In Search of the Real Artist

“So are you a Real Writer yet?” occasionally comes the smirking blonde query.
“Well, no. Not today. That’s a definite Someday,” squirms the wannabe.

Brian Smith is a Canadian portraitist that I’d never heard of. That’s no insult to him, for my knowledge of the visual arts is sparse. And by his own account, figurative artists like him don’t get much cutting-edge attention in the contemporary art world. What I do know is that he speaks well about the arts, especially that important task of de-mystification and encouragement for all those who linger hungrily around the edges of creativity and wish they knew the occult secret.

I wandered into a lecture he was doing, after-hours, at the Haliburton summer School of the Arts, held in a sparkling lake district at the base of northern Ontario. It’s pretty here. Every summer, this small town of ball caps, cigarettes and chain saws becomes a stock-up depot for the cottagers and boaters, and a magnet also for those who want to seek out creativity instead of the perfect tan. There’s an unusual number of painters, potters and sculptors in the area, and a fine school for the dabblers and the nervously ambitious makers to enhance their skills and confidence. Confidence is where Smith comes in.

He gives an animated lecture annually at the school, and this year’s edition was a wry but ultimately earnest assessment about what makes for a Real Artist. His conclusions were not surprising, but the road there was fun. (An early video-screen projection: a New Yorker-style cartoon has two gallery-goers, one of whom murmurs, “His work hovers between neo-classicism, impressionism and crap.”) In preparing his talk, Smith had run across a Website that would be gut-bustingly mockable if it weren’t aimed at such a place of human yearning and vulnerability. Apparently, you can call 1.800.REAL.ART, or go to its companion on the ‘Net. A series of questionnaires, which Brian Smith filled out on-line, resulted in an e-mailed letter of fulsome (and ungrammatical) personal praise from the – wait for it – Real Art Certification Board.

I am delighted to congratulate you on…certifying yourself as a Real Artist. All of us at RACB sincerely hope that your new-found vocation will change your life in a positive manner [glad that was clarified!] and expose you to wonderful world [sic] of Real Art…

Smith had gobs of fun with this and other expressions of the antique, exclusivist, fairy-dust notions we have of what makes an artist and what such a creature actually is and does. But his message was plain: art is about INTENTION. He scoffs at dichotomies like high art versus low art, or art versus craft. (I liked the simple truth in his quote from the potter Harlan House: “Craft is what I do all day. Art is what I have at the end of it.” If you’re lucky, Mr. House, I must say. If you’re lucky. And good. Democracy’s a pretty cool concept, but not everybody can be an RA.) To the assembled group of mainly female, mainly grey or greying pilgrims seeking to believe in the art in themselves, he proposed a simple catechism:

Anxious, spiritually yearning question: “Am I a real artist?”
Pragmatic, possibly encouraging but very likely reality-inducing answer: “Did I make any art today?”

When Smith spoke of the importance of art, and the value of allowing oneself to pursue some expression of our creativity, he was preaching to the choir. This was an audience – many of whom were already his fans from previous years – who were more than ready to laugh with him and mine a small vein of courage along the way. I expect nearly anybody would pass the Real Art Certification Board quiz and “qualify” for their specially-priced Internet “master classes”, but even in that crowd of people paying to act like artists for a week, not many would pass Brian Smith’s dauntingly simple test.

Still, I found something of what I was looking for, including chuckles and an excuse to make a little verbal mess like this one. And I liked Brian Smith’s conclusion: When we look at paintings or any media, we are the arbiters. What moves us as art is entirely subjective. We decide what is art, including OUR OWN. Don’t worry about being original. Just be authentic, true to your own vision of whatever it is you’re doing. And MAKE LOTS OF ART, be it good or bad.

Show up at the easel. Be true to your keyboard. Keep your appointments. Fulfil your own promise.

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