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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