“How To Be An Artist,” is the title of a popular poster by the writer, SARK, Susan Ariel Rainbow Kennedy, which appeared in the 1990s and is still popular. The poster is a list of suggestions and affirmations with candy-coloured text beginning with the line, “stay loose,” and ending with the line, “write love letters.” Similar to new age positive affirmation lists in the Utne Reader, the positivity of the entire list can seem ridiculously utopian.
Sure, you can “take moonbaths” or “learn to watch snails,” but SARK’s affirmations sound more like therapy rather than anything of actual practical value that might help an artist create good or great art. There’s nothing on her list about good ol’ boring practice, latent talent, or emulating artists for which you might have reverence. It’s a sappy fun list and incredibly popular.
Yet it says a lot about how we in the West put so much emphasis on the nostalgic above current and past realities. Believing in magic, having transformative dreams, diving in, being free, getting wet, hugging trees, and giggling with children are all great activities for anyone let alone artists. And most everything on the list is rather easy to do, except maybe “invite someone dangerous to tea,” or “plant impossible gardens.”
SARK is implying that we are all artists. It’s a very egalitarian concept and in some aspects it’s not a bad idea that we all stretch ourselves a little to find our inner creativity and our inner child. We could be better for it. “Anyone can cook,” says Chef Gusteau from the animated film Ratatouille.
However, because the list is unrealistic it completely ignores what made most artists of the past truly great, and ignores what got a few of them killed and some put into prison. Not that you have to be put in prison to be a great artist. In Canada, we’re lucky that we can challenge the status quo without political retribution, except maybe for the Conservative government cutting funding to the arts.
Artists today are hunted down in many countries because they challenge authority. Ai Weiwei is the most popular example today. He is an avant-garde Chinese artist who is critical of the Chinese government’s abuse of human rights. Weiwei is no longer in jail, but unable to leave his country due to trumped up charges. There are political cartoonists in Chinese daily papers, but none dare challenge the Chinese government. Rather, they attack the United States in very stereotypical fashion.
A series of prints by Francisco Goya called the Disasters of War didn’t see the light of day until 35 years after his death. His subject matter was regularly dark and he was very critical of human “foibles and follies.” Theodore Gericault had dead bodies in his studio, and body parts. The place stank of rotting flesh. He needed this subject matter as reference material for one of the greatest artworks ever produced, The Raft of the Medusa. The drive to produce this work came from anger, the need to see justice enacted, and a belief that he could change society for the better by revealing the ugly truth. His intent was to make people angry. And he did.The way to creating good and great art is complex and imbedded within the times in which the art is created. The nostalgic and childlike nature of SARK’s affirmations on how to be an artist says a lot about our times, but actually works to annul what made art great in the past. So maybe, if you want to be an artist producing good and great work, these cute suggestions by SARK should be questioned. Try inverting each phrase in her poster and see how this might create a different approach to creating art.