An Open Letter to Artists
This is/was a 500-word submission to the now defunct website and arts fund IdeasTap:
Talent is Cheap
Let’s crash like perverts through false modesty, and save words by making one loud assumption up front: Artists are often admired for their creativity. It doesn’t matter if you wouldn’t risk arrogance by slapping that wank-happy brand upon yourself, I’ll still bet big that there have always been people in your life-bubble that have told you it’s true; that you’re talented; you’re smart; you’re special.
It’s a romantic little package of ideas that artists have indulged for a long time; that we are precious sorts-of-souls, born with beautiful abilities, and doomed to bear them on our backs as our blessing and our curse. Labels like ‘smart’ and ‘talented’ always fitted comfortably on us. We enjoyed them. We weren’t just snowflakes, unique only in the dull way that everyone else was, but really, actually special — diamonds neglected in a rough of coal, waiting, just waiting, to be plucked by those who would want to show all our shimmering and shining to the waiting World.
And wait we did, reluctantly, treading water like half-drowned ducks in piss-washed praise, for the ‘right people,’ whoever they were, to notice us for what we already knew ourselves to be. We’re still waiting, probably, for that elusive reaching intervention; saviour from becoming just another foolish, spluttering embarrassment that needs to be rescued (financially, probably) by the kind of shore-safe bores who chose instead to become the lifeguards.
The problem was-or-is that our artistic idiot egos cherished those nice labels so much that, while our runaway self-esteem lubricated us for an easy entry into success, we didn’t notice we were instead being damned to all the same consistent lifespan-long failures of the Royal Family’s parenting skills, or a Scottish sporting team involved in anything real.
The easiest way to keep a warm, lovely label like ‘smart’, after all, is to never try. If you don’t try and succeed, you’ll only reinforce your status-as-genius. If you don’t try and fail, meanwhile, you can blame your lack of effort, which is inside your control, rather than your native potential, which is somewhere, somehow beyond it, safely encased still in its deluded complement crust. If you TRY and FAIL, however, there’s no hiding that you just weren’t good enough.
This mentality can lead to all kinds of ‘self-handicapping’ behaviours, from starting projects late, self-imposing obstacles, setting unrealistically high goals, procrastination (perfectionism, you’ll call it), or, most fun and dangerous, the overindulgence in certain, easy vices (if you can drink and succeed, imagine what a fucking genius you must be sober…)
Meanwhile, while we internalise success and externalise failure, we shield our fragile egos from any uncomfortable truths that might upset their lazy lifetimes of ruinous, unchallenged prestige. It’s easier, instead, to blame something vague like ‘recession’ for the bizarre fact that we haven’t yet stumbled hungover, clumsy, and bumhole-backwards into the gigs we deserve.
We’re far wiser to realise that creativity, intelligence, and talent are not at all rare, and the people who most wanted us to believe the opposite were the ones who didn’t appreciate the competition.
Instead, there’s a hard little lie at the heart of ‘genius,’ and it’s only painful when it lands on those who’ve felt most entitled to reap its rewards. It is, regrettably, as unpleasantly obvious as it is obviously unpleasant: you have to practice cleverly, work, work, work, and never stop showing up.