Tell someone you are a teacher or a carpenter, an accountant or a computer specialist, and they won’t bat an eyelid at your skills. Tell them you are a neurosurgeon or a horse jumping champion, a master chef or a CEO, and they’ll nod in awe at your accomplishments.
Now tell them you write books. Tell them you paint pictures. It flips a switch in their brains. Their eyes glaze over and their fingers start twitching nervously.
In ancient times artists were akin to shamans. They were seen to have access to a spiritual world not accessible to “ordinary” people. Artists were seers, in contact with the great and invisible forces of the universe and therefore to be feared.
I recently read The Secret Chord by Australian-born writer Geraldine Brooks, in which the story of the Bible’s King David is told by the prophet Nathan. He describes himself as “a hollow reed through which the breath of truth sounded its discordant notes”. People fear and avoid him. They cross to the other side of the street when he approaches. So it goes with many artists, if mostly metaphorically.
But there is another reaction to the dreaded “I am an artist” statement.
Some people equate art with insanity or at the least weirdness. It is not so much an occupation as a preoccupation. It predisposes one to wearing strange clothes or doing socially unacceptable things like dancing in the street or sketching people at a railway station or taking furtive notes while walking the dog.
Oh, they say, you’re a writer? So what do you write? Poetry, you say? Hmm… Strange weather we’ve had this week, isn’t it?
You paint? they ask. Not walls, no. Landscapes? Portraits? Animals? Well, what do you paint then? I knew someone once who was a painter…
To some people artists are one chromosome short of the village idiot. While you’re trying to explain the motive of your main character or why the sky in your painting is purple, they smile condescendingly and nod their heads.
Nice painting, they say. Nice drawing, as if you’re a toddler home from the crèche. Nice book. Nice sculpture (but what is it?). Nice life.
Nice life, yes, thank you very much. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a strategic meeting with the invisible universe.