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The Artist's Ego

I had an interesting discussion the other day. I stated that without the artist’s ego, there would be no art, and who would create anything if they thought no one would look at it?

There was immediate disagreement and counter argument that the joy is in creating itself. And if the artist creates what others like rather that what he likes then is it really art. I don’t entirely disagree with either of these statements.

I am very much aware of artists who go “commercial,” and create what is popular with the masses. I see that every day in crap TV programs, movies and music. Thank God there are artists who create what they believe in, without a pioneer spirit nothing new would be created.

However, the original statement was concerned with the artist’s ego and one has to look closely at the word “Ego.” We are often taught that to have an ego is a bad thing, but look at the dictionary definition and it means “Self esteem,” a person’s sense of worth.

On the other hand there is the word “Egotist,” which means “Self Centered,” is definitely not a good thing. Initially, artists create for their own gratification, the joy of looking at what they have done.

Does this joy not come from the boost to their self esteem or ego? Who does not step back and look at their work and say to themselves, “Look at what I have done here, I am a pretty cleaver fellow.”

There comes a point however, where one must move on from this self gratification and seek validation from others. This validation may not be immediately forthcoming, and this is where it is important for the artist to continue with what he truly believes in.

This is not always easy for the performing artist, musician, singer/songwriter, actor or comedian. By nature of their art, they must have an audience, validation from others. And ultimately so must ever other artist, be they painter, sculptor, or writer. What would be to point in my writing here, if no one read it?

One of those discussing this point stated: When I stopped entering photos in competitions because I thought they would get votes, I got a lot happier with my pictures. I never enter competitions; I can see no useful purpose. By their very nature there will always be more losers than winners, more fragile artists egos shattered.

Art is to be shared; it is the whole point of it. If an artist creates something that no one else wants but continues to do so for self gratification, he may be an egotist, a self-centered person.

Just as the old question, does a tree falling in a forest make a sound if there is no one there to hear it? If an artist creates something and no one else sees it, is it really art?

What are your views?


Reader Comments (10)

As parents, we try hard to instill a sense of self worth in our children - thus stoking their egos. We do this because we know that happy people have healthy egos. The egotist is someone who is so concerned with their own ego, they fail to realize that others have one as well.

May 25, 2009 | Unregistered Commentermercator

You bring up a universal conundrum: where does creativity come from? Do new ideas evolve or were they always there waiting to be "discovered"?
Can artistic ability be taught?
And what of those philosophical ideas like "Competition ruins the activity you are doing" or "You have to do this for yourself first".
I don't know of any artists that use excuses such as "If only I had had more opportunities when I was young I'd be a better artist". I do know athletes that say this.
What is the difference?
And who keeps changing good things? Like nice cars of the past; or bicycles.
Look at the Concor saddle: it's back after some 20 years. Why? Because it works and looks good.
Same with some art, it's indelible.
It is the artist that doesn't remain; we all are dying, just some of us get there before others. What is our legacy? For most it is being part of a collective whole that is good. For artists it is their work that stands out from homogeneity, and if that is ego then it is also art, and it may or may not be seen as good.
Fortunately time can change that perspective.

May 25, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterSteve

I agree with most of what you say. Most. I have a background of training in fine art, but my life went another direction, into industrial design. I paint watercolors. I don't lock them up, but in general no one else sees them. I guess I have as much ego as others, but this is just something I do for myself. I suppose it could be argued that I am a closet painter not an artist. Maybe so.

May 25, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterGunnar Berg

A wonderfully cynical Englishman said, "No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money." In that, I think he was wrong. Many people write for the sheer joy of it (besides me, of course.) The reclusive Emily Dickinson wrote poems that were never seen until after her death, if I recall right. So I think there's a continuum between the esteemed Dr. Johnson and the near-hermit Dickinson. Many of us would love the attention, money, and praise that comes with being a wildly successful author, but when it comes to developing a work ethic and dogged perseverance, we just can't cut it.

