. People refer to this as ‘Ambition’, but for the artist it is not just ‘Ambition’. It is ‘A Necessity of Life’. For the artist, they do it not because they like to, nor because they want to. They do it because they have to. Something within them drives them to do this.
The second factor to consider is that what the artist does suits them. It fits their personality. It fits their temperament. It is what motivates them. It is what satisfies them. It is what completes them as a person. Others find what the artist does to be a task, an effort, something they must toil at. The artist, on the other hand, finds it to be a love, a passion, a joy, something to be sought after and thoroughly immersed in.
Out of all of the qualities that an artist must possess, by far the most important one is Feeling. Feeling, the capability of expressing one’s emotions and passion through what they are doing, is the one thing that separates the real artist from the exceptionally competent mechanic. It is this quality that separates the violinist from the one who ‘fiddles around’, the pianist from the skilled piano player, the true song-stress from the exceptional singer. It is this capability to put one’s true passion into one’s work that enables a skater to bring a rink full of spectators to their feet, clapping in time to the skater’s every move as the skater performs. It is this capability of pouring out all of the emotion of the heart, instead of just getting each note right while singing the correct words, that lets a “Torch Singer” wring tears from the heart of everyone in the audience. It is this Feeling, this capability of making others feel one’s passion and emotion through what one is doing, that sets the artist apart from the others.
Dedication is another quality of an artist. The artist is not just persistent, but the artist is committed to their field of endeavor. They invest their time, effort, and resources into it. They do what they can to interest others in it. They will not be dissuaded or distracted from what they do.
Another factor is Ability. By this I mean the talents and capabilities used to perform in this area of endeavor. These might be natural talents and capabilities, or they might be talents and capabilities that have been acquired through study, training, practice, or whatever.
What is, perhaps, one of the most important, and yet most overlooked, qualities is Discipline. Many equate the word ‘Discipline’ with a four-letter word, and they restrain themselves from things so profane. Others view Discipline as just unnecessary hard work. They already possess talent. Why not improve their talent, rather than doing hard work for no reason? If the end result of Discipline were merely hard work, their point would be well taken.
However, they fail to see that the most effective way to improve talent is to increase in skill, and the most effective way to increase in skill is to practice, and effective practice takes Discipline. In order for one to do advanced things, one must excel at doing basic things. To excel at the basics, one must practice the basics until they become second nature, and THAT takes Discipline.
Championship athletes always continue doing their timing drills and their proficiency drills. Concert musicians always continue their scales and their etudes. Museum portraitists continue their photo realistic doodles and sketches. Great escapists and illusionists continue their sleight of hand. It is because they know that great artistry and acclaim only come from a foundation of absolute mastery of the basics. That means practice, and that much practice DEMANDS Discipline. One can never reach the peak without having climbed the mountain.
Closely related to the Discipline of the continuing practice of the basics is the continuing study of the esoteric and arcane details upon which the basics are formed. One must have a good working Knowledge of the esoteric and arcane details of their field of endeavor to recognize what separates the excellent in that field from the mediocre. They must know the principles and precepts behind their field of endeavor in order to follow those principles and precepts and, thereby, excel.
One must attain, as well, the Wisdom to discern when and where to apply the Knowledge that one has. Regardless of how much Knowledge one has, if they do not know when and where to apply the Knowledge, that Knowledge is of little or no value. The timing and location of one’s endeavor is equal in importance to what is being done. One must not only know what to do, but they need to know when and where to do it, as well.
Finally, one must have a thorough Understanding of why things are done the way they are, and why they are done at a particular time and in a particular place. It is this comprehending of what needs doing, and when and where to do it, that makes the Knowledge one has useful in any way. It is this comprehending of why that lets one do a magnificent job each time they endeavor to do something in their given field. It is this comprehending of why that lets one extend what they are doing to greater lengths. It is this comprehending of why that lets one extend what they are doing in new directions. It is this comprehending of why that lets one move from the mundane endeavors into the truly artistic endeavors.
