Is Art Selfish? | Part 1

Erhm, Happy New Years! Now let’s get into it. This post has been simmering in the recesses of my mind for quite some time. There’s a bit of back-story to how I came to be concerning myself with the question “is art selfish”.

wip contemporary artist

While spending a quiet evening with a small group of friends the conversation came around to how one of my friends’ creations were progressing (she’s a mum with young children and is setting up her own creative business). She explained that she was finding it difficult to prioritise her new project because “art is fundamentally a very self-indulgent activity”, especially when juxtaposed with the most selfless of roles – motherhood. It all got very awkward when everyone remembered I was sitting there all childless and self-indulgent!

This issue, mostly forgotten until recently, was revived when I was liaising with the organiser of an art festival who is also an artist in her own right and she proclaimed that she is going to be a bit selfish next year and focus more on her own art and less on creating events for other people’s.

Some Questions

  • Why is being an artist sometimes labeled as selfish but this criticism is rarely, if ever, levelled at other professions?
  • Is there such thing as a healthy level of selfishness? (I absolutely believe there is an unhealthy level of selflessness).
  • If the artist makes money from her art does she cease to be selfish?
  • Back in the day, I played guitar but because of performance anxiety I couldn’t bring myself to play in front of anyone. A friend of mine at the time accused me of selfishly squandering my talents. Is art only selfish if it is not shared?
  • Is “selfish” the worst thing that can be said about making art?

Some Thoughts

Just the other day, I posed this question to my wife. “Is art selfish?” This is the woman who has seen me at my most selfish. She thought for a moment and said, “It can be.” She’s right, of course. GENE LUEN YANG, Tor

Yes, it can be. Taken to its logical extreme, the artist who lets “his wife starve, his children go barefoot, his mother drudge for his living at seventy, sooner than work at anything but his art” (Man and Superman, G.B. Shaw), is undeniably selfish. Perhaps at its worst art is selfish.

I suspect this could be done with almost any profession: glean an insight into its darkest incarnation and then present it as its truest, most fundamental state instead of a single, lopsided version. As an ex-social worker I feel comfortable using this profession as an example. In its most abhorrent manifestation, social work is a socially acceptable and often state-sanctioned method of imposing one set of morals onto another group of people who, allegedly, don’t know any better and need to be saved (for example, it was social workers who took the children away from the Aborigine mothers of the stolen generation, “for their own good”).

For me, at its best art reflects something inside ourselves (or society) which is true yet inaccessible in the harsh light of our day-to-day lives. Art sweeps the dust off our souls. I believe, when this happens, art relieves the feeling that we are alone and connects us to a shared humanity. This is my particular slant of course; as an adoptee I think my awareness of the importance of seeing ourselves reflected in others is closer to the surface than most.

My intuition on this question is that there is a kernel of truth to the judgement that “art is selfish” but it lacks nuance and is strangely biased towards its worst manifestation.

A Side-Note About Motherhood

I don’t want to go too far down this tangent but having said that, I do feel that I need to make mention of this theme. For my own personal reasons I feel that the notion with which today’s society is so in love, that motherhood is “selfless”, is a destructive one. I strongly believe that my friend’s son and daughter would benefit in incalculable ways to grow up seeing their mother creating extraordinary things with a thriving business that in turn makes her fiercely confident and proud and is vastly preferable to the martyred, selfless mother who only ever puts her energy into something directly benefiting her children.

I intend to extend the question “Is art selfish” to all of the creatives in my life, which is why I’ve optimistically titled this post “Part 1”. I’m intrigued at how other people think and feel on this topic and hope to report back as soon as I’ve collated some insights!

If there’s one piece of advice I wish someone had told me years ago, it would be to create with the assumption that you’re allowed to be an artist. I wish someone had said, “it’s okay, you can do this, you can be an artist and nobody’s going to try and take it away from you.” BETH CAIRD, Red Bubble

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