People quitting art

I knew a very fine classical guitar player once – not well – who told me he was quitting because he’d learned that he’d never be the world’s best guitarist. So sad, I thought. What about the music? What about his sheer love for the music?

There are many people who do art, then quit — and for a wide variety of reasons. I always favor the odd stories, like the one about my friend, Joan (who reads this blog by the way, so I hope I don’t misstate any of the specifics.) She was a child prodigy on the violin with a mother who, seeing a bright future for both of them, pushed hard. But at the age of seven, Joan fell in love with a much older, rather famous violinist and decided that she would one day marry him. She labored hard, at her mother’s behest and to further her own dream, and at a still tender age became a student at Julliard and a student of — well, you know who. She married the man, quit playing the violin, and had four children with him before he died at the age of 79.

My violin: Carlo Antonio, Testore, MIlan, 1938. Photo by pellacea. Creative Commons.

Joan still loves music and both her later husbands were musicians. But she’d achieved her goal and her own fiddling was no longer relevant. I guess.

Then there’s June, who was one of the people discovered by Don Sunseri and GRACE. I talked about GRACE in two of my earliest posts (February 24 and 25 of this year). Don’s program encouraged people to do art in nursing homes, schools and community centers. He provided the tools and a lot of support and attention to people with no formal training but with vision. Their work was always unique, always intriguing.

June had never committed marker or brush to paper before, but in short order turned out a dozen-plus paintings, all of them interesting and some of them quite impressive. Just last night I remembered what June said when someone asked her how she knew when a painting was finished. Her heart, she said, beat faster. Or at least that’s how I remember what she said. Anyway, June painted and then she quit. That was what she wanted to do, that and apparently no more. She is now 90 years old and in the hospital with one thing and another and your prayers, if you’re a prayer, would be most welcome.

One of the most famous quitters in history was Arthur Rimbaud, the French poet, who, in his late teens, wrote poetry that profoundly influenced the world of literature. Victor Hugo called him “an infant Shakespeare.” He stopped writing poetry at the age of 20. As far as I know, he made no memorable pronouncements about it. Given that his work was accompanied by a feverish life full of drugs and passionate sex, his surrender to a more ordered life may also have meant the end of his writing.

More commonly, artists stop working because they grow weary of trying to make a career happen. They may decide they’re not good enough, which isn’t always true. Frequently, they don’t have the stomach for the marketing of their gifts. I first met Rhea when she was a student at the Manhattan School of Music. She was charming, very attractive, and sang beautifully. For years after, she continued to study and to sing at every opportunity. She worked at one job and another (rehabilitating pipe organs in Boston!), married twice, and had nearly finished raising two children before she decided to give up her ambitions for a singing career. She could sing continually, she could get better and better, but she couldn’t sell herself, and that was almost as important.

I’ve quit doing art too, and not always for the most comprehensible reasons. I never quit writing although I often didn’t get around to it. Another problem altogether, I think. But I did stop doing photography. I returned to an earlier state where I’d been utterly unable to take a decent picture.

For a number of  years, I actually took quite good photographs. I also started reading about photography and marveling at what its invention had meant to humanity, and admiring work by some of its best practitioners. And then I stopped, not the reading but the act of  photographing. Something about turning people and places that were lively and exciting into still-lifes. Something about the distance the camera created between me and my subject. Maybe one or both of those. I don’t really know. Suddenly, I was lousy at it all over again.

Creativity is a complicated business. Writers who decide to be literary agents. Composers who grow old and weary. Poets who run out of words. Painters who make the statement they want to make, and quit. Dancers who can no longer dance.

As well as the many, many people who just keep doing art because it’s what they need to do.

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6 comments on “People quitting art
  1. Joan Graul says:

    Well put, Elaine!

