Myths about artists aren’t only false — they’re dangerous. It’s time to let them go.
As someone who studies and writes about creativity for a living, I’ve learned that a lot of popular conceptions about artists and what they do just aren’t true. And not only that, these false ideas can be downright discouraging (or even dangerous) to people who want to try making art themselves. It’s time to let go of the myths surrounding artists. Let’s start with these:
Myth 1: Artists are born — not made
One of my least favorite movie tropes is that of a musician, painter, writer, or other creative who stumbles onto their god-given talent without working at it. Filmmakers choose to depict artists as natural-born creatives because it makes for easy storytelling, and not because it’s the truth. What these films don’t show are the long and grueling hours that artists put into practicing their art, over and over and over again. Artists give up time with their friends and families to work on their craft. Many sacrifice immediate financial rewards so that they can spend more time making art. The next time you hit a creative block or feel like your work isn’t amounting to much, remember that successful artists aren’t born. They have to work just as hard as anyone else to get good at what they do.
Myth 2: Artists are entirely original
Remember the first time you saw a Picasso painting in a book (or if you were very lucky in real life)? How strange and wonderful it looked? Perhaps you thought “this was an entirely original thinker.” Picasso was one of a kind, yes, but his work isn’t as original as you might think. Some of his most favorite paintings, like the thrilling Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (not an affiliate link) were based on African totem art that had been created 100 years earlier.
In his article “The Genius of the Tinkerer” (not an affiliate link), Steven Johnson writes that creative innovation doesn’t just happen out of thing air. It’s created by combining two or more ideas already in existence. If Picasso wasn’t entirely original, you don’t have to be either.
Myth 3: Artists don’t have day jobs
Every artist dreams of creating art full time. But in the 21st century that’s a luxury reserved for the very, very few. The rest of us have bills to pay and families to support. And you know what? That’s fine. Working a day job doesn’t make you any less of an artist. In fact, the fiscal freedom that a day job provides means that you can spend more of your offwork hours devoted to your art instead of worry over where your next paycheck is coming from.
Day jobs also come with another perk. In her article “The Benefits of Having a Day Job” (not an affiliate link), Margaret Dilloway writes:
Another benefit of having a day job is getting out of the writer cave. Writers need experiences to write about. They need to hear how people speak, and catch snippets of stories to inspire their fiction.
I couldn’t agree more. If you want to write about the world you need to live in it. So head in to that day job with pride — it’s a part of being a writer, not an enemy to it.
Myth 4: Artists must suffer from mental illness to create
I can think of few myths that are more dangerous to an artist’s health and creative spirit than this one. Yes, it’s true that some of the world’s most well-known artists suffered from mental illness: Vincent Van Gogh, Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, etc. But these folks are the exception, not the rule.
The truth is you don’t have to — and shouldn’t — suffer from mental illness for your art. On the contrary, if you think you have mental illness, you should seek help from a professional right away so that you can live your life to the fullest. “But what about my art?” You might ask. “Won’t I lose access to the parts of my brain that make me creative if I get help?” Nope. You won’t.
As Dr. Albert Rothenberg, Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard, writes (not an affiliate link):
“Suffering is an intrinsic component of mental illness but, despite traditional romantic beliefs about creative people, such disruption seldom contributes directly to creative inspiration.”
That’s right. Artists who’ve suffered from mental illness weren’t creative because they were ill. They were creative despite being sick. Moreover, some of the most creative minds who ever lived did not suffer from mental illness: Jane Austen, Anton Chekhov, George Eliot, Johann Sebastian Bach, and even William Shakespeare (as far as we know). Sure, they had problems like any other human being. But they didn’t suffer the way we know Van Gogh and Plath did. So in sum: if you’re suffering get help. It won’t make your art worse; it’ll make it — and you — better.
Myth 5: Artists succeed when they’re young or not at all
The idea that you have to be in your teens or 20s to be a successful artist just isn’t true. In fact, some of the most influential artists working today didn’t even start creating until their 30s and then didn’t find success until after age 40. For example, opera singer Andrea Bocelli didn’t headline a performance until he was 35. Marina Abramovic, easily one of the most respected and prolific artists of our time, didn’t seriously start making art until the age of 42. Claude Monet was in his 40s before he painted anything you’d recognize, and Robert Frost was 39 before he published his first collection of poems. Other well known writers, painters, and musicians have gotten even later starts. So whether you’re in your 30s or 70s, you’re never too old to start creating.
The myths that I’ve outlined here have been around for a long time. But they’re just not true. It’s time to forget them, to let them go so that we can see artists for who they really are: people doing what they love, but people just the same — people wrestling with the same kind of faults and obstacles as the rest of us. Remember: anyone can be an artist, even you. And you can do it your own way.