Last night I spent the evening with Amanda Palmer and guests (including Neil Gaiman) at a talk they did about her new book, The Art of Asking: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Let People Help. The talk, like the book was all about how artists give their art and how, in return, shouldn’t turn away from or feel guilty if they take what they are given for it.
Sometimes I feel really guilty about being a writer
I feel guilty I quit my ‘real’ job to mess around with words. I feel guilty when people pay me for those words when they could find them for free in the dictionary. I feel guilty I chose a path professionally which allowed me more time to create. And I feel guilty I take that time when I don’t have a book traditionally published – which then makes me think the art I make is never going to be good art, that it’s never going to be meaningful – and that also makes me feel guilty.
At these moments I think of people I know
Health professionals and teachers, engineers and charity workers and then I’m even more riddled with guilt. They’re out in the world making a difference, making something concrete, helping people while I work from home – yes copywriting for corporate business (which comes with its own form of guilt) but at other times I’m just splashing my thoughts and feelings around on a blank page, essentially making stuff up.
I spend a lot of time feeling guilty
Listening to Amanda made me realise that a lot of artists at one time or another feel what they are doing may be trivial. That their contribution to the world is somehow less.
“People working in the arts engage in street combat with The Fraud Police on a daily basis, because much of our work is new and not readily or conventionally categorized. When you’re an artist, nobody ever tells you or hits you with the magic wand of legitimacy. You have to hit your own head with your own handmade wand. And you feel stupid doing it.”
“There’s no “correct path” to becoming a real artist. You might think you’ll gain legitimacy by going to university, getting published, getting signed to a record label. But it’s all bullshit, and it’s all in your head. You’re an artist when you say you are. And you’re a good artist when you make somebody else experience or feel something deep or unexpected.”
Humans have been making art since the beginning of their time
Music and painting, fashion and stories have always been part of who we are and make up a huge part of what it means to be human at all. In fact, in 2007 an Australian archaeology graduate student, Stephen Munro discovered a shell etched by Homo erectus some two to three thousand years before our own species even evolved. The find challenged what we know about the origin of art and indeed complex thought. It makes us ask the question – does art evolve with us? Or do we evolve, in part, because of art?
Because if we’re going to stop feeling guilty it’s important we remember that art is important
Art preserves history, it forms the building blocks of culture, it informs us, it educates us, it challenges us, it helps us to understand and with that understanding it can connect us.
Think of totalitarian regimes throughout history. One thing a lot of them have in common is they ban music, destroy paintings, burn books. They limit any kind of self-expression or sharing of ideas or alternate versions of reality because it threatens their fundamental beliefs, their control. And under these circumstances we also see people willing to risk everything for art, for freedom of expression. We see people willing to die for it.
Art challenges the world we live in because it brings with it, its own truth
And what is the point of life if we can’t look beyond the concrete? If we can’t make art and therefore create meaning from the mundane? If we can’t touch or be touched by it?
So next time I start feeling guilty because I missed dinner to write, or someone paid me for my words or I feel like a fraud because I haven’t published a book yet I’m going to try and remember just how important art is and hope that one day I can affect someone with mine.
Make sure you read Amanda’s book The Art of Asking: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Let People Help and in the meantime watch the TED talk that inspired it all.
Have you ever felt guilty about writing? How important do you think art is to the world? Let me know in the comments.