How To Be An Artist? (Book Review)
Being an artist is both a complex and simple thing. If you want to be an artist – make art. Sadly making art is not always as easy as it sounds and in reality, there is a lot more to being an artist (especially as a professional). First, to make art you must have ideas, skills, and resources. Then, once your art is made you need to figure out how to get it seen and purchased. This means being an artist is an entrepreneurial, voluntary, highly internally-motivated endeavor. And it comes with its own set of pressures, struggles and doubts.
So, how DO you “be an artist”? I decided to read author and art critic Jerry Saltz’s book “How To Be An Artist”to see what I could learn. As you can tell by all the tabs sticking out in my copy, there were things I found well worth remembering.
Artists can often feel misunderstood and/or different, especially if there are no other artists in their social circle or day-to-day life. I have definitely found that to be true. It’s why I like to read artist books. They connect me with other artists, people who speak a similar language. I felt that sense of kinship and camaraderie in Saltz’s writing. At times he captured things I had not yet been able to put into words. At other moments I found myself saying, “YES! I say or do that all the time!” If you want to understand an artist, or if you are an artist who wants to feel understood, READ THIS BOOK! (Not sponsored, just my opinion)
Let’s Hear It For Artists
First, let’s talk tone. I found Saltz’s book useful and encouraging because he combines deep (sometimes dark) truths with humor. Let’s be honest, it’s not easy being an artist but it’s by no means impossible. Lots of things aren’t easy but people do them. There are doubts and demons to face – welcome to humanity! If you want to be an artist – use it, put it in your art. Saltz does not sugarcoat the profession of being an artist. Before you even dive into chapters, from the introduction Saltz comments, “[a]rt is just a container you pour yourself into” (p.xiii). Yeah… JUST, no biggie. (Don’t worry, he squeezed that nugget between the commands of “Never be intimidated” and “Get to work!”) However, Saltz is ever the artist’s champion. The book reflects that with his shouts of “I hope all artists make money,”(p.xiii) “it’s never too late,”(p.21) and “Work, you big baby!”(p.19)
The tone made the book encouraging, but the content was great, too. For example, one of the ways Saltz describes an artist which rang true for me is this: “The artist is on a continually evolving path, accumulating experience but always starting over” (p.x). An artist’s journey is not linear and the continual starting over can leave you feeling as if no progress has been made.
Progress. It’s a word with too much power in society today and one that works against the artist because, as section 58 of the book points out, “Art Doesn’t Progress”. Saltz is right when he says, “we’re all conditioned to think that the history of art is a story of forward progress. … That’s flat wrong” (p.117). Movement is not the same as progress, which denotes only forward, upward, linear movement. Art moves. It shifts. It changes. But it doesn’t progress.
“Art is the simultaneous coexistence of change and stability. It is less an arrow than a plasma cloud, always with us, never the same” (p.118). This is a hard truth to grasp as an artist when society is entrenched in the ideals of stewarding progress and being saved by productivity. Do the work? Yes. See development and change, the accumulation of experience? Yes. But it’s about different not better, growth not progress.
I often find people think of artists as solo workers or loners – an isolated entity that produces art. But even if you do create art alone (many artists don’t) that is only one side of the process of art. You see, “[f]rom the moment a new work is completed, the artist is parted from the work, and the viewer, in turn, becomes a participant in it. The viewer completes the work, unmaking and remaking it” (p.xi).
The things artists make have a life of their own, and it’s a life of multiple relationships. Obviously, the artwork has a relationship with the artist. But it also has relationships with its viewers. Saltz reminds us that, “[a]nyone may experience your art – any art – in any way that works for them” (p.116). An artist only has control over half the process: the making of it. The viewing and interpretation by others are completely out of your control as an artist. Roberta Smith is right, “[a]rtists do not own the meaning of their work” (quote on p.116). You do put meaning into your work. You “embed thought into material” (p.41), but your interpretation as the artist becomes just one interpretation of the work.
This is where being an artist gets tricky. You begin the dance between feeling deeply connected to what you have made, but letting it go out into the world so that you can begin again. For me, as scary as it can be, I want my work to be talked about, to cause dialogue, to connect with people. But to be honest, you can lose sight of that while you are creating.
Layers to Art
Some other highlights from the book for me included the distinctions Saltz made between style and genre, as well as content and subject matter. Words like style and content are everywhere since the explosion of social media and branding and it was good to reflect on the art definitions and put some terms in their rightful place. Saltz encourages artists to embrace genre (whether it’s still life, landscape, religious, comedy, tragedy, science fiction, etc.) but cautions against confusing genre with style. He describes style as, “the unstable essence an artist brings to a genre – what ensures that no two Crucifixions, say, look the same” (p.10). Lots of artists work in the same genre but their work is still distinctive and that is because of their style.
Similarly, content and subject matter get confused but the difference between the two is important. Saltz clearly demonstrates that difference with examples from art history, like this one: “The subject matter of Michelangelo’s David is a standing young man with a sling. The content might be grace, beauty, … vulnerability, bravery, thought” (p.69). Subject matter is what you are looking at (literally), content is what is being expressed. So, a glass coaster and the shadows it makes, may be the subject matter in my cyanotype, but the content is spinning moments in life and shifting perspectives.
As you can see, art has many layers to it. It is made up of genre, style, subject matter, content, and things like the medium or material used, and the era the work was created in. Knowing these things helps us to not just see but to look and really understand a work of art. Artists need to know these things about their own art as well.
A final highlight for me was the practical advice (and exercises) sprinkled throughout the text. For example, “Start Working When You Wake Up” although a short section in the book was a game changer. Saltz gives this spot-on advice: “If you can get into it within the first two hours of the day that should be enough to get around the pesky demons of daily life” (p.25). I love that it’s not literally throw yourself out of bed and into the studio immediately, (although you could in a “studio apartment” – ha, ha, couldn’t resist!). Instead, it’s wisdom for facing the reality that if it’s not a priority early in our day, other stuff will creep in and steal the hours. I need to have this in mind as I transition to full-time artist, when making art can be THE goal of my day. Plus, I’m not a morning person, so odds are the only thing happening in the first two hours of my day is just trying to wake up!
Likewise’s, Saltz section “Finish The Damn Thing!” is advice artists desperately need to hear, on repeat. He says, “[p]erfect doesn’t exist. Nothing is ever really just right; there’s always more you can do. Too bad. It’s as good as it can be right now, and that’s probably good enough” (p.55). Oh, the freedom to be found in that thought! The power of the artist is that a work of art is done when you say it is. Being “done” or “finished” is a decision more than a state; the problem is making that decision! Pursuit of perfection will interfere with deciding because it feels so final and looms larger than life. But only THAT artwork is done, and nothing is final because there is more art to make. You must move on because an artist’s success is a body of artwork over a lifetime not a masterpiece of just one. So, take Saltz’s advice and JUST FINISH IT!!! After all, “overnight is overrated” because “[a]rt gives up its secrets very slowly” (p.107). We need to think big picture: a lifetime.
Go Be an Artist
These things, and many more, are part of how to be an artist. While artists have been given a mystique by society, made out to be creative geniuses who are mostly mad and impossible to understand, this is just not true. There are real, tangible ways to become an artist; and while it is a profession many are not familiar with, it can be understood. And if you read this book and connect with it, chances are, you already are an artist. So be encouraged and get back to work!
(Art Book Critic)