How to improve as an artist pt3: Purpose
“The purpose of art” is part three of an article series I’m doing. I’d love it if you checked out pt1 first.
Being a passionate artist is a pretty tired line, in all fairness, but you can’t leave passion out of the equation.
If you don’t have a clear passion, purpose, or message, you will not grow, and you will be difficult to notice.
There’s a lot to the question of how to be a successful artist, but if you don’t know what it is you want to do, or what it is you want to say, you’re not going to have an easy time creating.
Everyone needs to have a clear “why”, whether that’s as an artist or simply as it pertains to a specific project that you’re working on. Doing anything simply to do it won’t get you anywhere. A reality of art often missed is that it’s incredibly hard work. My friend Jackie at Between Failures can vouch for this. You take everything you’ve ever known and ever learned, and you’re reprocessing it into newer ideas that communicate your message.
What are you trying to say?
Every great work of fiction has a clear theme woven into its thread. (I do want to qualify that “popular” and “great” aren’t always aligned. Please keep that in mind.)
I can’t give a fully thorough treatment of the subjects I’m about to bring up, and if I missed a point I hope you can forgive me, but I want to bring up a few of my favorite media in the question of what kind of messages one can discuss in art and have connect with your audience.
Fullmetal Alchemist: For everything you wish to gain, you must be willing to give up.
Probably one of the best-realized and best-thought-out works of fiction of all time.
The original inspiration for this IP was the author’s (Hiromu Arakawa’s) fascination with the philosophy of alchemy as it came to be in the real world. The Law of Equivalent Exchange had a very specific resonance with her upbringing as a farmer – if you don’t work, and work honestly and earnestly, you will have no food to eat. But what if you thought you had a way to override that law of nature?
As she went in to work on her story, she had social problems she wanted to discuss and integrate into the plot, and did homework by seeking out the stories of refugees, war veterans, ex-yakuza, and clear purposeful news programming relevant to the issues she wanted to discuss.
The resulting story is that of two brothers who lose everything and come near death when they attempt to abuse alchemy to get their lives back. One brother lives with a false arm and leg, and the other brother’s soul inhabits an empty suit of armor rather than his own human body. In their quest to regain their original bodies, they touch the lives of abused and exploited people across the whole span of their journey as they search for an answer that doesn’t violate the Law of Equivalent Exchange.
Because of the nature of the story, and how it tries to be well-informed socially, the cast of characters is diverse as well as grounded and well-realized. The characters are well-thought-out and act in a manner consistent with human nature, both good and bad.
Nacho Libre: Temper the path of your passion with noble desire.
Is this a comedy movie? Yes. But whether by design or by accident, it’s also a phenomenal discussion of the intersection of faith and ambition.
The original inspiration for this movie came from Jack Black getting in touch with the creators of Napoleon Dynamite and they developed the idea of a man of God secretly living a life of violence as a Lucha Libre Luchador.
The entire movie shows the main character Ignacio wrestling (see what i did there) between his devotion to God as a monk and caretaker of orphans, and his thirst for glory as a wrestler in the spotlight even though Lucha Libre spawns many vain and selfish men from its traditions.
The story has some roots in the real history of Fray Tormenta, a Mexican priest who had his own struggle against his fellow churchmen, despite his gifts and success that he had dedicated to God at the outset of his wrestling career and put strictly to the benefit of his beloved orphans.
Asura’s Wrath: Injustice does not go unpunished.
Wrath is an emotion and concept that speaks to all of us. Betrayal stirs up wrath. Manipulation stirs up wrath. Being robbed stirs up wrath. Having injustice inflicted upon you without an explanation stirs up wrath. Being used because you are a convenient pawn stirs up wrath.
Asura’s Wrath, though it may not excel as a video game, excels as a work of storytelling. You’re drawn into the story because you empathize with the experience, and you want to go on the journey with Asura to resolve his wrath. You want to be a collaborator in his vindication. You travel with him, side-by-side, as a partner to his campaign of wrath against the evil done to him.
There isn’t necessarily a clear message to you as a viewer, but the experience of the game is crafted so you can participate in the experience of wrath and vengeance. You get to feel that driving force of wrath as you surmount every obstacle in your path in the quest for justice against the wrong done to you.
A message isn’t necessarily something you’re trying to preach. It’s just a purpose of art that you should give your viewers things to think about in your work.
Hirohiko Araki also makes a clear point of this in his book, Manga in Theory and Practice. (Creative people, without exception or distinction, should read it.) All Shonen manga ought to operate off a clear theme. All great works of fiction need the power of a strong theme to unify the work and sell it to the viewer. The theme of any great work unifies its elemental pieces: the writing, the art, the setting.
However implicit or explicit you intend it to be, your work will not go anywhere without a theme. You won’t know where you’re trying to go, and you can’t lead your audience if you yourself as the driver have become lost.
Develop clear singular ideas to build your art around! If you don’t like an idea, you can simply change it or start over with another one! But you must start with an idea at all!
Your message or theme must come from ideas you understand and stand behind. Do not present themes dishonestly.
BS smells strongly and distinctly. If you don’t believe in what you’re trying to say or do, why should anyone else?
The same goes for if you’re drawing things you don’t believe in because you think it will buy you fame or money. Don’t do things you can’t stand behind! Ever!
It is neither safe nor wise to violate your conscience, as Fr. Martin Luther made clear for us ages and ages ago, and so we should not, no matter how much profit seems to be gained! You will easily give yourself an anxiety disorder, or make your own life more difficult down the line!
The purpose of art, if such a thing exists, is to communicate and preserve great ideas. When you present great work with great themes, you add to the culture of humanity.
This goes against the popular idea that you should create primarily for yourself. I don’t hold any kind of personal issue with the idea of self-expression, but the idea of cultural contribution lends itself more readily to the possibility of audience connection with your work.
If you create only for yourself, you will find far less engagement and commonality and success.
If you create only for others, you will come to hate art and seek to escape its practice.
You can balance your own personal purpose of art against the purpose of art at large and find fulfillment. Many have before, and many will after. Seek that balance and you will find it.
Your most important beliefs may very well make excellent themes. Stake your art on your beliefs and you will have your purpose.
Your purpose is also your passion. It will help you hold on. You will go farther, deeper, and stronger because you hold in your hands a cause that’s important to you. Your purpose in art will give you the strength to be unreasonable when you have to be. Your purpose in art takes something important in the world and focuses you and your viewers onto it.
You will become a better artist with purpose, process, and practice. These three ingredients, over time, will earn the success you’re looking for, if you really want it.