Breaking Down Artist Stereotypes

(originally published in ABCD in Action)

This is really just the beginning of what I feel will be a long string of essays/blogs, but it’s been rolling around inside me for all these months and I have to let it out!

I have come to appreciate after half-a-year working on my own business as an artist and building up an artists collective with other artists, that we fall into that category of “Labelled People” that become hindered by the deficiency-shadow of their label.

You would think that “Artist” is a great label, right?

Well, it definitely can be. It implies creativity, often a unique sensitivity to both inner and outer patterns, and an ability to express in any myriad form something with which other humans can resonate, but not always express themselves. It’s a role and set of skills celebrated throughout history and drives some of the most lucrative branches of our economy.

Which is nice because it means we don’t have to go about asking people to call us something different like many groups do. (sidenote:  one of my favorite lines uttered by John McKnight: “The best kind of label is ‘John’ or ‘Mary.”)

However, I can’t begin to count how many times I’ve heard, in my life and even more in the past 6-8 months, the negative stereotypes about artists. Can you name them? Probably:

~ Disorganized  (and UNorganizable)
~ Eccentric
~ Isolated
~ Starving
~ (perhaps) Selfish
~ Horrible at self-promotion and money/business matters

One of the key goals in my life, now, is to deconstruct for artists and community members alike this over-inflated negative aspect of the artist image.

I offer my critique of the label from two angles:

1. There are as many kinds of artists out there as there are people.

2. Where these qualities emerge in artists, it’s often as much an environmental reason as it is connected to some kind of inherent quality of artists as creatures, as well as an internally-fed crutch that holds us artists back from realizing our true potential.

Two resources I’ve found super helpful, besides the ABCD framework and all my buddies out there doing ABCD, are the books:

The Creative Habit” by Twyla Tharp (internationally-known choreographer)

I’d Rather be in the Studio” by Alyson Stanfield  (arts biz coach)

Point 1 –

The more I do this work, the more I reaffirm for myself that there are as many different kinds of artists out there as there are people. I’ve met agrophobic artists, unorganized artists, super organized artists, businessminded artists, non-business-minded artists, eccentric and completely ‘normal’ artists. Plus, the fact that our town has not just one but about 8 developing artist collectives sure proves that there ARE artists out there that think about more than themselves, are capable of being quite organized, and can work together with each other.

an early shot of Uprise Art Collective - Jose, Pablo, Chris, Marianela, Chris B., myself. We each have a unique assortment of gifts and strengths--as artists, as people.

Additionally, one thing ABCD does is remind us that “Artist” as a label includes more than just those who self-identify as artists. It includes people who have a gift for creative expression and carry keepers of cultural traditions, or ordinary folks who can sing, play guitar, dance well, or draw/paint/sculpt but would never present themselves as ‘an artist’ to others, without prompting.  (Calling out these people as artists in public has become one of my favorite pasttimes, by the way 🙂  Try it!)   When we consider this, how much less does this stereotype hold true?  Of course, some would argue that an artist is one who makes it their identity fully, but for me the important thing is that the gift is there.  I’d go so far as to back up Picasso’s statement that we’re all born artists, and spend our lives trying to unlearn society’s message that we’re not.

Point 2 –

I think so many professions involve ‘training’ and the influence of mentors and just a community of practitioners of whatever you’re doing–most jobs provide a path of developing one’s skills in a variety of ways to either sharpen where you’re already gifted or ‘fill in’ where you’re challenged… artists are most often completely on our own. Not only that, we’re barraged with icons, images, opinions that tell us we are inherently unorganized, hopelessly ‘different’, and often irresponsible. No wonder a lot of us kill ourselves, or flounder, or never quite get on top of all that’s involved in really beeing able to contribute what we have to society and get back what we want for it.

So what’s the way to break down these stereotypes?   I think it involves a few things like

1. Building up a strong community of mutually supportive artists. this breaks down the perception that we are always isolated, selfish, and unorganizable, and we can complement each others weaknesses and strengths and show how many different traits artists actually have.

2. Promoting artists as full people in community

3. Holding artists accountable when they act like assholes because they think their label gives them license to

4. Seek out and celebrate those who don’t identify as ‘artists’ automatically to round out our understanding of what artists really are and capable of being

My passion in lfe, I’m discovering, is to help create that supportive structure for the kind of person I most understand because I’m one myself–artists!

I look forward to sharing specific stories and pictures to go along with these ideas. But for now I’ll put this out there and really want to hear your thoughts/ experiences /challenges etc.

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2 Responses to Breaking Down Artist Stereotypes

  1. April: I’m very happy that you found value in my book – and more than thrilled to see it mentioned with Twyla Tharp’s book (an excellent read)!

    • April says:

      Alyson, I’m honored to have your comment! You’ve been teaching me a great deal… I do think if artists can come into our own, taking full responsibility for our success and harnessing our own personal gifts towards that [rather than allowing ourselves to be crippled by stereotypes], the world will reach a new notch of awesome. Thank you for all you are doing to make that possible.

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