The artist and the alchemist talk about Why

Zarko Drincic - My working place...
The artist is sitting in the alchemist’s tent, on a chair that was made from the baseboard of a spice caravan. The artist is drinking a strawberry thickshake, but she is not happy.

The artist says, “There are piles and piles of people around who are telling me that “Oh, you should talk about Why you do your work so people can connect with it!” and that is completely useless advice to me. I mean, I get what they’re saying, but I can’t do it!”

The alchemist says Why is that?

“Because I do my work because I want to. I have to! I can’t not do it. And that won’t connect with anybody, anywhere. “Selfish Artist Makes Art For Herself”? Stop the presses. They have a reason to buy my art, but it has nothing at all to do with why I make it. So I can’t possibly talk about my Why.”

Ah, I see. Let us change the topic then. What is your art?

Well, recently I’ve been working on a series of violets forged out of bronze.

Interesting. Why that particular piece?

“I’ve been playing around with the ideas of beauty and fragility for awhile. I mean, I think it’s seriously fucking stupid how we’ve gotten this idea in our heads that beautiful equals fragile. And fragile, of course, means that other people have power over you. (‘Cos, you know, they can break you.) So there’s this weird dynamic that beautiful things and people have power because of their beauty, but at the same time they have less power because we think they’re not strong.”

And so these pieces…

“Are about how strength and beauty are not mutually exclusive.”

Ah. The alchemist sits silently for a time, plaiting one long strand of greyblack hair with rice bells.

Then the alchemist paints an ostrich egg with gold paint and vermilion and puts it in a cauldron.

Then the alchemist sits down again.

The artist swears calmly and admiringly, at some length.

“You just told me my Why, didn’t you.”

I don’t believe so. I think you told me.

The moral of the story

For a long time, I got this wrong with my clients. (Anyone who struggled through it with me, I apologise. It was a hard question, and I hadn’t quite gotten it yet.)

I get it now.

Artists, crafters, serial entrepreneurs… we create because we must.

Because it brings us joy. Because it makes us better people. Because you just. Gotta. Dance. Because it makes your world brighter. Because otherwise we’d go mad.

This is entirely, beautifully selfish, and thus not very interesting to talk about. It isn’t a useful way to connect with the people who want what we have to offer. (They’re glad you groove on your work. But this is all about me, man!)

However. There is a reason why, out of the ten thousand thousand possible projects, there is a reason why we made this one.

Your Why is not about Why you create. 

Your Why is about what you choose to create.

You create jewellery with hammered silver skulls. Why? Because we now live in a world where we are almost entirely divorced from death, and it’s made us morbid.

You write poems about Nazis in love. Why? Because human nature is beautiful and wretched, often at the same time.

You create websites with huge textured images. Why? Because technology doesn’t need to be cold and impersonal.

The rabbit hole may be longer than that.

You run a website that reviews different types of vitamins and makes money from affiliate links. Why?

Because I couldn’t stand my job any more and I wanted to see the kids grow up.

Why did you start this particular business?

Because I went to a seminar on passive-income businesses.

Why did you go to that seminar?

Because I really liked the brochure. It said, “Making Money Doesn’t Have to Suck”.

Why did that appeal to you?

Because a lot of the time, we make things harder than they need to be. The vitamin thing is the same – we don’t review super-specialised complicated vitamins, we make it easy for people to choose one that they can just take once a day and go.

Why is that the best approach?

Because life doesn’t have to be hard.

Bingo!

This wasn’t an accident.

Give ten people a blank page and a pen, and they’ll draw ten very different things. An elephant. A dripping tap. An axe murderer.

You make choices on where to concentrate your formidable creative talents.

And those choices reveal your Why.

A little less conversation, a little more action…

What are the pervasive themes of your work?

What topics do you keep returning to?

Why did you create this particular thing?

Dig out your Why and get it to work!

