Updated: Sep 19, 2021
Ask any stranger, and I’m sure they’ll have an opinion about who artists are as people. Some have very clear understandings of who artists are that are based in fact and experience. Others, however, have unfounded beliefs about artists. These beliefs usually stem from a particular artist who ended up with a notable amount of fame, leading the public to believe that all artists behave the exact same way. These stereotypes are not only incorrect 99% of the time, they’re also incredibly hurtful. Let’s unpack these harmful artist stereotypes so we can finally move on to understanding who artists truly are.
The Eccentric Oddball
A lot of people assume that artists have insane routines that allow their inspiration to be the master of their lives. For instance, if our inspiration tells us to don a cape and ride around in a vehicle full of cauliflower, we must oblige. Or if we feel that we must only eat foods of a certain color to aid our work, then we must commit to these new rules. In essence, a lot of people think that artists’ lives are dictated by where the inspiration lies, often in unusual practices or stunts.
For the vast majority of us, this is not true even in the slightest. In fact, most artists are pretty much the same as non-artists. We eat food like everyone else, drive in regular old cars, and wear pretty unremarkable clothing. But after Salvador Dali made his mark on the world as an “eccentric genius”, the idea that all artists behave in an eccentric way became a commonly held idea amongst the public.
To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with wearing and doing unusual things. But assuming all artists have to act this way is quite hurtful. Why? Because it drives home a message that if you’re not weird, you’re not a real artist. If you ever held this belief, let it go, as it’s based solely on one person instead of reality and is damaging to your art friends. It tells them they have to act a certain way even if it doesn’t align with who they are. Let them be who they are, weird or not.
This stereotype really bothers me. Addiction is nothing to be taken lightly and certainly should not be an assumption of someone based on their chosen profession or hobby. Moreover, this idea actually harms people. Instead of looking into the reasons behind this illness, many brush it off as, “well, that’s what artists do.” Some even attribute an artist’s success to a drug-enhanced creative mindset. (Insert heavy, exasperated sigh.)
As someone who has witnessed addiction, this doesn’t hold even an ounce of truth. For starters, it offers no solution to those artists suffering addiction. It just diminishes this illness to a “trait” that artists have. Worse yet, it ignores non-artists who also suffer addiction. News flash: not everyone who suffers addiction is an artist and not every artist suffers from addiction. I do believe many creatives who are addicts are drawn to the arts as a way to cope with their illness, especially since it’s largely misunderstood and judged so heartlessly. But to write off their struggles so callously is incredibly damaging.
Please understand, addiction and artistic pursuits are not a direct relation. The only thing addiction does for artists is shorten their career, so let’s put this stereotype to rest once and for all.
Additionally, those suffering from addiction need help and compassion from those around them. If you or someone you know is suffering from addiction, please consider getting professional help. For further resources, visit SAMHSA’s site here.
The Lazy Bum
I hate to say it, but I know people who hold this stereotype. For some ridiculous reason, they think artists sit around all day, twiddling our thumbs and eating bonbons while we wait for inspiration to strike. And I know I’m not the only one who has been victim to this belief. Let me make this clear: if you want to succeed as an artist, you absolutely cannot afford to be lazy. In order to hone our skills and forge careers, there is no room for laziness. Contrary to popular belief, artists aren’t magically born with the talent to draw and paint. We work for years and years developing our crafts in an effort to sustain a living from them.
To assume that artists are lazy bums is wildly wrong. No professional studio will hire someone who doesn’t have the necessary skills or work ethic to make it. No one will know who an artist is if they aren’t out there making a name for themselves, especially since artists are responsible for that themselves nowadays. And absolutely no one wants to buy art from someone who doesn’t take their craft seriously and is constantly improving their skills. Stop assuming artists don’t do work. Fact is, if you know an extremely skilled artist, they’re probably the hardest working person you know.
Largely made popular by Vincent Van Gogh’s struggles, many people assume that artists all suffer from mental illnesses. Like all above stereotypes, this is simply not true. And, just like addiction, writing mental illnesses and disorders off as “artistic personality traits” is extremely harmful to artists and those suffering from mental illness.
I believe that many who live with mental disorders turn to the arts as a way to express themselves and be heard by those around them. The arts are extremely therapeutic (as I’ve previously written), so there is certainly a strong correlation. However, to assume this of everyone is ignorant and uncalled for. Instead, try to educate yourself about mental illness and what it means to live with one. Compassion and knowledge go a very long way in dispelling stereotypes.
For further information regarding mental illness, you can visit NAMI's site here.
The Tragedy Magnet
Another unfounded stereotype for artists is that we all have horrible, sad, tragic lives. This has been true for many popular artists (Frida Kahlo, Vincent Van Gogh, Henri De Toulouse-Lautrec), but it isn’t true for all. And, in case anyone was wondering, no, you don’t have to harbor some dark, hidden backstory of a dramatic childhood or event in order to be a successful artist. Personal challenges often fuel art, but this will look very different for every artist. To refuse acknowledging someone as an artist because they haven't experienced tragedy is ridiculous.
Tragedy doesn't make someone a better artist. Furthermore, to expect someone to suffer for their art is damaging. For all my art friends out there, you don't need to suffer to make good art. And we don't need to hold off on adopting the title of artist because we haven't gone through a tragedy. Of course, use your art to work through hardship, but stop degrading yourself because your work "isn't as deep and tragic." That work was for that artist, yours is for you.
This idea really grinds my gears. As someone who enjoys learning, did very well in school, and makes great effort to educate myself on many topics, I find this incredibly offensive and rude. First off, intelligence shouldn’t be so intertwined with subject matter studied and degrees obtained. Being skilled in math and science doesn’t make someone smarter than another skilled in the arts. They are simply different types of knowledge. And in order to make the world run smoothly, we need people skilled in all areas of life. Second, why can someone only be intelligent in one subject? I know many people who have careers in the sciences and create stunning pieces of art in their spare time. Just because someone is an artist doesn’t mean they are uneducated in other fields.
Hair color doesn’t dictate intelligence and neither does one’s career or interests. Remember, just because you don’t understand something, doesn’t mean it’s unimportant or that someone is unintelligent.
I can’t even recall the number of times I’ve been told or heard someone say that artists don’t make money. At least, not while they’re alive. This is extremely damaging to artists, because that gets internalized. If you truly believe you’ll never make money as an artist, then I guarantee that you won’t. What we hold as true in our minds is often our reality. And telling this to your art friends and relatives isn’t helpful.
Stop telling artists to get “real jobs”. Art is a real job. Who do you think worked on the special effects in that movie you like? Or wrote that book you enjoyed? Or designed the cover for that book? Or painted that piece that hangs in your doctor’s office that you like so much? Or wrote the song you play on repeat? All that work was made by artists. More specifically, by artists that got paid to make that work. I’m thankful that I was shown the opposite at a very young age. Otherwise, I might have pursued something else just for money. And, as that isn’t my life priority, I would have been unhappy.
The point of life is not to take jobs just to make lots of money. It’s to live and enjoy living. Encourage friends and loved ones to sharpen their artistic skills and pursue a career that lights them up. After all, a world with more art wouldn’t be a bad thing.
So what is an artist then? An artist is simply someone who is skilled in a creative field. That’s it, plain and simple. No stereotype can truly cover who we are, because we’re all different. And that’s perfectly fine! Let’s drop the judgement and allow artists to be who they are, not what we think they are.
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Thanks for reading and happy creating!