I’ve read about “Artist’s Guilt” before in regard to the life of an artist often clashing with real life. It’s hard to pay the bills, support the family, and such on the income of an artist especially any sort of freelance or gallery based artist. I’ve read about guilt as it pertains to the viewer not seeing the intended expression in the piece and the artist feeling like they’ve failed themselves. However, I feel a deep shame as an artist in a different regard.
The questions I always come back to are “Is making art really a worthwhile endeavor?” “Does it serve a function or a cause?” This is a topic I’ve brought up with several people, and everyone always looks at me like I’m crazy. Ever since the time I started taking art seriously, a part of me has been wracked with guilt by feeling as though what I’m doing is unimportant. I’m not saving lives. I’m not helping the environment. I’m not ending suffering. I’m not making advancements for science or society. I’m not fighting injustice or cruelty. I’m just painting pictures.
The response I typically get is that it’s totally possible to use art as a voice for these sort of causes. Fight political tyranny with artistic commentary, open people’s eyes to unknown issues, advocate for environmentalism by making recycled art, etcetera etcetera etcetera. I know this in theory but I have a couple of issues with it.
First of all, it’s a lot easier said than done to be so profound and make a difference if you still want to earn any sort of living as an artist. The commercial art industry is driven by advertising and aesthetics, not values and ethics. That’s not to say that you can’t have both – you certainly can. I recently submitted a proposal to a Vodka company that simultaneously is about being colorful and selling alcohol but also communicates their company message of equality. But for the most part, it’s always a lot more about making a sale.
The second, and bigger issue to me is that inspiring other people or spreading a message through a piece of art is passive in my opinion. You’re not having the active direct effect you would being say a doctor, ecologist, scientist, or social worker. I think I struggle with this feeling so much since leaving the field of veterinary medicine (unwillingly due to health issues) where I did feel a real sense of reward in making animals lives better. Perhaps this is why people don’t understand this feeling when I bring it up. To them, I have the gift of a visual voice. But to me it’s not enough. I’ve always considered myself more of a do-er than a talk-er.
Just as I’m sure there are investment bankers that are financially well off but feel spiritually unfulfilled in their careers, so too do I as an artist. To me I need to feel like I’m making a difference to be happy and fulfilled. Yes I enjoy making art and being creative, but I’d also like to be out there cleaning oil off of baby ducks. So is it bad to feel this way? Maybe. Maybe not.
“Hard though it may be to accept, remember that guilt is sometimes a friendly internal voice reminding you that you’re messing up.” – Marge Kennedy
By not listening to this shame I’m allowing myself to violate the moral standards that I established for myself long ago. This guilt of feeling like I’m not making an impact or bettering the world for the things I care about has led me to try to fulfill this in other ways such as volunteer work, but I’d really like to figure out a way to more directly make a difference full time while utilizing these creative skills I’ve worked so hard at.
To me this has manifested in elevating “scientific illustration” to a higher level because I can more easily feel like it’s for the good of the planet. Additionally I hope to start publishing educational artwork about abused and endangered species and donate a portion of the proceeds (or my available time) to some of those actionable causes. In the mean time I will continue to explore what I can do to remedy this shame without letting myself off the moral hook.