Art - Motivation, Legacy and Courage


"The former NASA adminstrator Michael Griffin suggested that things like space exploration are motivated by elemental human traits like competitiveness, curiosity and a longing to leave behind something worthy and good."*

Those same traits are key factors that drive the efforts of any artist, from dilettante to master, with the last in line being perhaps the most significant.  The power of art, in all its forms, to comment, alert, inspire and educate (the list goes on) within all the realms of human activity is universally acknowledged.  So much so that the act of creating art must be recognized as in and of itself an expression of what it is to be human.  The choices involved (subject matter, message, style, treatment, media, ...) all mark a trail of what it is that concerns us, what it is we desire and aspire to, of who we are.

Those who think of themselves as artists and who are serious about their work must also be serious about their legacy as artists, about the work that will outlast them - about its meanings, its appearance and its effect.

It would take a book to explore all the implications of that statement but consider, briefly, just one - the fact that all artists, including the great ones, have good days and bad days.  All artists produce some work that embodies the best of their abilities and some that falls short of that, sometimes by quite a distance.  Some artists may attempt to eliminate the record of their shortfalls, to leave behind only what they deem to be their best or at least their "good" work.  Most certainly, every artist has at one time or another destroyed a work in progress or abandoned it out of frustration with its (and their own) shortcomings.  Every painter has painted over a canvas, every writer has jettisoned a manuscript, every composer a score...  Despite such purging, however, it is likely that every artist will nonetheless leave behind some example of their less-than-stellar output, some artifact that may have aggravated them more than it made them proud or some piece they may not have chosen to expose to the public.

Every artist knows their artistic legacy will contain examples of their failures as well as their successes.  I mean real, objective failures...not things whose merits are simply a matter of taste or opinion (because every artist knows, too, that artistic success is very much in the eye of the beholder), but things that they and everyone else will observe and conclude "meh".  Every artist strives to create and pass on something that is "worthy and good" and every artist knows they will also pass on something that is...not.

It is the desire to do the former that motivates them, it is the fear of doing the latter that they must overcome.  And it is in this that they show their courage!  Despite the certainty that their legacy will include failures as well as, hopefully, successes, every artist proceeds.  They each have the courage to make their mark and leave it behind them - a concrete, perhaps blemished, record of who they were, a declaration of their humanity.


* Extract from "The Good News About What Human Genius Can Still Do", New York Times Editorial Board, August 3, 2020.