When my friend told me we were going to meet her uncle, the artist, I didn’t know what to expect. For instance, I didn’t expect him to live in a whitewashed minimalist mansion or have an eccentric collection of cats and dogs with names like “Baron” and “Google Earth.” Nor did I expect that he would speak with a slight British accent and serve us three glasses of wine, homemade lamb pastries and fresh-out-of-the-oven lava cake.
Don’t get me wrong — I’m not complaining. The experience was practically royal. But it wouldn’t have surprised me if, instead, the uncle lived in a basement, collected human embryos and subsisted on a diet of malt liquor and canned tuna fish. “Artist” is the most vague career definition imaginable. It takes a certain type of person to be an artist, but who are artists? What unites them? Although artists vary in almost every possible way, there are a few defining characteristics: pride, creative prowess and most importantly, an extraordinary perspective.
All great artists, or at least all successful ones, take great pride in their work. When people think of artists, they think vanity: “People tend to think he’s a bit … self-righteous,” my friend said of her uncle when introducing him. Self-righteousness may be unacceptable ordinarily, but the art world demands it. As a commercial artist, you are marketing yourself — something people don’t automatically value — and winning dedicated admirers requires more than confidence; it requires that the artist love his or her work unconditionally. Artists are delighted with everything that they create, so much so that admirers can’t help but worship it also.
The artist is dedicated to creation. All endeavors, even ordinary household activities, become opportunities to design and perfect. When the uncle served us fried fish, for instance, he insisted on making it himself (even though there was a cook in the house) because it was part of his “special recipe.” His is an attitude of artistic license. If everything has the potential to be art, the artist has the ability to harness that potential and trademark it.
Most importantly, successful artists have extraordinary perceptive capabilities. This is no secret, but it is essential to their character. Part of this capability is hallucinatory: Artists have the ability to detect things that normal humans cannot. But sometimes this vision doesn’t add to objects; it reduces them to their simplest and most essential qualities. They pick up a piece of rusted metal, partially oxidized, and hold it like a holy sacrament, marvelling at the oblong shape, the uneven patches of blue and the mechanical potential.
We admire artists because they invite us to be a part of their mysterious world, if just for a second. When they stop to smell the trash cans, or decide to empty 1,000 tubes of paint on a blank canvas, we feel a rush of excitement. What do they see that we do not? Are they crazy, or prophetic? Perhaps artists really are deranged, or otherwise mentally disturbed, but there’s no denying their vision. They stop to smell the flowers that we pass by without a glimpse. They seize opportunities we didn’t even know existed. They find beauty in every small gesture of human and nature, and though we may be incapable, they invite us to see it too.