The Selfish Artist

Being stereotyped can be difficult for artists because we make such an effort to stand out and be individuals. But as they say, a cliché becomes a cliché because it’s partly true. There are some truths to the Selfish Artist stereotype, and there are good reasons for them.

In order for an artist’s work to stand out from the crowd, we must work hard at our individuality and our craft. In doing so, some artists (myself included) go so far as to neglect other important aspects of our lives. These can include family time, financial and medical health, career and education progression, personal relationships, and so on. The lapses in attention to these things in favor of our art can be interpreted by those who are affected as selfishness. This label is not, however, entirely fair without some consideration and an attempt at understanding.

A fellow artist and I looked closely at some of the reasons artists are stereotyped as selfish and we came up with some interesting conclusions. None of which, incidentally, either of us could deny:

The Busy Artist. The act of creating takes a lot of time. So does perfecting techniques and the experimentation and trial-and-error it takes to continually challenge ourselves and improve. More often than not, spouses and family can’t be included in these activities.

Gamblin paints
A little afternoon sugar. I use Gamblin paints.

Often a photograph or painting doesn’t turn out the way we envision and if we’re perfectionists, a hard earned piece can be easily tossed out and redone. For a painter this could mean weeks or months of painting, and for a photographer it could mean serious expenditures of both time and money. Often we’re simply busy.

The Solitary Artist. Another reason an artist may be selfish with his or her time is because some artists need a lot of alone time in order to do their best creating. We put a great deal of ourselves into our art and doing so is necessary if we want our personalities and perceptions to shine through our work.

For example, we must constantly be thinking about techniques, design, ideas, methodologies, concepts, processes and rendering. We also think about more personal things like that which motivates us, our inspirations, and that which we like and dislike about our work. We explore new subjects and techniques. We think about current and future projects, the steps it takes to finish them and how to best organize our projects. Some artists like myself, have five or six major projects going at once.

In short, we necessarily spend a lot of time on ourselves and thinking about ourselves and our art. Many can get lost internally for long periods while immersed in these thoughts. For those who might not see the importance of this solitary time and these solitary thoughts, it might be easy to think of us as selfish with our time.

drafting table
Many long hours spent alone at that table.

The Reserved Artist. Sometimes an artist needs to reserve a little bit of their creative selves in order to ensure that it will be protected, thrive and grow. I liken this to the process of baking sourdough bread. Pieces can be taken from the starter dough to make a dozen individual loaves of bread, but some of the starter must always remain in reserve, tucked away in a warm place to be fed and grow. This way, it can be used again to make the next dozen loaves of bread.

Like a sourdough bread factory, some artists protect and reserve a part of their starter dough, their creative self. They tuck it away in a safe place in order for it to continue to be nurtured and grow.

While some artists need collaboration and feedback on their ideas, inspirations and techniques, there are others who are fiercely protective of this part of their creative selves. Once we expose and reveal those personal, individual things that make us artists we make them vulnerable and subject to evaluation. This means that something can harm them and some artists are simply too protective of our creative selves to allow this to happen.

I’ve been accused of being a selfish artist on several occasions and I accept the stereotype. It means that I’m doing the absolute best that I can for my art. I also recognize that I have no serious obligations other than my parrot, and that my art is the most important thing in my life. Passion is a powerful, compelling thing and artists with serious responsibilities should routinely do a priority-check, especially if the welfare of other lives is affected.