What proves to be the limiting factors concerning who will or will not be an artist, and how great of an artist they will be, is how many of these qualities they possess and to what level these qualities are evident. In any individual these qualities can range from non-existent to totally overwhelming for any field of endeavor they engage in. For a person to truly be an artist in a given field, they must exhibit all of these qualities to a noticeable degree. In fact, their level of notoriety as an artist is directly proportional to how noticeable these qualities are in their endeavors.
In the case of an artist known to be one of the greatest, all of these qualities are evident to an extremely high degree. On the other hand, if one looks at an artist that is relatively unknown, one will see that, while all of the qualities are present, few, if any, are evident to any significantly great degree. If a person wishes to increase their level of artistry in a given field, they MUST increase their levels of these qualities in that field.
If, instead of looking at these qualities just as individual qualities, one starts grouping these qualities, then one can see the relationship between the qualities more easily. Taking the first four of these qualities together gives a view of where one’s heart lies. The first quality, Ambition, can be seen as ‘The Desire of The Heart’. A given person, however, can have a number of desires of their heart.
That is where the second quality comes in. The desires of the heart that are going to lend themselves to artistry are those desires which are the most suitable for the person. The Suitability can then be looked at as ‘The Delight of The Heart’. The desires of the heart that one should pursue are those desires that delight the heart.
As one pursues the desires of their heart that bring true delight to their heart, that will arouse within them ‘The Passion of The Heart’, referred to as the quality of Feeling. The more a person is involved in those things that fire up the passion of their heart, they find themselves better able to convey that passion to others so that others experience a taste of that passion.
When a person is involved in the desire of their heart, experiencing the delight of their heart as they convey to others the passion in their heart, this causes them to commit their heart to what they are involved in. This ‘Commitment of The Heart’ is what I have referred to as Dedication.
Having these four qualities working with each other in this way is what is meant when we talk about a person ‘doing it from the heart’. If these qualities are not working together in this way, then ‘their heart is not in it’. When an endeavor fits a person in this manner, we say, “They have a heart for it.” Similarly, when an endeavor does not fit a person, we say, “They haven’t the heart for it.” It is only when a person pursues those endeavors that they truly ‘have a heart for’ that they can hope to achieve true artistry.
Taking the remaining five qualities as a group reveals what can be seen as one’s Skill. One’s Ability is how one does things. This is the methodology one uses when one is endeavoring in a certain field.
How one does things, most likely, starts out as one using their ‘Natural Talent’. However, they can, as well, use ‘Acquired Talent’, that is, talent that has been acquired through learning. The ‘How’ of what one does, then, is the combination of one’s Natural Talent along with one’s Acquired Talent.
If Ability is the How, then Knowledge would be the What. This is what one does, the specific actions that one takes. Again, this can start out as a natural intuitive knowledge of what to do, but it includes an acquired knowledge of what one has learned to do.
The When and Where to do it is what I have referred to as Wisdom. The comprehending of the When and Where, to a large degree, comes from experience. This experience can either be one’s own personal experience, or learning from the experience of others.
This leaves the quality of Understanding to be the Why of doing it. The Why is the reasoning behind the How, What, When, and Where that are used to complete a given endeavor.
However, just having the qualities of How (Ability), What (Knowledge), When and Where (Wisdom), and Why (Understanding) is not enough. To become skilled in a given area, one must have Practice (Discipline). One must practice one’s skills to become, and remain, proficient at a given endeavor.
Without practice, one’s skills become atrophied and useless. It is through this practice that one increases in Ability, Knowledge, Wisdom, and Understanding. This practice encompasses, as well, the study of the given field of endeavor along with the endeavoring. It is only through this continuing to increase in the How, What, When and Where, and Why that one can achieve and maintain the necessary Skill level to be an artist.
By grouping the qualities, as I have, and looking at the relationships within the groups, it is clear that all of the qualities within a group are necessary for that group to be complete. In a similar way the two groups relate to each other in a way that shows their necessity in being part of the artist.
If a person has the Heart, but does not have the Skill, they can NOT produce works of art. To be sure, they possess all of the desire, delight, passion, and commitment, but they can not do the work because they lack all of the necessary Skill.
These people become the spectators, collectors, and critics. These are the “Wanna-Bees” and the “Groupies” that try so hard to be an integral part of what they can not produce themselves. These people form a vital part of the infrastructure that helps to support and sustain the true artist, but they, themselves, are not artists.
