The artists’ way of being and doing

HUMMING IN MY UNIVERSE By Jim Paredes (The Philippine Star) Updated August 21, 2011 12:00 AM

I have always lived the life of an artist. I write songs, sing and perform them. I also write articles and have published a few books. I take photos as well. In many ways, I live my art.

My children, judging by what they like doing and the way they think, are artists as well. This both delights and scares me. It is delights me that they take pleasure, pride and meaning in creating stuff — paintings, drawings, poetry, essays, music — and I especially like how varied their taste in music is. Despite the generation gap, I can relate to much of their world.

But it scares me because they seem to have gone more for the intangibles than the tangibles in this world. Unlike other parents’ children who are into law, accounting, engineering and other professions, my children are interested in less “sure” things. They preferred to take up the more artistic courses than the technical ones in college.

Conventional thinking says they have less to hold on to, career-wise. And even while my life as an artist has very often been about defying how the world works and succeeding quite well, financially, it still scares me that my kids seem to be taking the same route.

Lately, I have been thinking a lot about art and artists, probably because a great many people have put on their expert’s hats and judged the controversial opus of Mideo Cruz that is currently causing such a commotion. Many question not only his motives in putting a red phallus on Jesus but also his right to be called an artist.

Detractors have asked, how could he have done what he did and call it art? His defenders, on the other hand, point to his artistic credentials to try and convince people to go beyond their clearly visceral reaction to his work.

In this regard, the last thing I would be interested in is someone’s artistic credentials. In my view, they are not that important. I believe an artistic work must stand by itself. No previous awards or glory can save bad art, nor add honor to a mediocre one. Neither can bad history of failed art done by someone detract from a new good creation by the same person.

While it is true that an artist with an impressive record or catalogue is afforded greater respect than a newbie, he/she can bomb as easily as anyone else and probably with greater negative consequences. It is often said that an artist is only as good as his or her last work. That is quite true in terms of how audiences judge.

One of my favorite stories of all time is Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” I like it that the little boy, who was not at all versed in political correctness and artifice, saw right through the layers of hypocrisy and pretense that the tailors had fostered on the Emperor and the entire town. In their fear of being called ignorant and unsophisticated, everyone went with the “experts’” opinion and made fools of themselves. Only the boy who knew nothing about consequences, and had no reputation to risk nor investment or attachment to right or wrong or any other dichotomies, saw what was actually self-evident. He called the “experts’” bluff, broke the spell and proclaimed that the king was, in fact, naked. And all hell broke loose.

To me, that boy fulfilled the artist’s function — to see what others refuse to, or cannot, see.

An artist does not need permission or license to be one. Not even formal or informal qualifications. Sure, one can study art and learn a lot. Or maybe not, as some artist friends who have taken formal studies, claim. A friend who finished a course at the Juilliard School of Music was so envious of some unschooled musicians who could create melodies with less effort and complication than she, who had studied a lot about music. While she is a good musician, at times she feels boxed in by the knowledge she acquired formally. Instinct and intuition are not developed in the classroom.

So how does one describe an artist and what an artist does, as opposed to say, an engineer, or a doctor? It’s quite difficult. As a New York Times article put it, “Their job description, if they have one, is to operate outside accepted limits.”

I will try and answer the question based on my experience, and what I have seen fellow artists go through. Some or all of these things below are what an artist is or does.

1) Artists can create something out of nothing. They are able to connect off-tangent points and objects into something unified with some coherence and meaning.

2) They bring their audience to emotional, psychological, spiritual places where even they have never been previously. But despite the fear, they take risks to do it.

3) They surprise, delight, shock, awe and awaken people and bring them to experience new undiscovered states and truths about themselves.

4) They live out their nightmares and visions for others who are too afraid to live theirs. Artists do this to liberate themselves and their audience, that they may also have the courage to liberate themselves.

5) When they are really good, artists can successfully turn their private pain, traumas, demons, fears into something beautiful and universally true.

6) They can physicalize art into movement, music and various material forms, images and shapes. They do this to express what they wish to convey and who they are.

7) When artists work within the “zone” where they are in focused, timeless mode, they are actually going through a truly spiritual, God-like experience. There is a creative flow, unobstructed and free, as they deal in things eternal.

8) Artists can’t help but create. One might say, they are condemned to create. And they are a hundred times lonelier and more neurotic when they are in a dry spell and cannot create.

9) They are, in many ways, egotists. But the ego here is often some sort of magnifying glass where passion and message pass through. The ego makes possible the intense focusing of the creation.

10) With their art, artists can enchant and make sacred the mundane nature of everyday life.

I am hardly touching the surface here. My intention is not to paint the artist as an inscrutable, mysteriously perplexing human being. I believe that within each person lies an artistic spirit, in varying degrees. After all, we create every minute that we live. The artist is just more intense about it.

So, to our senators, bishops, lawyers and other so-called “learned” in society, or anyone who has ever needed to get some kind of license or formal validation — before you start interrogating, questioning or forcing your beliefs on artists and defining what art should be, please take heed. Be advised that your “understanding” of artists, their reality and what they do, may be nowhere near what truly is.

You live in a world of tangibles, of measurable objects and defined paradigms, of logic, rationality and limits. You may be comfortable with things that are more quantified, measurable, in black and white even. But outside the parameters of where your fences end, where you dare not look or even cross, is where the artist’s world could begin.

The eternal can’t be boxed in. The artist cannot be restrained. He operates outside acceptable limits. Whether or not you are ready, he will take you to places where you may or may not want to go. Just look at how agitated everyone has become by “Poleitismo.”

The way to deal with an artist’s work is to appreciate it if it speaks to you, and pan it, if you will, when it doesn’t. Then move on. He probably wasn’t speaking to you anyway.

* * *

1) Tapping the Creative Universe Workshop: The best awakening-to-creativity workshop you can experience. This is the special six-session run from Sept 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 19 from 7 to 9 p.m. Call 0916-8554303, or write me at jpfotojim@gmail.comfor info, reservations or any questions. Visit

2) Basic Photography Workshop: Go beyond the point-and-shoot experience. Know your camera like a pro. I am offering a class on Basic Photography this Sept. 10, Saturday at 113 B. Gonzales, Loyola Heights, QC. Cost is P3,500. To reserve a slot, please e-mail me at jpfotojim@gmail.comor call 0916-8554303.

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