Art, lost and found
Martin Doonan, musing on the responses of camera club judges to photographs made by famous photographers, writes:
Surely someone creating great work gets to become known as an artist. Just calling yourslef an artist does not mean what you do is art.
I’m not sure I understand exactly in what sense Martin is asking this question. There’s the sense that, unless you’re producing great work, you shouldn’t get to call yourself an artist. And there’s the sense that, if you produce great work, you will eventually become known as a great artist.
I definitely don’t agree with the first. If you make art, you’re an artist. If you produce bad art (I’m not sure how I’d classify it) then perhaps you are not a very good artist, but you are nonetheless an artist. In my view, that is. As for the whole good art/bad art thing, I’m always mindful of the words of E. B. White, who commented “There is no good art, or bad art. There is just Art, and damn little of it.”
I don’t care if you’re a high school student, or a single mom, or a doctor, or a lawyer, or a famous sculptor or painter or photographer. If you engage in artmaking, you’re an artist, period. You might be an unknown artist. You might be better known for your supreme court briefs, or for your ability to fix plumbing, but if you make art, you’re an artist, period, full stop.
And for the second sense – the idea that if you produce great work then you’ll be recognized as an artist – I have a short-ish story to relate.
Once there was a kindergarten teacher. She had this idea, and she thought to herself “I think this idea might be best expressed as a play.” She’d never written a play. But she sat down, and she wrote this play. And then, having written the play, she made copies of the script, and she sent them all over North America to various theatres. She sent out a lot of copies, and no one cared for her play. Theatres get a lot of unsolicited manuscripts, and there are not many people to read those unsolicited manuscripts, so it’s pretty hard for an unsolicited play by a completely unknown writer to even get read. And that’s perhaps especially true if the unknown writer is a female kindergarten teacher.
And then, one day, a literary associate at a theatre picked up one of the copies, saw the kindergarten teacher’s name on the title page, and thought “Hey, I went to high school with her!” And so this literary associate sat down, and read the play. And he thought “Hey, this is damn good. We should produce this play.” And so the theatre did. This play, which had been completely overlooked by uncountably many theatres, was produced at South Coast Repertory. The play, Wit, by Margaret Edson, went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1999. Yes, really. A kindergarten teacher from Atlanta won the Pulitzer Prize for the first play she wrote.
So sometimes the difference between a play that goes out into the world and doesn’t make a ripple, and play that wins the Pulitzer Prize – that difference is not in the play, but in the expectations of the people who come into contact with the play.
Sadly, it’s a certainty that there’s a truly great play – a Pulitzer Prize winning caliber play – sitting in a stack of ignored unsolicited manuscripts in a disused corner of an office in a theatre somewhere. It is an absolute fact that great plays are written, and then are never discovered, and vanish without a trace.
You can make great art, and getting recognized as an artist is still something of a crap shoot.
And the moral of the story is this: make your art to be making art. Enjoy making it, and arrange your life so that you will enjoy making art for a long time. If you get fame and recognition for the art you make – that’s gravy. But if you expect to get recognized for the art you make, you’re like the inner city kid shooting hoops in the parking lot, and dreaming of becoming the most famous player in the NBA. It isn’t impossible, but the odds are so long that you’d be better off making other plans.
And if you make art, feel free to think of yourself as an artist. Even if you’re a carpenter, or a stay at home mom, or a bulldozer driver or a globetrotting commercial banker.
Because if you make art, you’re just as much an artist as that kindergarten teacher from Atlanta. Really.