What counts as “art”? How can we make good art?

In my arts education, and in my personal life as a creative person, I have noticed some patterns that crop up again and again.

I studied at the Rhode Island School of Design under a few legendary professors, namely Gareth Jones and Tom Mills. I have also been lucky enough to have brave and energetic friends who are always making new things and who let me bounce ideas off of them until we come up with some things to ‘jot down.’

In this article, I will talk about:

  1. Several key abilities and key perspectives that I have observed in many of my highly creative peers.
  2. A potential “definition” for “art” and why people love to create.

What key lessons help us to be prolific makers?

  1. Talent is the biggest myth. When I arrived at RISD, cleanly dressed and fresh-eyed, I was worried that maybe I wouldn’t be “talented” enough. Within 2–3 weeks of class the truth became apparent. The students with the best work ethic always had the best projects. Just like in anything else, a willingness to try, a relentless sense of curiosity, and a solid ethic always leads to the most powerful creative work.
  2. You just have to break the rules! In an Ivy League classroom, we tend to hear words like ‘specifications,’ ‘rubric,’ and ‘minimum requirements.’ In an arts education, the top classes have absolutely no requirements whatsoever. The best students in any art class heed their intuition, and that often means breaking the prompt, altering it, subverting it, or handing in something completely unrelated to it. Your task was to bring in a 3" x 2" landscape painting? Except you turned in 10"-wide hanging mobile that mimics geese-flying patterns over a couple of millennia? See what I mean? In traditional school, I learned that I was capable of receiving direction, digesting new material, and delivering; in art school, I learned that everything I ever wanted to know was already inside myself.
  3. Drop your ego. I had a TA come up to me during a drawing class once, and she said, “Your ego is so big, I can feel it on the other side of the room.” I was stunned and called my mom in tears after class, but it was a powerful lesson. I was imposing my conscious will onto that drawing. I was not listening to intricate, ever-expanding details in the flora and fauna, I was talking, talking, talking with my self-righteous, ego-based opinion right over everything there was to be seen.
  4. Follow your fears. Fear is a great marker. It makes it so easy to see the things that are unresolved in yourself, and that is always good breeding ground for art. What are you scared of!? Sweet, that’s the topic of your next art piece! I knew that performing scared me, so I wrote a song and made a music video.
  5. It’s okay to pursue an idea that people say is crazy. I once had a professor, Gareth Jones, who would entertain any idea I had without the slightest judgement, no matter how strange it was. He would say to me, “Usually if something is any good at all, most everyone will think that it is ridiculous and that you are crazy.” Humankind used to think the world was flat, women couldn’t apply to top-tier colleges until 1970, and we used to think video didn’t qualify as an art form. Society morphs and changes and is a poor indicator of the inherent merit in an idea.
  6. Think about connections, not divisions. Analysis breaks things down, but isn’t synthesis really the fun part?! Remember that there are potential relationships between everything — between musical notes and leaves on a tree, between people and dolphins, between geometric diagrams and biological diagrams. Be open to appreciating the unity that is around.

What is “art”?

My definition of art is “any act to which meaning can be ascribed.” Put another way, art is a process or tendency toward making meaning. By this definition, the span of what qualifies as art is big. I think my paintings, Kylie Jenner’s make-up lines, reality television, and my discrete math professor’s sneaker choice are all types of artistic expression. I agree with artist Joseph Beuys when he insists: “Everyone is an artist.”

Art might be about teaching the analytical parts of your brain and the synthesizing parts of your brain to work together. To get psychological about it, art-making might be when your mind’s yang aspects collaborate with your mind’s ying aspects to creatively bring something new to life!

Who is the audience in art-making? As I see it, there are several main audiences: yourself, the universe, and society (or others). An artist who produced for himself is James Joyce, as evidenced by Finnegan’s Wake, the book he wrote using a ‘language’ only he really understood. One artist who I think spoke to the “universe” or forces outside of her own self is Hilma af Klint, the 20th-century painter who pioneered concepts in abstraction. An artist who unabashedly wanted to speak to society is Andy Warhol, or more currently, Rihanna.

Another cool thing I like to think about art is that it is a meta-conversation. So you don’t have to be alive at the same time on earth to talk to someone! Personally, when I look at Hilma af Klint’s paintings and Emma Kunz’s drawings, and I feel like I’m having a conversation with them.

Art, like any opportunity to create, is ultimately healing, as it will (hopefully!) teach you about yourself and the world around. By pro-actively bringing different parts of the self together, unifying light and dark, we can arrive at a renewed sense of peace.

Re-capping the read:

Want to make strong creative work? Start by applying a work ethic to your practice with a willingness to take risks. Invite uncertainty into your process, as you will grow faster.

Art is about making meaning. Whatever you do with your time, however you choose to speak, act, record, lead, work, and play, in a sense, people will derive some meaning from it.

Just as loving nature, or loving someone else, requires faith, so does art. Let’s all put forth the daily belief that we can grow in the fullness of our love. And, perhaps then, we might be better artists.