What does it take to be an artist?

You may be surprised to learn that I didn’t consider myself an artist until quite recently – long after publication, in fact – and I’ve been thinking a little about what it really takes to be an artist, and I’m going to share some of these thoughts with you.

Bear with me please because I’m going to start with Blackadder (we’ve all seen Blackadder, haven’t we?) and the final episode filmed for the millennium. This is when Baldrick invents a time machine which transports Blackadder to important moments in history. In so doing, he meets famous historical figures and gathers priceless artefacts to bring back with him to the present day, in order to win a bet. One of the items is a signed play by William Shakespeare: Blackadder time travels to the reign of Queen Elizabeth I and runs into Shakespeare in a corridor (who looks suspiciously like Colin Firth) and in his hand he carries the original manuscript of Macbeth. Blackadder offers a pen for Shakespeare to sign his autograph, relieves him of the pages, then punches Shakespeare in the face. He tells him, that’s for all the misery he’s going to cause generations of school children in English lessons and exams hereafter – and how dreadful Kenneth Branagh’s 4-hour Hamlet is.

I know what you’re thinking and, honestly, I’m as shocked as you are. Macbeth is not an Elizabethan play, it’s a Jacobean play. I have no problem, actually, with Baldrick being the greatest genius who ever lived by virtue of the fact he invented a working time machine, but I have to take issue with the glaring inaccuracy; Macbeth was written during the reign of James I, not Elizabeth I. We’ll skip over that part.

Of course what happens is this: Blackadder inadvertently changes the course of human events. Shakespeare is so traumatised by the encounter, that he does not go on to become the greatest writer the world has ever seen. Instead he fades into obscurity, having made but one contribution of note: he becomes the inventor of the ballpoint pen.

Now, I like a ballpoint pen as much as anybody, but the thought of having lived a life without Shakespeare . . . having never seen a Shakespeare play at the theatre or read the words on the page . . . the thought of it I find genuinely upsetting. It would be a personal tragedy for me, never mind the rest of you, or the actors and scholars who’ve devoted their careers to him.

A life without having cried at Othello. A life without laughing at the lovers’ quarrel in Much Ado About Nothing. A life without seeing Mark Rylance play Hamlet at the Globe (he is better than Branagh) and without hearing Cleopatra described in this way,

“Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale / Her infinite variety.”

No Romeo and Juliet either. The entire Wars of the Roses cycle, 8 plays – and I’ve see all of them more than once – gone, blinked out of existence. As is the Merchant of Venice, and all the controversy that perturbs us even now.

No Tempest! What? No one who thought or wrote,

“We are such stuff / As dreams are made on; and our little life /Is rounded with a sleep.”

I would be poorer without this work. I wouldn’t know myself. The very language I speak, the idioms that are so familiar, would be obliterated.

The idea that Shakespeare doubted himself horrifies me. But I bet he did. He was the son of a glove maker, the grandson of a farmer. Based on his family history, there was no reason to suspect that this boy from Stratford-upon-Avon would become one of the greatest artists to draw breath. And I reckon those nobles at court didn’t let him to forget where he came from. Even now, there are people who believe that the man we call William Shakespeare could not possibly have written all those plays and sonnets – and they call their prejudice, ‘The Authorship Question’. It’s insulting.

But it is, perhaps, useful to remind ourselves that the artists we love and admire most have dark moments too, that they know fear and failure as much as any of us. There were times when things got so bad, that they just wanted to give up and throw it all away. What stops them? How do they carry on? And when we face difficulties in our work, our meagre offerings, how do we carry on?

What does it take to be an artist? Not a great artist. Not even a good one. Just being an artist.

I’ve wanted to write fiction since the age of 19, but it’s only recently that I began to have a sense of what the answer to this question could possibly be. So here goes.

Delight. I believe it’s imperative that you enjoy your work, every minute. You may’ve heard the saying, “Pain is inevitable; suffering is optional.” This is vital for the working artist, especially when things go wrong. I do not subscribe to the idea that it’s somehow necessary to suffer for your art. Yes, as artists, we tend to live a lot in our heads and we’re predisposed to having doubts. This is the challenge. At the very least the creative process can have a therapeutic effect and at its best we are elevated by it – we ourselves change and are made better. Delight in the effort. Delight in your work when it’s finished, including its flaws. If the creation and the outcome bring you pleasure, then that’s the achievement.

