What Makes an Artist?

A recent correspondent, after looking at the photos in the Gatesman Photo Gallery, observed that telling our individual experiences through the process of “doing art” is a way in which we may connect to the universe. It is this ability, the correspondent suggests, that makes us humans and not just animals.

He suggests that, unlike our cats, who do not return from their nightly adventures each morning to relate their stories to the other animals in the household, we humans relate our stories through the art that we create, and that it is through artwork that we may relate those stories to future generations. “That way,” he states, “we don’t ALL try the red berries before we figure out they were poison!” He suggests further that through making art, we expand our ability to know and get closer to the greater truths that underlie our objective perception of the world around us.

For me, the process of making photographs opens a door to a more sublime reality. As I walk around with a camera taking photos, or stroll a photography exhibit at the National Gallery of Art, for example, I experience a phenomenon that I call “the world slipping away”. My senses become enlivened and, in a subtle sense it seems to me that all phenomenal existence not related to the process of my creating, or interacting with, a photograph, retreats into the background of my perception, and I view those aspects of the world that directly impact my process as being more alive. It is as if I can sense the impulses of creativity rising up from some deep well, a source of inspiration that is outside of me, outside of time, outside of space.

My correspondent concluded his observations regarding my creation of the online Gatesman Photo Gallery by suggesting that what makes me an artist is that, even though I did not have to do so, I made the effort to go back through two decades worth of photographic negatives, process them so they can be viewed on the internet, and start a web site to share the images. While I recognize the validity of his point, I want to suggest that what makes me or anyone else an artist is that they make the effort to create and share their photographs, or paintings, or stories, or dances, or music because they cannot help but do those things.

It is not that one makes his pictures available for others to see when he doesn’t have to do so that makes him an artist. Rather, to be an artist is to feel compelled to do so, whether or not you have anything to gain in material terms.

But that is not enough. For me, my interaction with my correspondent was like fertilizer to the garden of my creative process. [See October 4, 2007, blog post discussing My Autumnal Garden.] I believe that by sharing our experiences of the creative process we become better able to recognize and articulate the creative impulse.