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The Selfish/Dedicated Artist

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Photo by Ari He on Unsplash

Today, I'm thinking about creativity. I've been thinking about creativity a lot lately. When I say lately, I mean the last decade or so, sporadically. Several times I've gone down the rabbit hole of research about creativity because I find that interesting. All voyages, without fail, end with the same conclusion: We have no idea. Creativity is tricky to measure, and it's tricky to research, mainly because it's impossible to induce. You can't have a group of participants in which you induce creativity and a control group in which you don't. You can try. You can take long walks, or put certain limits on the output, or stare into space. But as all artists will tell you, sometimes none of the methods works.

There are all kinds of myths about creativity, but the one I've been preoccupied with during recent weeks is the selfishness aspect. We all have this image in our heads of the artist who only cares about her art, who hurts or ignores people in her vicinity or who stays alone so as not to be weighed down by a family. An artist who is completely and utterly dedicated to her art, and if the muse strikes at 2 am the night before her kid's big game, she'll miss the game for the sake of art.

Yeah, I can't do that. I've been agonising about it plenty. It's possible I'm not dedicated enough. But I suspect this image of a selfish artist would make you feel more comfortable had I used a male artist. In our society, men can more easily afford to be selfish. Our society almost expects them to be workaholics, dedicated to their work and their self-fulfilment. I bet you can think of at least three examples of selfish men artists or innovators for every woman. But I think this complete devotion is a bit of a myth.

I'm not saying it's entirely irrelevant. We know that the more time you put into something, the better you get at it. Art and innovation are no exceptions. But the drowning, the surrender to one thing, is something that women cannot afford in a patriarchal society. Women have to think about family, either their kids or their parents or their spouses. We are the caregivers. Our job is to care for the artist/inventor/CEO to ensure that they aren't encumbered by mundane frivolities like food and clean clothes. By the way, to understand how we arrived at this state where women are caregivers who need to be protected, give Scene on Radio Season 2 (Men) a listen—particularly Episode 6.

So, here's the logic: art (or innovation, civil service, or whatever creative, fulfilling job you want to substitute) requires complete dedication. Women can only afford this dedication if they give up what's in their very nature: child-bearing and child-raising. Therefore, women choose not to become artists or they have to stay alone if they do. And if you chose to have children and choose to prioritise these children (or your family) above your art, you obviously can't be a great artist.

I call, you guessed it, BS. We can talk about all the corollaries that come after, but the very premise that art requires complete dedication is, in my opinion, complete BS. No one does art 24 hours a day. When they get into their flow state, I'm sure many people can create for hours on end. But if you do that for whole days, without stopping to sleep or eat, you are leaving Flow and entering Mania, which is dangerous and unsustainable. On the contrary, I think artists/workaholics typically use substances (from coffee to Amphetamines) because they can't sustain the Flow state, the productivity, without them.

Here's what I found. Raising kids has made me more creative, not less. It has opened my mind to experiences other than my own. It made me more flexible because I had to put someone else's needs first. If art is the floating, weightless, defying of gravity, what artists must have is an anchor. The anchor weighs us down sometimes, sure. Makes us stop writing and go fix a meal or a computer problem with home-learning. But it also stabilises us, so we don't float away. You can be selfish, but then you float around aimlessly, unconnected to life. The power of art is when it's connected to life; when we suddenly see our life in a new way. And this is allowed us by patient children, spouses, and friends, who support our floating and keep us grounded.


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