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Art is a Lie, Nothing is Real

A young man dances, caption reads "Art is a lie, nothing is real."
Bo Burnham gif via user aburx on

If you write, you’re a writer.

If you art…you’re an artist?

My family had an interesting conversation over dinner a few weeks ago about how we define art. It came up in relation to music, specifically a more experimental track that, for some of us, stretched the definition. We started comparing our ideas about art and, as family does, tried to poke holes in each other’s definitions. For science.

This has sat in the back of my mind for many weeks, even before that conversation. If you’ve followed me for any length of time, you’ve probably noticed that I sketch and paint pretty regularly. I enjoy doing it, but I’m just as often frustrated by it, and sometimes I ask myself why? Why am I doing this? What’s the point?

Perhaps it’s my Romantic aesthetic, but it seems to me that art–here meaning visual art, like painting–should be emotional. I should feel something while making it, when looking upon it afterwards. And I do. I just usually feel pleased with myself, which I’m not sure counts.

When following up on this discussion with my husband Matt during our early Valentine’s outing, he said that he considers art to be anything that has been declared art by its creator. The hole I poked in that was one shaped like me–because I don’t consider what I draw and paint to be art.

I’m not good enough for it to be art, I tell myself. I don’t have a distinctive style yet, I say. I’m too focused on what things look like, not what they feel like. Even if I knew what they felt like, I don’t know how to convey that.

Matt’s formal definition of art, the one he used to use to teach Survey of Fine Arts, is as follows:

Art (n): [satisfactorily executed] artistic expression through the intentional presence or absence of the elements of art.

By that definition, my work counts as art. Still, I can’t get over the feeling that my work is missing some spark that makes it Art. And until I become an Artist, how can I do anything with my art other than upload pictures to Instagram? How can I sell prints? How can I take commissions? I’m not a real Artist.

This isn’t a creative crisis isolated to visual arts. I’m sure many of you have already picked out parallels to writing. For me personally, I don’t remember struggling much with authorial voice, probably because the skeletal structure was developed during my high school roleplaying days and I was having too much fun to notice. But when it comes to painting, even as I figure stuff out by experimenting, I feel lost at sea. Other than half-remembered high school drawing classes, I’m self-taught–is there something missing that I would get from formal training?

These definitions are a double-edged sword. They can be personalized, and on the one hand, can provide goals to work toward. If you define “a writer” as someone with an agent? Yay, you can work toward getting an agent! But on the flip side, what if you don’t get one with this book? Or the next? What if your work is too niche for agents? Cue identity crisis, per your definition of a writer.

Perhaps I should say triple-edged, because what if you have a definition that makes sense and kind of applies to you but still feels wrong? Is it your work, or the definition, that’s incomplete?

I don’t really have an answer to this, because for me, it doesn’t matter how many external definitions you hear that apply to you if there’s still something missing in how you view yourself and your work. I think that’s something each creator has to work through on their own. For my part, I still paint because I enjoy doing it; and I’ve found that the more I do it, not only do I get better, but it comes more naturally. I’ve begun to have ideas for paintings pop up in my mind, rather than me sitting and deliberately trying to come up with something. I’m flexing that artistic muscle, and it’s getting stronger, and perhaps soon I will update my Instagram bio from “occasionally impersonates an artist” to simply, “artist.”

4 thoughts on “Art is a Lie, Nothing is Real

  1. Love this post. Such a real thing that I think about all the time. Thinking about calling myself a writer or aspiring writer or future writer was such a mind game, and I think with art it can be even less clear. Very interesting stuff here.

    1. It really is a mind game! Especially when people start making distinctions (as we did at dinner) between “art” and “artistic.” Like, this painting I did has artistic quality, but isn’t Art. It’s very hard to get around this idea of Art or Literature being like, a big elite thing. And then you have the cycle of well, should we get around it? Shouldn’t it be a big elite thing? Or what? Am I downplaying my identity in a way that respects the creative craft or is it a low self-esteem issue?

      *brain implodes*

  2. I try not to think too hard on whether something is or isn’t art; I just figure I’ll know it when I see it. ^_^ But I do think that defining yourself as you want to can be what matters most. For example, some people would say I’m not a writer because I haven’t had a book published. Those people are wrong.

    1. They totally are. 🙂 For me the questioning of what is or isn’t art, at least in thinking about my own work, is about knowledge gaps. Okay, my brain says, that’s not art–what is it missing? How can I make it art next time? If that makes sense, haha.

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