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You Don’t Have to Make Art

Jed Alexander - Pyragraph
Illustration by Jed Alexander.

There’s this often-quoted idea that artists “have to make art” or that writers “have to write.” That they “have no choice.” The muse is so overwhelming, the compulsion so great, that no matter your circumstances, if you are born an artist art must be made and if you’re not so compelled, you’re not a real artist.

Let’s think about this for a moment. The first thing you need to make art is time. If you’re an otherwise busy person, this time is a sacrifice. And maybe you want to spend a little time with your kids or significant other and that’s a priority too. And if you’re a very very busy person, say, working long hours just to get by by and survival is a primary concern, that time is scarce to nonexistent. So the time set aside for art is a point of privilege.

I don’t care what an artist is or isn’t. It doesn’t matter. Make art if you want to make art.

The “starving artist,” like the artist who “has to make art,” is a product of an affluent culture. Otherwise the whole idea of spending all your time making art before all other concerns wouldn’t make any sense. In a culture where survival is your main priority, making art full time is not a realistic aspiration. There is no model or precedent for this idea in a poor country or community. Making art may be part of the culture but it’s not a full-time occupation. So only an affluent culture can accommodate artists whose full-time occupation is art-making. Only a culture that celebrates and rewards those artists can afford to have starving artists. Or at least, financially struggling ones.

But for many, if not most, people in the world, it’s not an option even if they have the desire or inclination. And you might say, “Art will find a way.” They might find the odd scrap of paper to scrawl on, or a piece of wood to wittle. If you must make art, you must make art. But when you work in a factory in China making iPhones for 80 hours a week, you may be too exhausted.

So basic human struggle aside, in our affluent culture, this myth of the artist who has to make art is used in a number of ways. For some it’s an identity. They are artists. It’s just who they are. For others, it describes a compulsion. They are obsessive about making art. For others it’s an obligation. I need to make art but really I have a lot on my plate right now and I wish I could and if I only had the time….

“Make the time,” say the adherents to the myth. And so obligation turns to guilt. I’m supposed to make art. Otherwise, how can I be an artist?

But it’s not all or nothing. If you make art on the side, you’re no less an artist, you’re someone who has other priorities. Maybe it is a lack of discipline and you genuinely wish to form better habits. Maybe you’d rather do something else.

And that’s okay. It’s totally okay. Art is not an obligation. It’s not a responsibility. The compulsion to make art is not the same as a necessity; it’s just a compulsion you may not happen to have. Or maybe you have enough time or inclination or compulsion to make some art. Maybe the emphasis for you is not on the “some” but more on the “make.” You just want to make something.

In our culture, if you make stuff and you’re not overwhelmingly compelled to make stuff you’re not a real artist. Everybody I’ve met who makes art in their spare time and not as a discipline almost always apologizes for it in some way. “I’m not a real artist. I just dabble. It’s just something I do.”

Kids in our culture are encouraged to draw pictures. They don’t care about whether or not they’re real artists or whether or not their art is good enough or whether they have the right to make it. It’s what kids do. And then we all reach a certain age when we recognize that some people are artists and some people aren’t and the ones that aren’t give it up.

I’ve seen people later in life discover art-making as a compulsion. But they don’t have to make art. It happens to be something they do. And it would be nice if that was our attitude towards making art in general. If it was just something we do. But the idea of artists and nonartists is so ingrained that most of us don’t even try.

I don’t care what an artist is or isn’t. It doesn’t matter. Make art if you want to make art, and make as much or as little as you want and don’t worry about whether you’re compelled to do it or you’re a legitimate artist or just a dabbler or whatever else it is that you’re beating yourself up about.

All of us can make art and are entitled to make art—unless we brush our teeth with ash in a Bangladeshi clothing factory, or eat dirt cookies in Haiti. Entitlement is relative. But not having an overwhelming compulsion to make art isn’t worth feeling guilty about.

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