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Creating Art: Selfish or Selfless?

As I have gotten older and become more aware of the limited time I have left, I sometimes wrestle with the amount of time I spend thinking about and making art. Is it selfish for me to do this, when I am not sure it is really helping anyone else? Is it enough to express yourself through creating things because you are compelled to? What does that even mean? On a personal level, I keep coming back to this idea of living one’s life just trying to do the right thing every moment of each day. Treating other people and the world around us with respect. Having empathy for the struggles of others. Not hating. Creating art. Giving back and having gratitude for what we have and who we are. Do any of these things change the world? Probably not, but it’s something I have control over and it’s at least a start.

I came across this provocative, short article where seven different artists discuss why they make art. I love (and completely agree with) Harrell Fletcher’s definition of art: Anything anyone calls art is art. I believe it is the intent that makes it so. But I would go even further and say that ultimately it is the observer who is the final arbiter, because anyone who has explored “folk art,” “art brut,” or “outsider art,” clearly recognizes this stuff as art, even if its creators didn’t. Google Morton Bartlett – I still remember seeing (at an outsider art exhibit in NYC in the 1990s) some of the eerily life like yet other worldly wooden sculptures of children he made, dressed up, photographed and posed – for who? He apparently made them only for himself. They were “discovered” by an antiques dealer after he died. Even though he made these figures only for himself, by a quirk of fate I saw them and they certainly had a profound effect on me.

Maybe the act of making things to express oneself and interpret what it means to be alive is a uniquely human trait. Sometimes it is a compulsion that we don’t understand. Perhaps we shouldn’t question it