The Walter Darby Bannard Archive

What It's Like to be an Artist (1992)

Miami Magazine, Vol. 3, No. 2 (Winter 1992), p. 32. Reprinted in The Edmonton Review, Vol. 2, Issue 3, Winter 1995/1996, p. 9.

The life of the artist, "La Vie Boheme," is one of the standard myths of modern times. The popular image, reinforced regularly by Hollywood movies, is that of an irresponsible, neurotic, divinely inspired fellow in a beret, half-crazed from alcohol and drugs, despondent from professional rejection, bolting violently from the embrace of several beautiful women to slather yet another layer of bright paint on his current masterpiece.

This is not true. In fact, nobody wears a beret anymore.

What seems like basic differences between artists and other people are really just concentrations of characteristics. The essence of creativity is adaptation to the immediate. The creative solution is born when unencumbered thinking is applied directly to a current problem. Because art is a pure vehicle for creative thought, artists must be continuously imaginative and improvisatory to handle the perpetually current moment in their work. The exaggeration of these qualities of personality in artists tends to diminish the qualities of structure and conventionality. When this manifests itself in behavior, we have the artistic temperament: one that is careless about established order and delights in the odd and unusual.

Unfortunately, the romantic parts of the myth of the artist are less true than the hard-time parts. I was a freelance artist for 25 years. People always admired and envied this apparent independence. "No one can fire you," they would say. That was true; no one can make you leave your job. You stay put, and everyone else leaves.

Having a real job is a new experience for me - very different from my life as a freelancer in the New York art business. What others expect within the system as a right seems like a luxury to me. I still marvel when the check arrives, every month, on time. I don't have to wait a year-and-a-half for it; I don't have to yell at anyone on the phone to get it; it won't bounce. I'm actually paid to come up with imaginative solutions to everyday problems, which is especially nice because what seems imaginative in an academic setting is common-sense experience to the entrepreneur. I have assistants to do what I don't feel like doing. I still say what I think, but now at least a few people listen. And the University is only too happy to have me go off - as part of my job - to paint and sustain the career to which I was already devoted.

Art used to be a relatively straightforward trade, but that changed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries when avant-garde attitudes of innovation and originality replaced the old conventions of craft. The idea of avant-garde worked well enough for a while but there are only so many conventions to spurn before mere novelty sets in. The art business today seems more like the rock music business than anything else - try something crazy and see if any one will pay for it. So-called fine art - art that aims to hang in galleries and museums - has become very glitzy and commercialized, and, with the deterioration of accepted standards, very political.

Art is a strange vocation, one that demands that you make something better without knowing ahead of time what better is, without guidelines or criteria, in a tradition that has been eroded by avant-gardism, doing something that few people understand, with a million-to-one shot at any commercial success at all. As my 86-year-old aunt says, "to do what you do, you have to be a little peculiar."

So, why do it? Because it is interesting, even thrilling, to make art against all those odds. Artists are disinclined to be bored, even if scratching that itch leads away from wordily success. When I step up to the canvas I want to feel that direct, intense present-time engagement with materials that gives life to art. To paraphrase Jose Ortega y Gassett, "Like the hunter inside the country, the artist is the alert man inside the materials and techniques of art, which also is an unconquerable and dangerous jungle."

Added to this thrill of the hunt is the knowledge that if you are good enough you can beat those odds. You can have something to show for yourself. You can, in Sartre's words, leave a gift to the future.

Darby Bannard is chairperson of the Department of Art and Art History.