Being an Artist

Dimitri Ashkenazy's picture
published by Dimitri Ashkenazy
on January 6, 2021

Being an Artist


Recently, in a short exchange with a new acquaintance, the question of what it's like to navigate the brutalities and tendernesses of being an artist (of any kind) came up again, and I started to feel that my next text would have to address it. 


I've been in the performing arts for around thirty years now, and both my parents and my brother, too, have tremendous experience in the field. When I first started giving concerts with my father, he was roughly the age I am now but had performed many times more often than I have now, due to his extraordinary career. I had grown up regarding everything about him and his work as normal, and only slowly, as I got to know myself as a professional, did I also come to realise just how unusually talented he was, and what status he had among his fellow musicians. You can imagine my amazement, then, when I felt that he was more or less as nervous as I was before we went out on stage together. How was this possible? With his unbelievable gifts, decades of experience, professionalism? 

What is that nervousness, actually? Where does it come from? 


The short answer is that performers, or artists in general, strive for excellence (because art itself is worth that striving), and, linked to that, have a more or less deep desire for recognition a) of that striving and b) of the level of the result. Consequently, they ask themselves at every key moment (concert, exhibition, competition, audition, job interview, and the like): "Will I make it? Am I good enough?" Authentic artists will genuinely care about the goals they have set themselves, and there is something extremely powerful in the act of a human being pitting him-/herself against great technical and organisational challenges in order to achieve beauty and deep communication. Because they care, they worry that they may not succeed. 


Succeed in what?


This, to me, is the crux of the issue. What does an artist want to achieve, actually? What do I want to achieve, as an artist? When is what I do of value to me, my audience, humanity? 

It is human to want to be liked, not to be ignored, not to be treated with indifference, to be validated in some way. Art is not necessary to see that on any street corner: The way people everywhere dress, walk, talk, behave, strut, even drive cars and ride bicycles (and these are only some examples) in a certain way in order to be seen, taken notice of, appreciated in some way. Often, in my opinion, it is a desire to be noticed that is misguided - many will be validated for (again in my opinion) all the wrong reasons. People hide behind an image they hope will make an impression. Woody Allen, the famous film director, once quipped something to the effect that everything we do in life is a more or less concentrated effort to "get laid" - in other words, to find a mate and reproduce. This would explain countless attitudes of millions of people daily, I suppose, but I am less and less convinced by this view as I get older - or at least as it relates to me personally. Yes, there is a certain satisfaction when my art reaches my audience, and the sensation that what I do actually has a palpable effect on people does give it a certain value. However, genuine artists do what they do primarily, I believe, because of a deep conviction that it has value in and of itself. They do not want or need an "image". 


These two kinds of validation are interactive, sometimes frustratingly so - in practical terms, in most cases the artist has bills to pay and has to earn enough to make ends meet, so there has to be a certain financial appreciation of his/her work or the situation will become untenable. However, only doing the things that pay well often results in artistic apathy, a kind of "selling one's soul". Only ever doing the things that we believe are the most worthwhile, of the greatest artistic and human value, can result in having to give up art in order to find other ways of paying the bills. But this wasn't even my main point in this paragraph, which is: There is also a psychological balance between what succeeds in lighting the fire in my audience and what I am most convinced is artistically worthwhile. Often these two things painfully differ - I can be overjoyed at having achieved something I believe to be valuable, but not reach my audience.. or I can be disappointed in my performance but be amazed by the audience's validation of it. Navigating those ups and downs can be a huge challenge. 


In the end, in life as in art, it probably boils down to authenticity. We have to try our best to find what our core is, what we truly believe in, then be and show ourselves for what we truly are, and finally trust that we will be accepted and/or appreciated as such. To paraphrase what a famous musician once said: "Being an artist means being utterly convinced of what you're doing, and doubting everything about it at the same time". We face our own personal fears, our demons, in such a state. Indeed, I believe that is an important part of why public performances/exhibitions/showings are, as art forms, so compelling. 


No wonder we can get nervous.. finding that trust is often difficult. Yet today, more than ever, it may be the most worthwhile endeavour. 


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