You might have taken up art to make a difference. You might have loved the idea of entertaining and delighting people. Perhaps you wanted to help people, through your art or give them a new perspective, to see things a different way. Maybe all you wanted to do was to make the place more beautiful, or at least pleasant to be in. There might have been a goal of quietly earning a living, doing little harm, during your time on earth. You might have expected at least a tiny bit of gratitude for your labours. Most of the time, if you’re like most artists, you don’t get any appreciation. Your task is thankless.
You may even be attacked and vilified for trying to do some good. People may hate your choice of colours, or how you dare. They might not want to be helped, comfortable as they are in their own personal cocoons of complacency. They might resent being shown some obvious truth in such stark clarity that they had assiduously avoided facing, or even acknowledging. Your ideas may disquiet and disturb them. Your art, therefore, becomes an affront – a constant prod to their intellectual and psychological inertia. They might fear your answers, for not understanding the implications. Your art might become the conscience they never had. Whatever you’re doing, nobody is going to thank you for doing it, at least not initially.
As an artist, how do you carry on with the struggle? How do you keep showing up for your art and expressing it, putting it out there, to cause a perpetual thankless response? What motivates you to become disliked, despised, belittled, isolated and shunned, by the simple act of creating the things you create? Would you ever be able to choose a colour that makes everybody happy? Of course not! Could there ever be an idea, expressed through your art, which caused nobody any friction? I don’t think so. Such ideas would be so anodyne, banal, commonplace and ennui-inducing, that they barely qualify as new ideas at all. In fact, they would be mere reinforcements of the terrible status quo that most artists fight, their whole lives. Who wants to shore up a set of circumstances that holds so many people back from achieving their full potential? Why would you work hard at it?
My art, at times, has been my ability to create software systems, or at least to motivate people to bring them into being and make them good. How do you think it feels to know that all the hard work, sacrifice and personal integrity you attempted to apply to the task was in the service of tax avoiders and evaders – people who do this on a massive, unprecedented scale, short changing every one of us? That’s the ultimate in working hard to do something with your art that keeps the world entirely the same as it was (i.e. unsatisfactory) and maybe a little worse. Even if thanks were forthcoming (and they weren’t), it would feel like a hollow, pyrrhic sort of praise. It would be thanks not worth having.
When discussing this with my wife, the conclusion we reached was that you do the thankless for only one reason. You do it because you must. There is a cosmic obligation upon you to say your piece, show others what you see and do what you know. Your truths need to be recorded, for posterity, in case they ever guide even one person into a significantly better place. If you happen to influence that one person that turns out to change everything for the better, it was worth the trouble. You do the thankless, because there is no choice. You are compelled to do so, as an artist. The alternative is to not do art or to do art with a veneer of protective fakery, hiding what you really feel and think, masking your authenticity. The alternative consigns you to perpetually sitting in front of your screen, impotently shouting, “Bastards!!”, as the world carries on a course you don’t want it to follow. No, you do the thankless because we humans are programmed to dare greatly.
So next time you feel the despair of being alone in what you think or see, or think that your tribe is far away, nowhere near you and perhaps never will be, or conclude that nobody wants to know what you intuitively sense, don’t succumb to the loneliness and isolation. It can be a frightening and barren place, I know, but you can survive there. You have your art. Don’t feel so in the minority that you must be wrong. Yes, you might be, but if your intuition is strong and your research, learning, experience and reading leads you to think the ideas you think, it’s equally possible that you’re thinking and doing something that nobody has ever done before. You might be the very first to travel this intellectual path. You, alone, might have found the way. You might be a pioneer. Your artistic ideas could be original. Imagine that. Original.
You might be one of those artists that, in generations and centuries to come, people look upon as the first of a movement, the turning point in history and somebody with such audacious, daring, bold and courageous artistic statements to make, that they admire your tenacity in having done so, against a tide of vehement, violent disagreement. Did anyone thank you, during your lifetime? Probably not.
Of course, none of that can happen if you back away from your truths and fail to put them out there, seeking a quiet, conflict-free life. You must create what you create, the only way you can, and screw the consequences. You must do the thankless because you have no choice. Otherwise, you’re not really an artist and your art isn’t really worth a damn. Harsh, but true. It’s not easy doing the thankless, but you have to do it anyway.
Humanity requires your truths.