The arrogance of the artist – myth or reality

A few weeks ago, I had a discussion with a fellow art student which at the time provoked my thoughts and still does today. We were mutually munching on our home-made lunchtime sandwiches when the topic arose. It was about whether artists are naturally arrogant creatures. She put forward the proposition that they are. My initial reaction was opposition. How could she suggest such a preposterous notion? Arrogance is a negative personality trait, and we artists are all wonderful, delicate creatures, are we not? That is what I initially said to her. She smiled wryly in response. She didn’t need to speak.

Surprised, I stopped to think about my reaction, and hers. Then it occurred to me, wasn’t my reaction itself a manifestation of my arrogance? Is it not arrogant to assume that the category ‘artists’ naturally overlaps the category ‘special’ or ‘delicate’, or, even ‘wonderful’? 

Point made, I thought. Very clever. I saw the light in what she was saying. Perhaps we artists are by nature arrogant. ‘We’ as a group see ourselves as separate, blessed, special, and, tortured. Indeed, that is true. We may be tortured to a large degree. There could be a disproportionate number of people who self-describe themselves as ‘creative’ who also have mental health issues that might come under the umbrella of ‘tortured’, but there are also a lot of people who might not self-describe themselves as creative who feel similarly ‘sensitive’ to the world and ‘tortured’ as a result (and that is a lot of inverted commas, for which I apologise, it is because I am ‘special’ that I like to use them). 

As we discussed this idea, and munched further, I reflected on my own sense of self to try to spot signs of arrogance. I accept that I may be somewhat arrogant but I would like to think I am also willing to reflect and if necessary take myself down a peg or two.

Looking at my childhood, I was indeed often labelled as ‘special’ because I could draw well. At primary school I was given my first ever exhibition. I remember feeling such joy at this and loving the reactions of other children to my first ever retrospective: ‘a year or so of primary school art by esteemed artist of Stafford, Rebecca Collins’. I was also frequently chosen to paint scenery for plays (me and another child, Roland, who could also ‘draw’ well). I happily rose into this elevated position alongside him of someone who could draw well. There was no rivalry between us: he was a natural cartoonist, I was a natural realist. At break times, I drew pictures for my friends: horses, cartoon dogs, flowers, portraits, Disney characters, more horses and yet more horses (incidentally, I hated drawing horses but if it won me friends I was prepared to suffer). 

Today, I’m more likely to draw horse poo than horses.

By the time I reached senior school I wore the badge of ‘joint best artist in the year’ with pride. Being plunged into a much larger pool of potential creative ‘special’ people though was an education in itself. There were people in my new expanded cohort who could draw equally as well, and, shock horror, better than me. Yet, we accepted each other’s friendly competition and we all saw ourselves as a  group of ‘special’ people. We rolled around in the adoration of our skill like terriers in cow pats. We wanted to wear that scent.

Indeed, I still do need that smell. I cannot lie, I love it when people admire my artistic prowess. I still get that glow of pride and that feeling of slight elevation of myself as a member of humanity when someone says ‘wow, that is good’. However, this is all very superficial and I know that now as an adult. Being able to draw a cat and make my effort look like a cat doesn’t make me special. It just means there is something I can do better than I can do other things. I might be able to draw but my skills in driving a car, mending a car, navigating myself around anywhere, keeping calm in a crisis, housework and trigonometry are lacking. If I were to be sent back to the times of cave men and women, I’d be dead within ten minutes, with a pencil in my hand.

‘Don’t worry about the sabre-toothed tiger coming to get us, we have an artist here who can draw him to death!’

I have a friend. Let’s call her Doris. Doris may or may not be her real name. She doesn’t regard herself as academically able. She left school as soon as she could with a scattering of GCSEs. Soon after, she started working for a popular fast-food restaurant and did quite well in that industry as far as I can tell. She was efficient and well-organized and a good manager of people. Thereafter she moved into another career as a carer of a certain demographic of people who need caring for. She excelled at that. She now is a grown-up, with more children than me. She is an excellent parent and really good at adulting. She never gets lost. She knows how to cope in a crisis. She and I are vastly different. I admire her. She is special in ways I am not. I often think I’d like to be more her, and less me. But, actually, I realise that I should accept that I am me. I do indeed have this creative tortured artist side of me, which she does not. She has a tortured side of her, which is where we meet. I could try to be more organized, calmer and better at finding the M6, but I will never be that person who can do those things without effort. I will never be her. She will never be me. And, so what? We are all special.

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