Whenever I am asked the purposeful question "What is Art?", or its partner "What is an Artist?", I like to tell people about a quote from, arguably, one of the greatest writers who ever lived.
I never actually give them the quote. Instead, I turn the conversation around and ask them to tell me, if they can, who that writer might be. I get Shakespeare a lot, as he is the easy answer. Every once in a while, I will get a writer I have never heard of or someone will toss out someone exotic, like Castaneda or Keats. It doesn't matter...they will always be "wrong".
In spoken conversations, it is always hard to defend this trick question. Now that I am writing about it, however, you can scroll up and see what I am talking about. I said "one of the greatest writers..." You inserted the word "published" in there. I didn't.
Here's the trick. Less than one percent of all the people who call themselves writers have ever made a living from writing, alone. Writing is one part of the equation, but publication is a completely different beast. In order to be published, you should be a good writer, but it is more important to come along at the right time, or find an editor or publisher who thinks you have. If you have gained some degree of celebrity outside of publishing, it is quite possible for you to become a published writer without really being very interesting or verbally ingenious at all.
The irony is not lost on me. This is a free blog. These days, anyone can be a published writer. Even with this new power the internet has given us, however, the odds are...
...that the best writer out there; the person who turns the best phrases, creates the most human characters or masters plot contortion, was never, has never, or might never be a published writer at all.
Sure, it's sad to imagine what we all may be missing. But the separation of the artist from their ability to get seen as an artist is, actually, not as much a set of shackles as you might think. Have you ever had car trouble - the kind where you could swear your buggy was on its last wheels? You took it to the shop and, after a day or two, came back to find everything fixed? The mechanic might try to explain what they did to you, and you may or may not understand what they are saying. It doesn't matter because the car didn't work, and now it works.
Would you engage in a little hyperbole with me, and refer to that grease-stained savior as "the Michelangelo of Auto Mechanics" or some other artistic comparison? Of course, in that moment of gratitude for your surviving wheels, you would. And no one would think you silly or tell you that they actually think the way that mechanic treats the transmission is "pedestrian" or "lacks originality".
The truth is there are 7 billion artists walking this rock. I am not saying that with granola crumbling out of my mouth all over my tie-dyed shirt. This isn't the way I hope it is. It's a simple truth. Like all simple truths we, as a society, never see it until someone simply comes along and says it. A relative handful of us recognize the artist within us, either because our art isn't one of the accepted forms of artistic expression or because we haven't sold that photograph to National Geographic, yet.
This is what we should seek to change, one artist at a time. Who's with me?