I speak from the standpoint of writing, Dave, because it's what I know best. I can't draw or do photography with anything other than workmanlike ability. It's technically accurate, but lacks the spark that comes from true artistry. And I don't feel like I've done a good job of describing it, because it's like trying to explain color to a blind man. Words are inadequate.

May 25, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterEd W

This is a question I have long pondered, and I am surprised to find it discussed here; I came here looking for some technical info on framebuilding (but also to while away some useless working hours, but that is another story). I believe that without an audience there is no art. The audience response in turn feeds the art, and challenges, provokes or encourages the artist to grow, modify or evolve their techniques and abilties. There are the exceptions, such as Emily Dickinson cited above, or Robert Graves (or am I wrong?) who wrote 7 books, all unpublished in his lifetime. No doubt there are others. But I think there are many, many more closet creators who work on their, making what they believe to be oh-so-important little gems, but in fact, whose work does not withstand the light of day. And because we never hear of these people, the idea that art belongs to the artist remains intact. But I think work that cannot withstand some criticism, some inspection, is not art.

May 26, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterJunji

>> If an artist creates something and no one else sees it, is it really art?

I hope so. I love creating my art. But my audience is tiny. I can't control that. But the creation of the art brings me much pleasure. So why not do it. I love it. I dont require an audience for validation. My heart validates me. Good thing, too, since there's not much of an audience. :-)

May 27, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterandrew

Alain Briot (of Luminous Landscape) has a particularily well thought out article on the relationship between artists and their audiences.

May 27, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterConrad Drake

I love your reading your writing and your thoughts, Dave. The last paragraph was particularly great. Thankyou

May 28, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterA Window on Swanston

I've gone through a number of stages and motivations during my creative life and I am presently questioning exactly why I have done and continue to do art.

Here's a loose cronological history of my motivations:
1. Helen Goebel (the cute girl who sat next to me in 1st grade) asked me to draw a picture of "Twinkle Toes the elephant". Motivation: sex
2. I wanted to draw better than my sisters, who had drawings hanging in our elementary school halls. Motivation: domination of my sister
3. Teachers would let me skip class assignments and let me paint pictures instead. Motivation: avoid real work
4. I would letter & color names on t-shirts for friends. Motivation: I want people to like me
5. I would paint "supergraphics" on our high school walls. Motivation: I wanted people to think I was cool plus it was cool to be in the school at night with nobody there.
6. Picked art as a major in college. Motivation: thought I could be the next Picasso
7. Quit college to be a real artist. Motivation: thought I could be the next Picasso
8. Painted and had some early sales. Motivation: $$$
9. Did a series like the ones I had sold. They didn't. Motivation: $$$
10. Got married, had 2 kids, got a job, bought a house, continue to paint, very limited sales. Motivation: ???

Presently - My output is at an all time low partially due to my inability to come to grips with my motivation. I find the thought of creating art for the purpose of ego gratification kind of a shallow idea... so I search and hope that it will make sense someday.

Thanks for this blog!


July 13, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterSteve

an interesting concept, but let us not forget the 2 poles of the creative act Duchamp spoke about; the artist on the one hand and the spectator on the other which later becomes posterity. I might read a poem and get somthing out of it the poet never intended, this is just the subjective nature which is inherent in art. The object itself (the art peice) only becomes important when read and thinking occurs, that said an artist will make and perform many artistic gestures (both accidently and in the name of art) which may or may not ever be noticed - but he will still perform them, somtimes because he wants to massage his ego and be noticed other times like in ethics he will perform just because he wants too.
Therefore, i conclude the question needs revising if we define the art only happening when it is noticed by the observer then art need not have a creator, we can notice the way in which the wind blows the tree which stimulates us to question in what way does "wind" exist? - no artist - no ego. If we define the creative act the act, surely we can perform somthing because we find it interesting not because we need our ego's massaged. Either way although the ego is inherent in a lot of work, it is not nessisary in my oppinion.

February 24, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterwriter without ego
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