When I was sixteen I thought I’d be a doctor.
I say I thought. I didn’t really know. I figured you had to decide something, I was good at science at school, my parents are both medical. So I said ‘why not be that’.
I’m glad it didn’t work out that way. I’m glad I gradually wound up where I am today. Not that I wouldn’t have enjoyed medicine. Not that I wouldn’t have been a good doctor. Even for all mind-fucking things you have to do to become one, and the back-breaking and mostly thankless things you have to do to stay one, it would have been a life very well spent.
Whether ultimately I chose songwriting or songwriting chose me, I’m not sure. But I am sure I’m glad I’m here. Even if eighteen-year-old ‘No thanks, I’ll be a musician’ me had no idea where here would be.
There’s a common view of young artists (actually, most artists) that says we’re a drain on society. That arts education is a high-minded, mostly masturbatory waste of time. That we should go get a real job: work in a factory, an office or – even – save lives in a hospital. It’s a view that says what we do is less important because it’s hard to see what point art can have in a world where North Korea are probably making nuclear warheads, millions of Africans definitely don’t have enough food to eat, and anyway the street is full of potholes, they missed the trash collection this week and bloody hell have any of you seen my keys?
And you know, there’s a point in there somewhere. I agree at least two of these things are big problems. And I’m not here to argue about what should be more important or less important to anyone.
But I am here to explain why this view misses the whole point of why Art is made in the first place. (Yes, capital A here on in.)
In fact, I’d go as far to say most of us just don’t get Art in general. We just don’t get what it’s for. I say that knowing I certainly wouldn’t have known if I hadn’t chosen the path I chose.
Let me tell you what I now know: Art isn’t just a luxury. It’s not just something to spend your leftover cash on to look ‘cultured’ or ‘important’.
Great Art is our guide to living.
It’s the education we never got at school. It’s the big life ideas that can set us free. It’s the key to making our short time on this planet happier, more meaningful and more fulfilling.
Whether it’s Paul Coelho’s The Alchemist, Pixar’s Inside Out or Taylor Swift’s ‘Shake it Off’, Great Art is packed with lessons for life. It holds the clues to releasing ourselves from all of the dumb negative shit we think about life, love, hopes and dreams that we don’t realize is dumb because nobody showed us how dumb it really is yet. And best of all, Art mostly does it in a way where we can enjoy ourselves at the same time.
Making Art is about condensing these lessons for life into a tangible, sharable package. By extension, being an Artist is about learning these lessons and creating something out of them. It’s an endlessly beautiful and poetic cycle of learning and creating: we learn to create, we create to learn.
The problem of measuring what Art does is not that you can’t see the influence it has. You’ll see it in the forest of camera phones, lighters in the air or just smiles that make up a crowd at a Beyoncé gig. You’ll see it in the line down the block desperate to be the first to read Harper Lee’s new novel. (May she rest in peace.) You’ll see it when an eight-year-old implores his parents to explain what John Lennon meant by ‘All you need is love’.
The problem of measuring what art does is that you can’t really measure it in numbers. You can measure units of a product sold, clients referred or even lives saved. You could measure albums sold and shares and retweets. But you’d be missing the point. How do you measure Art and the lives it saves?
I’m deadly serious.
How do you measure the number of people who read a novel and realize it’s time to ditch their soul-draining job and do something that makes them feel fulfilled? How do you measure the number of people who hear a song and realize it’s time to be a more loving husband or wife? How do you measure the number of people who watch a movie that makes them feel less alone about their father who’s dying of cancer?
Art is life-changing. As artists we should aspire to change lives.
Not everyone can be a professional artist in the way not everyone can be a professional doctor. But everyone can promote healthy living in their own way – whether through Art or Medicine. Call me a ruthless Anti-Capitalist, Corporate America, but to me what people do is far more important than what people get paid to do.
It’s not about idolizing anyone through their Art. We’re all, depending on your outlook, either here together hobnobbing atop heavenly clouds or looking up from the gutter dreaming we were up there. There’s no such thing as born leaders, gurus or prophets. We’re all here learning from each other. Spreading our truth.
Making Art is revealing the truth. It’s that simple. Being an artist is revealing that truth in a way people can understand and use in their own lives.
I’m grateful that the medical professionals of the world are doing their part to keep the physical parts of us in check. But I’m also grateful to be doing the same for our the parts of us we can’t touch: what we believe, how we behave, what we value. I’m glad to be a doctor of the mind, heart and soul.
I’m glad I chose what I chose.