Creative Commons License photo credit: Zarko Drincic

23 thoughts on “The artist and the alchemist talk about Why

  1. Wow, this is making all sorts of dings and poings go off in my brain… though sadly it gets me no closer to my “why”, I do think I’m looking in the right direction now. And it gives me an excuse to concentrate on that “silly” philosophical question that now turns out to be the big why behind all of my art.

  2. I just shared this with my local indie group. All I have to say is “hells yes!!”.  Damn you’re brilliant.  Really.  Give yourself a hug. 

  3. Artists, crafters, serial entrepreneurs… we create because we must.

    You do, indeed, Get It. :>
    Welcome to my world! :>

    Your Why is not about Why you create. 
    Your Why is about what you choose to create.

    This.
    THIS I can answer.
    This I can answer in those ways that make you say “ABSOLUTELY!!!” or “ABSOLUTELY NOT!!!”

    And thank you, by the way. This was exactly what I needed to help me write the descriptions for Sparkly Goodnesses as I put them out for sale.
    With buy buttons on, even! 😀

    Goodness, but I love it when this happens!!! :>

    And it’s also the ‘Why’ of “Why should I buy this/own this?”

    Teacher teaches the student teaches the teacher teaches…..

  4. This nails it for me. I was out getting paint samples, and read this while waiting for the colors. And started to cry. Because I’ve had such a difficult time trying to figure out why my compulsive need to make things matters to anyone else that it’s become a part of the thing I avoid as far as sharing my work with others. 

    Explaining why I chose to make a piece, on the other hand…so much simpler. Which made me smile.

      1. Yay, epiphany? 🙂

        I think things happen for a reason, and we go with the info we have at the time. Realizing this will make it easier for you to help all us artist-types.
        I haven’t forgotten how proud you and Kirsty were of me when I stated ‘I’m an artist’ with no mumbling afterwards.
        In summary, you rock the kasbah.

  5. This nails it for me. I was out getting paint samples, and read this while waiting for the colors. And started to cry. Because I’ve had such a difficult time trying to figure out why my compulsive need to make things matters to anyone else that it’s become a part of the thing I avoid as far as sharing my work with others. 

    Explaining why I chose to make a piece, on the other hand…so much simpler. Which made me smile.

    1. Since that’s a certain amount of how I do what I do, I will jump in to suggest that if you look carefully, you will tend to discover reasons for most pieces, even the ones that seem the most spontaneous and off-the-cuff-saying nothing-more-than-themselves.

      If you ‘ask’ them, you will often find they reveal things that you didn’t even realize you were doing intentionally when you were creating them. :>

      1. I dont know what changed, but I re-read the article, and thought to myself “why dont I just ask myself those questions, and see what I get?”

        And…. I got a reason why! And you’re right, it’s not a conscious thought when I work, it seems a lot more random. And…. I love the reason why of my latest pieces, almost as much as I love the pieces themselves!

    2. This thought goes in a little different direction, but sometimes buyers might be interested in the “how” too. You start because you have an idea/the muse prompts. You go through a process, even if it’s purely selfish and driven by feeling. But where you end up, is specific. You know when to stop and you reach a kind of why, why did you stop there? There’s probably a bigger answer than “because” much of the time. Hope that helps in some way.

  6. wow.  this is so powerful – that little shift in the question really shakes things loose.  It’s funny because my conscious mind is saying that it disagrees that this applies to me, and yet I can feel  in my unconscious that it does.

    Now letting things percolate.

    Andy

  7. I love this. I love the way your allegory makes sense of both the artist’s question and everyone’s question. “Strength and beauty are no mutually exclusive.” It’s all of us, isn’t it?

    And: Basement party – I’m in!

  8. The more I work on this, the more I come down to two words – fun and useful.
     
    It doesn’t matter whether it’s software, a piece of writing or a consulting session.  It has to be fun, and it has to be useful, otherwise it feels like it missed the point.

    My why is that the world’s already too full of things which aren’t terribly useful (cf: consumerism), and life’s to short for it not to be fun.

    I’m excluding art & music here by the way, because I consider what I do to be craftsmanship or engineering, not art.

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