22 Oct Identity and Responsibility

As if “who am I” wasn’t already a big enough question in general, we as artists and creatives must daily grapple with the question as it concerns our work. “Why am I an artist? If I get paid, is it art? What IS art? Does the world really need one more guy expressing himself?” and dozens of other questions that I won’t type for fear of disappearing into a theoretical black hole and not finishing this post. It’s little wonder many artists spend an entire lifetime exploring the subject.

To bring one aspect of this enormous question into focus, I’ll talk about a shift in my life as an artist that began this year. Previously I wrote about “doing the work” of strengthening my creative muscles, a newfound discipline that has largely freed me from inspiration-dependence. This coincided with a decision to pursue a songwriting career over one as a touring/recording artist (and trying to convince people that my tastes should be theirs). While I’m still figuring all that out, it’s come with a healthy redefinition of “what I do” vs. “what I can do” – i.e. artistic identity vs. the responsible use of my creativity.

For me, songwriting has long been about trying to prove myself, and the fatal flaw in that is a desire for impression over expression. Questions like “how do I say this best” became less about writing good lyrics and more about impressing people with depth, and I would start trying to conjure up “cooler” contexts for my writing than the world I actually inhabit. Letting our identity be subsumed into our art is dangerous, because when we inevitably fail to garner the praise we want or even to meet our own standards, we begin to question who we are rather than how we can do better next time.

Where understanding that I make art and not the other way around has fixed some artistic identity issues, realizing that my abilities are a gift I can use apart from that identity has helped me become more responsible with my career. What I do as an artist should be the free expression of who I am as a person, but what I can do as a creative is not confined to my tastes and preferences. Put plainly, there are songs I write because they’re what’s in me to write, and there are songs I write because I have the ability to write songs. The former is art in the traditional sense, and the latter is stewardship of a gift which, hopefully, puts food on the table.

The two are obviously not mutually exclusive, but for my songwriting it’s been an important distinction to make. Letting myself write songs that are decidedly not “who I am” helped me realize how much of my identity was wrapped up in the art, and I’ve since been able to hold even the most personal songs with a more open hand. How does this distinction play out in your work? What are your thoughts on identity vs. responsibility?

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