What Does It Really Mean to Make Art?

When we set aside our romantic notions, we see that creativity is continuous, and fueled by life itself.

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By Ligaya Mishan

SAY “THE ARTIST’S LIFE” and already we are in thrall to the old romantic myths: the garret in winter with wind lisping through the cracks, the dissolving nights at mirrored bars nursing absinthe, the empty pockets, the feral hair, the ever-looming madhouse. Or let us reach further back in time to a Taoist philosophical text circa the late fourth century B.C., which tells of a Chinese lord who summons artists for a commission. They compliantly line up before him with brushes and ink, ready to compete for the job — all but one, who trails in late, then goes back home, disrobes and sprawls on the floor before starting to paint. The lord approves: “This is a true artist!”

Implicit in the phrase “the artist’s life” is the idea that this is a life apart. We are not so quick to rhapsodize about the insurance agent’s life or the plumber’s. As the cultural critic Arne de Boever argues in “Against Aesthetic Exceptionalism” (2019), the reverential way we speak about art invests the artist with a sovereignty akin to that of a monarch or even a god, unbound by the laws that rein in the rest of us. And so the artist remains a collective fantasy, an imagined rebel on the fringes, heroically immune to propriety and the demands of capitalism, who rejects work in the conventional, soul-deadening sense, who needn’t produce according to a schedule or answer to a boss or please anyone but themselves. In this construction, art itself is not a steady practice but a matter of a moment’s revelation, created in a fever that comes out of nowhere (and that the artist may secretly fear will never come again).

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