What Does It Take to Be a Great Artist?: An Aging Painter Reflects on His Creative Process & Why He Will Never Be a Picasso

What does it take to be an artist? In the short film above by Jakub Blank, artist Bill Blaine meditates on the question as he strolls around his home and studio and talks about his work. Blaine has aged into the realization that making art is what fulfills him, even though it probably won’t bring him immortal fame. “I’ve thought about this,” he says. “I would probably be a happier person if I were painting all the time.” Bloated egos belong to the young, and Blaine is glad to put the “absurd” ambitions of youth behind him. “In the old days,” he muses, “your ego was so big, that you wanted to be better than everybody else, you wanted to be on the cutting edge of things… at least with old age, you don’t have a lot of that.”

And yet, though he seems to have everything an artist could want in the material sense – a palatial estate with its own well-appointed studio – a melancholy feeling of defeat hangs over the artist. Sadness remains in his ready smile as he gently interrogates himself, “So then, why the hell aren’t you painting all the time?” Blaine chuckles as he contemplates seeing a therapist, an idea he doesn’t seem to take particularly seriously. Aside from a few outliers, maybe the psychiatric profession hasn’t taken the creative impulse particularly seriously either. One psychoanalyst who did, Otto Rank, wrote in Art and Artist of the importance of creativity to all human development and activity.

“The human urge to create,” Rank argued, “does not find expression in works of art alone. It also produces religion and mythology and the social institutions corresponding to these. In a word, it produces the whole culture.” Everything we do, from baking bread to writing symphonies, is a creative act, in that we take raw materials and make things that didn’t exist before. In Western culture, however, the role of the artist has been distorted. Artists are elevated to the status of genius, or relegated to mediocrities, at best, disposable deadbeats, at worst. Blaine surely deserves his lot of happiness from his work. Has he been undermined by self-doubt?

His vulnerability and the sharp candor of his observations leave us with a portrait of a man almost in agony over the knowledge, he says – again using the accusatory second person – that “you’re not going to be the next Picasso or the next Frank Stella or whatever else.” There’s more to the negative comparisons than wounded vanity. He should feel free to do what he likes, but he lacks what made these artists great, he says:

You have to be obsessive, you really do. Compulsive. And I’m not enough, unfortunately. Had a certain amount of talent, just didn’t have the obsession apparently. I think that’s what great artists have. They can’t let it go. And eventually, whatever they do, that’s their art, that’s who they are.

Blaine contrasts greatness with the work of unserious “dilettantes” who may approximate abstract expressionist or other styles, but whose work fails to manifest the personality of the artist. “You can see through it,” says Blaine, wincing. Shot in his “home and studio in Mount Dora, Florida,” notes Aeon, the film is “full of his original paintings and photographs. Blaine offers his unguarded thoughts on a range of topics related to the generative process.”

Artists are rarely their own best critics, and Blaine’s assessments of his work can seem withering when voiced over Blank’s slideshow presentations. But as he opens up about his creative process, and his perception of himself as “too bourgeois” to really make it, he may reveal much more about the struggles that all artists — or all creative people — face than he realizes.

via Aeon

Related Content: 

The Long Game of Creativity: If You Haven’t Created a Masterpiece at 30, You’re Not a Failure

The 10 Paradoxical Traits of Creative People, According to Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (RIP)

60-Second Introductions to 12 Groundbreaking Artists: Matisse, Dalí, Duchamp, Hopper, Pollock, Rothko & More

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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  • Glennis says:

    I really enjoyed his musings about being an artist. Although he laments that he never stayed with any one genre of painting to the point of developing a “personal style”, I found his work very enjoyable and interesting because it really seems like a wide exploration not only of the materials but of himself. As an artist of sorts myself in a completely different genre and for a different purpose I enjoyed seeing this through his eyes.

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