I write about art, but am not an artist in a visual sense. Over time as I have laid my words down, I have encountered naysayers who insist that I cannot write about art unless I am an artist. I have been told that I shouldn’t be covering art due to my lack of experience in creating art.
At first, I took this input as an insult. I believe that good writing is anchored in the ability to not only be a good listener, but to be a great observer as well. And I don’t write critiques. I am not Peter Schjeldahl, nor do I endeavor to be. Instead, I focus on the struggle behind the art. I ask questions of the artist that has to do with their background, inspiration, and truth behind their medium.
And here’s the thing: the negative input I am referring has only come from artists. And it only comes from a certain type of artist. Most recently, I was asked by an artist if I knew the work of Paul Klee. “I’ve heard the name. What nationality was he?” Her response was derisive. She kind of rolled her eyes and said, “Anyway…”
Absorb that. I asked a follow up question in order to learn something and her reaction was to laugh in a condescending way at the fact that I didn’t know Klee’s art. My honest response was a way of saying to her, “Teach me something.” And her condescension prohibited that.
I offered her a follow up question. “Does a sports writer need to play football in order to write about it?”
The context of her input instantly morphed into the ludicrous. To perceive that one must “live the experience” in order to write well about a subject implies that all war correspondents must throw themselves into the infantry and that all journalists who cover music must play an instrument and go on tour.
I wrote a newspaper column on food for six years, yet I was never a professional chef.
I lean on George Plimpton, here. As a writer who had not an inkling of athleticism, he convinced the Detroit Lions to allow him to play on their team just for the experience. This was an attempt to address the Everyman armchair quarterback’s opinion that if he were on the field, the game would surely be won.
Plimpton saw failure when the Lions kicked him off the team (lest he be killed). But as a writer, he saw success with this experiment, and released the book Paper Lion as a result. He also went on to document experiences in professional hockey and baseball, and the novelty of his approach continued to cement his success.
Was Plimpton trying to become his subjects? There is simply no way that is possible. If anything, he was trying to prove that not just anyone can be a world-class athlete.
Would I ever take the opportunity to embed myself into an artist’s life in order to better shape my talent? Sounds like a dream come true. Would my intent then be to become a visual artist in order to seem more “qualified” as a writer? No.
I have nurtured my strengths as a writer because that is where my aptitude lies. My work is meant to be an endeavor that seeks to understand artists and where they are coming from in both an intellectual and creative sense.
When I get high minded input that is meant to cut me down due to my perceived “inexperience”, I have to laugh. I am a writer. You are an artist. If we traded places, odds are that neither of us would succeed. But if we come together to share ideas and to teach one another something, there can be magic.
Even if my depth of experience in art were greater, even if I were to write a successful novel, I will never put myself into the world as if I know everything. That, in and of itself, is a failure. I am so happy I don’t see life that way. To realize that you will never know it all, and that there is still so much to learn, will lead you down a path of enlightened success.
Take it as it comes, and do everything you can to nurture your talent. It might take you into a huddle. It might lead you to the scrimmage line. Those choices are your own, and if they feed your passion, you are getting it right.
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