So, You Are an Artist?

By Ahsen Jillani

I have often talked about the nature of “Art" over the years – and still think about it sometimes. But one of the first victims of maturity (or old age) is our life in fantasyland. The isolation of the last 18 months brought me closer to answering questions about where my life was heading approaching retirement. A lot of us sometimes put aside their artistic goals because life intervenes. Where am I now?

Over the months I have argued with family and friends worldwide about what they consider art. Lots of them post their writing, paintings, pottery, jewelry, theater photos, costume designs, etc. I occasionally post a short experimental poem – which some people like, and others are offended by. But I am in possession of the truth now; and wonder if I know something that is so earth-shattering that simply revealing it will knock the moon out of orbit and wobble the planet's inner peace.

The one thing I did learn publishing a literary magazine and many books in the mid-90s was that artists were a different kind of people. I published and met a few national caliber writers, and a lot of regional writers. The common denominator in these people was one: OCD. We normal folks kind of lose interest in things after a while. I mean, start a project, break for a beer or tea, then forget the project. About 20 years later you go up into the attic and smile at the half a face you had painted on the canvas when you were in your “Van Gogh" stage.

Van Gogh types not only had serious mental demons, they also didn't have too many obligations in life. They obsessively wrote letters to people about their next project, and considering they were broke and hardly recognized as good artists in their lifetimes, their family and friends probably thought, “Let the idiot paint." The early Picasso paid his restaurant bills by drawing sketches on napkins, and the restaurant owner probably thought, “Well, he's a nice enough local artist." A Picasso napkin today – well, let's not even discuss its value.

And the list goes on. Artists were recognized by the aristocrats who admired, and sometime financed, them as being sophisticated thinkers. The royalty in both the East and West treated them with respect. There was a degree of fear in the lives of the rich and powerful that they needed the music, the theater, the poetry, the philosophy, the religion in their lives. It was oxygen for the bored folks who had everything. Indeed, many writers like Tolstoy and Dostoevsky could easily have been arrested and jailed by Russia. The authorities feared Art.

And it intimidated me back in the day. One evening drinking with a famous poet I made the weird statement, “I would classify myself as on the crazy side of hysteria." He immediately reached into the bag that writers often carry and took out a dog-eared notebook and jotted that down. I was curious. Thinking back, I saw painters making rough sketches of trees or restaurant scenes because the angles and lighting seemed to intrigue them.

I guess you can reach some point in your career, if you are lucky enough to be recognized in your lifetime, where you can be a full-time artist, and where what you create is adored by an audience. Actors and bestselling authors have enjoyed that for generations. They can actually make money (sometimes obscene amounts) from their craft.

F. Scott Fitzgerald famously wrote “The Great Gatsby" in just a few weeks to make some quick cash. And infamously, Ernest Hemingway put a gun to his head because – well, we don't know. Had the creativity run dry? Is there a point where you've exhausted yourself?

Art is a job. And for most of us it is not a successful or well-paying one. The last few years, I have realized that most people around me creating pretty stuff are just like me: they are hobbyists. Sitting down twice a month to make a craft or compose a poem is not really art. It is like yoga. It has psychological benefits, and you can be sure that your mom or your uncle David will love it and give you a big encouraging hug and boast to neighbors and friends about the crooked vase you made. But are you an artist? It takes thousands and thousands of hours to master a guitar. Where do you stand as a guitarist?

I don't know. Very few of us nowadays have commissions from royalty to look at trees and sunsets all day so we can do the Zen of the Art or the Art of the Zen thing. We also have to be pleasant people, which a lot of self-absorbed artists are not. Most of the writers today have a day job, perhaps unrelated to art, or maybe teach art at a college, etc. The big money is a complex lottery of talent, luck, and connections – and it comes at the price of your freedom as a thinker and creator: then your audience wants more; your publisher wants to be richer; the reviewers want fresh material; you need Botox to keep playing the roles you played 30 years ago.

I'm no artist. I wrote some fiction and poetry and published way back in a few journals. But I'm not going to write eight hours a day any more than I will do ballet or gymnastics eight hours a day. The obsession is just not in me. Something sparks occasionally and I write something and fire it off to some family or friends, and they send me an emoji thing of clapping hands.

That makes me happy enough.


Ahsen Jillani a former editor and publisher, is originally from Islamabad, Pakistan, and now lives in Mint Hill. He owns Must Media, a PR company focusing on both political and corporate clients.