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On Being an Artist: A Response to Nick Cave

Updated: Feb 22

Someone recently emailed me a post by the musician/songwriter Nick Cave, and I felt compelled to write a response.

Cave was giving advice to artists who felt bleak and unmotivated to create anymore. He told them that being an artist is like being a taxi driver or having some other job. You are duty-bound to report to work because art is an antidote to the sins of the world. Your job is to serve others, inspiration is for the lazy, and "muses are for losers." You can read Cave's short post here .

My muse suggested I write this response.


Being an artist is not a job, duty, or responsibility. Being an artist is a pleasure. When we read Genesis, we instinctively don’t feel that God struggled to create the world. This is because the essence of creation is the opposite of labor. The essence of creation is play.


Play is overflow. We do it when we feel free of burdens and responsibilities. Children are our role models here. They show us that play is natural to humans. We play when we feel most connected to who we truly are.


Serving others is a secondary effect of making art. The world doesn’t need another painting. It needs another forced, mediocre painting even less. Our works serve others to the extent that they are a natural emanation of our truest self. This emanation is the light from the candle that Christ told us to let shine. He didn’t tell us to light the candle, because it's already lit. He told us to remove the basket that covers it. The basket is self-doubt, angst, guilt, and fear.


I write every morning seven days a week because I love it. When I write, I give myself total permission. I can write anything or nothing at all. I can just sit, sip coffee, and stare out the window. I can get up and do something else too. This attitude creates a feeling of spaciousness. I allow creation to happen. I watch for activity or surprise. It's as if I become an open field so something else can romp around in it. This is a tremendous pleasure.

That’s what inspiration feels like. And inspiration is all I’m interested in as a writer. Everything else feels dead by comparison. Inspiration is a connection to the divine. And paradoxically, it happens when I drop my ponderous, predictable ideas of having something important to say. It happens precisely when I stop laboring—when I stop being responsible.


If you feel like shit, go into the studio and paint. It might cheer you up. Or go do something else that brings you into awareness of the wonder of creation, that centers you, that reconnects you, that rejuvenates you. If you don’t make a living by painting, perhaps you need some time off. Perhaps you just need to nap, take a walk, fix an old table, or fuck.

You didn’t sign an invisible contract swearing to be a responsible artist, except maybe in a puritanical fever dream. A taxi driver has to report to work even if he’s angry, which makes him more likely to cause an accident. Why pretend to be a taxi driver? We artists have the option to take the day off. And guess what. We have the option to stop being artists too. You can go out and help the world directly if that feels more meaningful to you. But forcing art when it feels awful isn’t helping anyone.

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