When I began making images, it was entirely selfish. I wanted to have control over my creativity, I wanted to see how much I could learn. I enjoyed the process and soon I learned that I wanted a career. Half a year into creating, I knew that photography was becoming a much larger portion of my life than pure selfishness would allow. I wasn’t only creating for myself, I was creating for others.
For all of my creative adulthood I’ve been told by professors, other creatives, friends, etc., that you should ALWAYS create for yourself and not for others. After all, the hallmark of an Artist (with a capital A, of course), is that they create because they are compelled, because they have the muse within them, because they must.
As I became more motivated by creating for others, I started to wonder: Does that make me less of an artist? Does that mean I’m selling out?
[Which, if you’ll allow this side-note, I am DONE with the word “sellout”. Way too often we use that word to describe other people we are jealous of. Or a situation we don’t understand. Sometimes it is applicable, but it is too negative to fit into my vocabulary. End side-note.]
It took me years to reconcile these questions. And it took me years to train myself to create for the right reasons.
[Ie: Not the social media attention. We’re being honest here.]
Recently I was at an event where I was chatting with someone I would see occasionally at such events. Our conversation really stuck with me. This person praised me for really creating art for myself. I countered by explaining that I actually really love creating for others, too, and that a big motivating factor in my creation process is wanting to make something someone else will be touched by. I’ll never forget the look they gave me that was surprise mixed with a bit if disgust.
Reading between the lines, the word sellout formed in the air.
We had a discussion then about what it means to create for others vs. yourself, and there was a definite feeling that if you are a real artist, you create for yourself. This isn’t the first time I’ve encountered that way of thinking. I used to believe in it vehemently myself.
And, let’s be honest – I benefit tremendously from my art. On a personal level, of course, by feeling fulfilled and working my imagination. Financially, by affording a house. Energetically, by setting my own schedule. Spiritually, by traveling and learning about new cultures. My art is selfish in those ways, and I don’t want to trade that in.
But I would be lying if I said that I would have created everything that I’ve created if it was purely selfish. I am motivated by how much we can change the world through our actions. There are days when I didn’t want to create but the thought of who I might touch roused me into creative motion. If that sounds delusional, or self-centered, let me say two things:
- It took me a long time to develop enough self-esteem to love my art and believe in the power one individual has to change the world.
- I have witnessed how impactful art is for people, from fellow Americans in my workshops to girls in India who have never witness art like that, who understand the stories I’m telling even though our circumstances are radically different. I’ve seen art heal.
I think back often to 2009 when I had just started creating and I removed an image from the Internet because it didn’t have enough likes. Then my friend emailed asking where that image was, and I told her I removed it, and she told me I shouldn’t have because it brought her such peace after having a miscarriage.
I remember hearing from someone that they were going to take their own life, but after seeing an image of mine, they felt understood and didn’t go through with it.
These are stories I hear too often. And I’m not the only one. I’m not trying to insinuate that my imagery has magical healing powers. I’m not even trying to say that it is special in the grand scheme of the world. Who knows.
What I am saying is this: What we do with our time will touch the lives of others. We might as well create with the greatest impact for good.
That doesn’t mean what you create has to be cookie-cutter if you don’t want. My images are WEIRD, CREEPY, and UNSETTLING for many. Sometimes, most of the time, it is those exact qualities that resonate.
I remember being told for the first time, but absolutely not the last, that my work has no place in the art market. That no one would want to hang what I create on their walls. Whoever dares to tell an artist that doesn’t understand humanity. There is something out there for everyone. Right now, there is someone in the world who will benefit from seeing your art. It doesn’t matter what form it takes, how weird it is, or how normal. Someone out there needs you. Period.
1) Do you believe you have the
power to change the world for the better?
2) What value do you believe your art adds to the world?