On the other hand is the person who possesses all of the Skill but has no Heart. This person can produce perfect works that are absolutely precise and accurate in every detail, but their works lack Heart. There is no feeling, no passion, and no life in what they produce.
For a person like this, producing a work is like pushing a button on a machine that then produces a cold, sterile, unfeeling piece. Such people are Robotic Automatons that lack the emotion to be artists.
These kind of people become the teachers, trainers, coaches, and technical advisors that impart Skill to those with Heart. These are the repairers, restorers, and copiers that help artists share their art with the masses. These people, as well, form a vital part of the infrastructure that helps to support and sustain the true artist, but they, as well, lack what it takes to be a true artist.
For one to know what it is that separates an artist from others in the same field, one must, as well, have at least an inkling of what affects one’s ability to be an artist. The factors that affect one’s ability to manifest the qualities of a true artist fall into about five general areas. These areas are Inborn Factors, Physical Factors, Psychological Factors, Sociological Factors, and Personal Factors.
Inborn Factors include such things as personality, temperament, desires, delights, and one’s ability to learn. These are factors that a person is born with. The individual has no control over these. Either one has them, or one does not.
These factors tend to influence what fields in which the person has interest, but in the case of one’s ability to learn, can limit how well the person can perform, as well. If one is born with a limited learning ability, their skills can not be well developed, and that limits their artistic ability.
Physical Factors are those factors relating to one’s physical makeup. For instance, a visually impaired person will probably never do well in fields that are highly visual in nature. Vertically challenged individuals will not do well in fields where vertical enhancement is advantageous. There are, of course, noteworthy exceptions, like the deaf Beethoven who could still compose magnificent musical works of art though he could never hear them.
Psychological Factors are to the mind what Physical Factors are to the body. Probably the most apparent factors would be obsessive/compulsive behavior or debilitating phobias, but there could be a multitude of mental factors that could affect how much Heart and/or Skill a person could manifest in a given field.
Sociological Factors that affect one’s artistry I am using as kind of a ‘catch all’ term for any environmental, social, cultural, or otherwise external factors that affect one’s Heart and/or Skill in a given field. These can include such things as Peer Pressure, Love Interests, Finances, Educational Opportunities, and such. I can not think of any specific examples to share, so I will just concede the fact that there are such factors and they can strongly influence one’s development as an artist.
Personal Factors are those factors that, for lack of a better explanation, are a matter of one’s own decisions. They are not as directly related to Inborn, Physical, Psychological, or Sociological Factors as they are to one’s own personal choices. These are, undoubtedly, the factors that can have the biggest impact on one’s artistic abilities and performance.
If one is willing to commit their Heart and be disciplined enough to do the necessary study and practice to develop their Skill, they will, in all likelihood, become a noteworthy artist in the field of their choosing. On the other hand, if they choose to forgo the studying and/or the practice, or if they commit their Heart to other things, it will be difficult for them to even have artistic ability in a given field, much less to become recognized as an artist.
For the “Rank and File” artist, their even being an artist is an effort, and they can continue to grow and develop as an artist only by continuing to put forth that effort. That includes making those decisions, and paying the price in their own personal life, to continue being committed in their Heart and to continue being disciplined enough in their studies and their practice to develop the Skill required to be an artist. Failure to do this will keep them from developing into the true artist they could be.
So, as I have tried to show through this rather long explanation, the difference between an artist and the common man depends on how well one manifests the qualities of an artist, as a result of, or sometimes in spite of, the various factors in their life.
The artist will delight in satisfying their desire to show their passion through their commitment to being disciplined in using their abilities, knowledge, wisdom, and understanding to produce works of art in the field of their choosing. They will use and/or overcome the inborn, physical, psychological, sociological, and personal factors in their life to develop and excel in the field of their endeavor.
The common man, on the other hand, simply will not take the time and/or put forth the effort to manifest the artistic qualities to any significant degree. This can either be from their lack of a given quality in their life, or from their being restrained from developing into an artist by the inborn, physical, psychological, sociological, and personal factors at work within them to prevent them from being a true artist.