Aspiring artists have always been searching for the secret ingredient, for that special trait that makes some artists great. After all, in a way, it goes beyond talent as an innate ability, beyond acquired skill, beyond hard work, determination, or luck.
The secret ingredient is often mistakenly interpreted as having something to do with the struggling artist’s myth. In a way, it does.
For a long time I thought so myself. That only through great emotional and/or physical pain do you become a great artist. I thought suffering to be inexorably tied to an artist’s destiny. But then I reconsidered, and you can read all about it here.
Then I realized that the so called secret ingredient was empathy. Most often than not, it’s difficult to identify in one’s work. Empathy, I believe, is acquired. At least, at a certain level.
Because an artist’s capability to sympathize, understand, and analyze another human being goes far beyond any natural skills we may have. It goes beyond good and evil, beyond kindness, beyond anything you’ll encounter in the day to day lives of regular people.
For instance, an artist’s most astonishing ability is that he can write about people who are entirely different from him and situations he never experienced. He can write about what he doesn’t know, mostly because he is willing to become someone else, even if it is for only a few moments.
It’s like acting. You become someone else, someone you never were and never will be.
And all artists are great, great actors, even if they don’t always show that to others.
But what makes another person willing to become someone else? Is it that his own life is so terrible that he’d do anything to escape it? I don’t know.
Pain and suffering can’t really be measured. We are all unique in that regard, and what breaks me might not even put a grimace on your face.
Now for another question. The best stories ever written are the ones that make us feel nostalgic about a life we almost had. The closer we were to reaching it, the more nostalgic we feel. For instance, a love story. If done right, you should feel as if you’re falling in love. How many love stories have you read that made you feel as if you’d do anything for another person to love you like that?
Great art makes you fall in love with the artist, because underneath all the masks and the lies and the silly games, all artists are trying to reach out to their audience. They are all trying to answer some of life’s undesirable questions: Who am I? Why am I here?
Of course, there are always exceptions. Writers who write only about themselves, and use introspection the same way most writers use empathy, which is to make people feel, to make them translate the message in such a way that they can relate.
Do you know why art feels so personal? Not only to the artist, but to the audience as well? Because all works of art are missing pieces. And you have to put those pieces yourself. Sometimes you have to use your imagination and just pretend, but other times you have to use real pieces, pieces from your soul, and use them to translate the message the artist is trying to transmit.
Not to overly intellectualize this whole thing, but, in a way, any work of art allows you to build a self that didn’t use to exist before. And you’re willing to protect that self from anyone who tries to destroy it.