What it means to be an artist, or on “Uncertainty Principle” in Art

Pablo Picasso. Painter and his model. 1963.
Pablo Picasso. Painter and his model. 1963.

… all you’ve got to do is be alive, just be alive, to the very end. — Boris Pasternak

I’ve spent some time this week browsing ideas of what it means, “to be an artist”.

(Within the realm of internet, Maria Popova’s “Brain Pickings” site is a very helpful, since she reads a lot about art, and provides so many meaningful hyperlinks; an then there is the “Art Quotes” site to complement that.)

An internet search for how to be an artist is a bit like a search for how to eat well: you can find anything you like, and take your pick. There is whole range of often mutually contradictory ideas, along with scientific evidence in favour of each.

And so, an artist can be someone who does something as useless as possible, lives a life of recognition and luxury, and feels extraordinarily blissful about the whole arrangement.

Or it can be someone who bears the burden of spiritual growth of the humankind on their shoulders (all alone), leads a solitary, impoverished life, and is in agony all the time (or almost all the time).

Which one would you rather be?

Two things are clear though.

First, this feels like an important question. Lots of people — including any artist of the last century whose name you can remember, and many, many more — have been contemplating it and writing about it (historically, though, this seems to be a relatively new preoccupation).

Secondly, everyone who is interested will have to (and is free to) find their own answer, even if it’s just choosing from one of the already available options.

So what do I think, myself?    

All ideas on what it means to be an artist seem to cluster about two distinct sides of the question, which can probably be called “subjective” and “objective”.

“Subjective” is about the artist’s own experience (both of their work process, and of life in general). The keywords in this domain are “self-expression” and “being alive”. “Self-expression” stands, essentially, for the desire to do the work, as a means of self-actualisation and making one’s own life meaningful. And “being alive” is an attempt to capture the experience of intensified vitality and unity with life that emerges in the process.

But these experiences are not really limited to traditionally “artistic” pursuits, are they? They are the birthright of every human being — actually, every being, not only human; after all, my cat has as much right (and, from what I can see, as strong a desire) to feel truly alive as I do. An artist, then, is simply someone who needs to do something “artistic” to achieve these experiences.

The second intuition has to do with “objective” qualities of the work. These are hard to put into words, and one often hears nowadays that “all art is subjective”. But it is not, at least it is not supposed to be. It is supposed, in some sense, to open a pathway to Reality, to communicate what would have remained hidden or misunderstood otherwise. Kafka said that our personal existence is a keyhole through which we perceive the grandeur of life. “Self” is this keyhole, and an artist is someone who has trained the “self” to see and show more than the ordinary perception would allow. As Alexander Blok once said, to open highways to the paradise of my outlandish songs.

If one does that, one cannot help but express their self — the outlines of their personal keyhole — but that’s not the goal, that’s a limitation. This limitation is the subjective in art. And if there is nothing more in the work, then it just doesn’t have this objective quality, that inexpressible beyond-the-self essence we find in the work of a true artist. This, in any event, what the second intuition about what it means to be an artist boils down to. Let’s call an artist who can do that Artist with a capital “A”.

The problem is, of course, that it is genuinely impossible for an artist to know for certain whether their work have this quality, whether they are an Artist: they are bound to see the work through the very same keyhole. One may call it, I guess, Uncertainty Principle in Art — in the words of Boris Pasternak, “and your self will never be able to distinguish your failure from your success”.    

This “Uncertainty Principle” is, I believe, what generates the need for external validation. But this doesn’t really work either, it is never enough, and we know it: recognition (let alone material success) in one’s own lifetime is not a good sign of the work’s objective quality at all.

So what remains to an artist whose ambition is to be an Artist?

There is this Kandinsky’s idea of “inner need”, which binds the “subjective” and “objective” together. In the final analysis, the idea is to have faith that the subjective experiences that pull you to art are a sign of something beyond-the-self wanting to express itself through you. So, just do your best to keep your keyhole clean, and there is hope that this objective quality of Artistry will emerge in your work.

And there is also this idea that just being truly alive is enough. So if the subjective aspects of being an artist are there — the meaningfulness of life, the intensified vitality, doesn’t it make sense to do it even this faith happens to be a delusion? To quote Boris Pasternak again: all you’ve got to do is be alive, just be alive, to the very end.