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What is Art?
And who qualifies as an artist?
At their annual gala last weekend, the Arts Society of Kingston awarded me an “ASKar” — a shiny, chrome candlestick-like trophy with my name emblazoned on one end of it — distinguishing me as their Literary Artist of the Year. (The other recipients were my friend, painter Kevin Paulsen, for visual art, and improv troupe Hudson River Playback Theater, for theater arts.)
I felt incredibly honored, but also like a complete and utter fraud. When I received a call in March informing me that I’d been chosen, I felt slightly panicked. Had they made a mistake? How could I possibly deserve this honor, or to be called an artist of any kind, let alone singled out as some kind of artist of the year? It forced me to ask myself, Who is an artist? Who has permission to make art? And, What qualifies as art, anyway?
It’s hardly the first time I’ve entertained these questions. A long time ago they took up permanent residence in my brain. I mean, I’m a 53-year-old two-time MFA dropout. I’m largely untrained as a writer, and what I’ve learned as an editor and journalist has been mostly on-the-job. (My impostor syndrome extends to those titles, too, despite years either on staff or freelancing at places like Women’s Wear Daily and W, Newsday, the New York Times, Time Out New York, Billboard, Harper’s Bazaar, MTV News, the New York Daily News, the Albany Times-Union, and too many other outlets to list without boring you.)
I’ve paid my dues, put in many years, and benefited from the tutelage (and sometimes the recognition) of many well-respected writers and editors, but still, the feeling of legitimacy eludes me. I haven’t done enough, or enough of the right things. I constantly feel as if I’m behind, in terms of reaching the milestones a writer my age should have by now. I still have so many unmet goals.
Part of the problem is that I squander hour upon hour debating whether I’m entitled to write. Every time I sit down to do so — actually, before, during and after — I renegotiate with myself whether I am allowed to, whether it’s a waste of time to, and also whether I am entitled to share stories that reveal other people’s experiences. This is a question I’ve been debating, Talmudically, with other writers for years.
It’s not lost on me that my preoccupation with these thoughts is one of the biggest obstacles to actually meeting my goals. I’ll tell you what definitely doesn’t qualify as making art: obsessing over whether you should, and why you haven’t achieved more yet.
(These drawings are both of the same model, who doesn’t look like either of these. ^^^)
Ironically, this week, for the first time, I attended a live drawing session at The Draw, at the Kingston YMCA. All my life I’ve doodled for fun. I loved art class in school, and arts and crafts at summer camp. But as an adult, I’ve never studied art or attempted it in any real way. As soon as I arrived at the Y, my impostor syndrome kicked in.
At the beginning of the session, I kept sneaking peeks at everyone else’s drawings, and feeling self-conscious about how much more their renderings of the model actually resembled her. It triggered one of my uncontrollable laughing fits, which I’m known for among close friends — something that happens when I feel under pressure to perform and doubt my ability to. I had to leave the room a few times to collect myself.
At some point, though, I surrendered to the reality that I didn’t have the skills the others did. I relaxed and allowed myself to stop thinking about whether I was allowed to make art, and just made the art. Or, something art-like. When I stopped comparing myself to others, I had a great time. I’ve come to actually like my rudimentary drawings.
(This painting is by my late maternal grandmother, Clarisse Kemp Masket. ^^^)
On the wall in my dining room, I have a rudimentary still-life by another amateur artist, my late grandmother, Clarisse Kemp Masket, who died in 1972 at the age of 55, just two years older than I am now. The painting is a very basic vase with flowers. The perspective and shading are kind of…off? But visitors to my house always compliment it and inquire about who painted it — as if it’s legitimate art by a legitimate artist.
Which brings me to this oversimplified conclusion: What qualifies as art is incredibly subjective. And maybe not everyone is an artist with a capital A — okay, definitely not everyone is an artist with a capital A — but everyone can make art. The more we practice it, the better we get. Perseverating over whether you deserve to draw, or write, or sing, or dance, or whatever, is counter-productive. It is the enemy of art-making.
Saturday night I got over myself and proudly accepted the award, along with the designation as a literary artist, at least as defined by the Arts Society of Kingston. I made a brief speech in which I committed to overriding the self-doubt that’s gotten in my way for so long, so that I can take advantage of the time I still have on this earth, time my grandmother didn’t get. I ended the speech by dedicating my award to her.