  2. It’s a sad sad thing when talented artists quit doing their art and have to treat it as a “hobby”.
    There comes a point in an artist’s life when the artist HAS to paint–it no longer becomes a ‘choice’ and those who suggest the artist simply “put all that nonsense aside” to get a ‘real job’ doesn’t understand.
    Life as an artist is, more often than not, one where engaging in the creative process takes precedence over acquisition of funds. And yet-is it fair? No. No one said it was going to be fair or an easy journey. Artists are often taken advantage in the workforce of because opportunists see the artist as vulnerable and therefore try to score deals, to scam the artist, to try and get the artist to do work on spec, au gratis for benefits etc…for ‘exposure’…and I ask you, in what other career does one have to give their professional skills away? To pay some imaginary ‘dues’?
    The problem is not with the artists. The problem is with how The (general) Public view art in particular societies. Art is not as valued here–in my country for instance (Canada) and ones talent/level of skill is not honored or supported by the Government with fair and attainable funding. People often are not willing to pay for what the art is worth and dare to try and justify paying by the HOUR. Art…is not something to be gaged by the hour…What one pays for when they hire an artist is the skill the artist has attained through years and years of fine-tuned practice.The longer I have been painting, the faster and more skilled my paintings have become. I made more 15 years ago per piece back when I was not as skilled an artist as I do now.
    meanwhile, the cost of living has escalated.
    The economy has a lot to do with it but also, I believe that in this time when the economy is recovering, people have gotten into that mode of saving and just spending their money on technology rather than purchasing art.
    Skill has little to do now with whether art is purchased or not.
    Often it is who’s who. Is the artist bearing a recognizable ‘name’ and is the art therefore ‘collectable’.
    That’s a big factor.
    I for one will never stop painting.
    I can’t and I won’t.
    Makes me sad when I read and hear about those who do–who become disenchanted with their art to the point of QUITTING.
    But I empathize.

    • Steven says:

      Your piece there is totally true. I have tried art for nine years and attended art college for two years. Some teachers were cruel and played mind games which made people disheartened and depressed. Because art is about expressing emotions, anger can kill creativity and leave you blank. to avoid quitting you need to rule it out as an option because it is too easy to quit otherwise.
      I have quit every day almost since I started but still do some stuff. I started off wanting to do accurate art then over the years I came to the point I hardly use a brush now just bamboo skewers and a rag. Giving up the control forces the imagination to take over and the mind with its plans to go out the window where they belong. I end up painting mostly what wants to come out. The end result is nothing I envisioned, it is a scene buried out of sight within which only switching off can access.
      I totally understand people who quit art as art has torn me up something bad. But the good news is that it only makes me so upset because I take it so very seriously. I have vowed not to take it seriously for to do so will see me burn everything I have ever done such is my seriousness.
      Thanks for your comments they are very helpful and good luck to anyone who reads this and remember that in forty years time you will regret more what you never did than what you did.


  3. Mary says:

    I quit art (with an intention that I would re-start again) after my senior thesis review at pratt. I had had an amazing show, professors encouraging me to apply to Yale. My art was about my biological father who I never met but wrote letters to while he was in prison. (we still never met). The professors at my review were mostly AbEx style painters. They looked at my work, feminine, stiched, personal and crytic. They wouldn’t take the time to understand or look at it. They said, “What would the difference be if a 250 lb football player had made this?” I still cannot answer that question. Everytime I sit down to make something I think about that question. I think I’ve given up. I’m only 27 though, it’s been 5 years.

    • Elaine Magalis says:

      I think the question is ridiculous. The football player would make something different because he’s not you. You should never quit doing anything you love that much, especially art. You’re very, very young–you have no idea how young! Don’t give up.

  4. Jacqueline says:

    I chose to quit art. I discovered that I used it as a means to express the things I could not say. Then one day, it all clicked. Life hit me, memories of the past flooded me. And I realized that I had repressed memories in my past. And while I made that discovery, I was painting a very dark piece. It brought me to the point of tears. I realized who I was in that very moment could only be a result of having stepped into the art world. But I also realized that my journey in art had come to a close. I found the reason as to why I started painting, it was simply to release. I found my voice that night. I spoke and I’ve been speaking more ever since. I don’t feel the same passion to paint or draw as I once did. Once it used to be a need, a drive, an instinct within me. There were emotions that I could only portray through means of a canvas. But now, I know who I am. I faced my deepest fears. I realized that I didn’t need to paint anymore to express myself, because I could do so with my own voice. Art was once my reason, my purpose. And I know that I could go further in it, but I’m choosing not to. I’m instead choosing to continue on my path and grow from the experience. I’m going to experience new things, create new dreams, and use my voice all along the way. I was once an artist, now I am simply just me and I am okay with it.

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