Bravery. Critical voices are everywhere, but be brave if you can – if you dare to. Work that pleases you because it’s strange and unusual is all to the good. If you play it safe and try to do what’s popular or conventional, you can’t unlock any real power. There’s no force behind it. Your work will be bland and fade quickly. You need bravery in the face of criticism and disappointment and, to be clear, these are coming. All artists have to face it some time or another, including the best. Sometimes it’s insulting; sometimes it’s motivated by jealousy or rooted in private pains. Worse still there are artists, even today, who endure intimidation, perhaps imprisonment for what they do. Those critical voices – don’t let them get to you. Whether they’re in your head, on your Twitter, or out there in the real world – they don’t deserve a moment of your time. When Blackadder punches you in the face, don’t give up your Macbeth in favour of the ballpoint pen. Show bravery in spite of everything.

Staying power. There are lots of ways to describe tenacity, determination, patience, practice . . . I think ‘staying power’ covers all of it. Because to have staying power is to acknowledge that this is a marathon, not a sprint. One theory holds that in order to be accomplished in anything – music, sport, chess, whatever – you have to practice for not less than 10,000 hours. This means that if you practice your art for 8 hours a day, 6 days per week, you would have to work for 4 solid years to reach your goal – without stopping to earn your living or take a day off, other than Sundays. And of course if you used that model, you wouldn’t have much life experience at the end. You’ll neglect your friends and family, compromise your wellbeing and you’ll not have time to enjoy the works of others. You’d be a hermit. Actually, you need life experiences to inform your work. If you’re an artist, you’re a long distance runner and you need take all this in your stride. Steep hills and rough terrain should be negotiated with care. Set a pace you personally can maintain (never mind anyone else and how fast they’re going). Recover and rest when you need to. This is the knack of staying power.

Allies. You have allies, believe it or not. They are the other artists who’ve been there. They are people who care about you, whether you succeed or fail. I think there’s no phrase in the English language as appealing (or as loaded) as the words, “I love you”. But to the ear of an artist there are sweeter, gentler words, a phrase which resists tarnish and that cannot be spun with ease. Because they’re spoken so rarely and by someone with nothing to gain, when the hearer is in most need: “I believe in you”. When your friend says this (your colleague, your partner, maybe) magic happens. The phrase “I believe in you” can make the difference between whether work gets made or it doesn’t. Take comfort from your allies and don’t forget to reciprocate from time to time.

Insight. Your art is informed by life experience, by the things you have discovered to be true. If in all your years on this planet you’ve gained one insight worth sharing, a single piece of wisdom that you can pass on to another human being, then do so through your art. Art without insight is merely decorative. Great works of literature, great paintings, great performance needs above all clarity of thought. Transmit your thought in the most direct and ingenious way possible, like a poet. The lessons you’ve learned may well have saved you; now is the time to put a message in a bottle because they may save somebody else one day.

So to recap: it takes 5 things to be an artist. Delight; Bravery; Staying power; Allies; and Insight. And of those 5 things, delight is the most important. Because even if you’re a bad artist – and I might include myself in that description – if you’ve delighted in the creation of your work, then you haven’t wasted a single minute of your time.

But 5 things are a lot to remember and I don’t expect anyone to be taking notes. So let me give you one word instead which captures all of these things, one word to imprint on your brain and keep on a post-it note above your desk. Integrity. You are an artist if you have integrity. Integrity will see you through the good times and the bad. People admire integrity, even if they can’t stand the work you’ve made. Hold on to it and everything falls into place. Integrity redeems your poorest effort. Integrity makes your best work fly. If you can keep your integrity, then I can honestly say, “I believe in you”.

And yet it might not be enough. That’s frightening, isn’t it? The fact is as artists we might never succeed in creating anything of worth. For instance, it has taken me two thousand words to express what has been said before – briefly and far more elegantly – by the avant-garde Irishman of letters, Samuel Beckett.

“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

This is a copy of a speech given by Katie to Ipswich Arts Association on 5 March 2015

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2 Responses to What does it take to be an artist?

  1. Integrity a rare quality indeed I have had dinner party conversations with friends where we have discussed famous people we believe to have integrity, very few and far between, interestingly we didn’t discuss what artists we believe to have integrity, I like to think it would be more common among that population.
    I truly believe artists are in it for the long run, success and plaudits can arrive sometimes too early in a career and skew its development, that said too many mid career artists do not get the recognition they deserve and the tenacity to continue without obvious success only serves to illustrate the integrity of intent.

  2. Katie says:

    Hello Melanie

    Thank you for the reply and the share on Facebook. I agree entirely with your comments about longevity; new, exciting artists deserve support and recognition, but I think we sometimes undervalue the artists who have proved themselves over mid / long careers. It takes guts to keep going, to weather the highs and lows. And this, I think, is one of the differences between those in search of validation, and those who are artists through and through.

    Congratulations on your exhibition also. You make beautiful work.


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