Being a field inundated by the spirit of self expression and subjective values, it is easy to forget that professional art has a moral dimension as well. Certainly, even artists that come from widely differing belief systems often share the same set of principles when it comes to producing their art, dealing with clients, and presenting their work: a set of principles commonly known as a “work ethic.”
Alas, to err IS human and we all stray from the straight and narrow path once in a while. Using the classic Seven Deadly Sins, we list down seven common character kinks that may endanger, if not an artist’s immortal soul, then certainly his career and professional development.
The Sin: Lust
Lust is often considered in classical literature and moral commentary as the least of the seven sins because of course it is. In Dante’s Purgatorio, the lustful are just one jump away from reaching Paradise though, admittedly, that jump IS through a wall of intense fire. There, Lust is understood as a yielding to base - but natural and often overwhelming - impulses and a warping of one’s affections towards those impulses. You were taken in by powerful biological functions, sure, but you’re still culpable for some very awful things.
Artistic Lust is similarly a game of impulses that, in and of themselves, are not actually wrong. These are the spur-of-the-moment sensations like inspiration, sudden eureka moments, the excitement of learning a new technique and “the zone.” Kept in check, those impulses form everything that is truly unquantifiable in creativity, where the product can be made greater than the sum of the skill and material used to create it. Allow it to run amok, though, and you may end up being swept into a frenzy, absolutely infatuated with this new style or technique that you begin to neglect other things like anatomy, or perspective, or your client’s project brief. Even worse, you may even end up expecting that a creative profession can be built up on these arresting moments of sudden clarity, never really learning to put in the kind of patience and effort demanded to sustain those moments for productive ends.
Before you “flatten the layers” so to speak, our advice would be to revisit your art the next day whenever you have the time. Look at your work outside the mindset that created it. This is not about waiting until you get absolutely every detail right but, at the very least, this is about being aware of the flaws you can correct and the flaws you’ll need to live with once its sent to the client or posted online.
ACEDIA & TRISTITIA
The Sin: Sloth
This one is probably the most obvious when it comes to the context of a “work ethic.” Being lazy can be a fatal flaw for a freelancer and so the consequences are dire enough to go without elaboration. However, the original reckoning of Sloth as one of the Seven Sins did closely link it with a specific cause: despondency.
To be despondent is to despair, to give up, lose hope and wallow in self pity. For artists, this often means banking on the idea of not being good enough and deciding that its useless to even try being good enough. Sometimes, it seems as though trying harder is pointless when success just doesn’t seem to be something we can identify with. This can mean stagnation when the only projects you take on are for stuff you can just breeze through. This can also mean disaster if you’ve already accepted the work in the first place.
Opposite Sloth is Diligence, a virtue that, when exercised, is an anodyne for both Sloth and Despondency. Diligence doesn’t care if you don’t think you can do something, diligence takes it in stride and takes on the challenge bit by bloody bit until it has taken as much of it as it possibly could. Many times, Diligence finds that its taken down the whole challenge. It’s not necessarily erasing ones fears, it’s simply making it irrelevant to the task at hand.
The Sin: Envy
If Sloth is said to spring from Despair, there is no other sin in the modern world that produces Despair so profusely as Envy. Its on the internet, on movies, on art books and on adverts: all the great and wonderful art that you were never good enough to produce. Envy is watching all these fifteen-year old Art Mozarts pop out of the Tumblr and DeviantArt woodwork with skills that out pace your own professional practice that has been around for longer than they’ve been alive.
Comparison isn’t envy, though. Artistic Envy comes when you find yourself offended by that comparison, even if you made it yourself. Many times, the comparison isn’t even on the level of skill but on the level of popularity and all of a sudden, such and such a style and such and such an artist is a blight on the industry and you must let everyone know this or else all is lost or whatever.
It’s far from historically accurate but the movie Amadeus paints a particularly vivid picture of murder-level Artistic Envy. We have a Salieri who hinged his identity on his abilities as a composer and found that identity threatened by a younger, more able composer. Ironically, envy like this only tends to see the best in other people - perhaps the talent albeit undeserved or the acclaim albeit unmerited - while remaining blind of the peripheral details like the fact that the prodigy in question may have spent his entire childhood under the thumb of a father obsessed in peddling his child as a kind of musical side show for nobles to gawk at.
Realising the effort demanded by mastery on top of accidents like talent or upbringing is one way of dealing with envy. Hinging your worth as an artist not on how good you are at the moment but on how hard you’re willing to work is another. And if you’re worried about how much farther ahead young artists are than you, you’d do well to remember that for every Mozart who started composing music at age 4, there’s a Mark Twain who published his first novel in his forties.
The Sin: Wrath
Personally, most artists I know are actually incredibly chill. So chill, in fact, that it’s difficult to sense if they’re being passive aggressive or not. Of course, just like any one else, even the chillest of people have good reasons to be furious either from the people they work for or the people they work with. When people use this as justification to send purposely bad work or to publicly shame their clients online, just plain anger may become the sin of Wrath.
Like with Lust where the danger is in allowing natural impulses to overpower self-criticism, Wrath is generally about the threat of letting emotions like anger, annoyance, or fear compromise your self control. Wrath is putting these emotions above thinking the issue rationally and fairly. There may be times when drastic action is necessary - of course you post about clients who may take advantage of more artists and of course you break ties with them - but “seething in fury” is usually not the best time to decide on whether it is. You may find, after cooling down over it, that you were the one in the wrong and you just gave people a good reason to cut ties and post publicly about you.
The Sin: Gluttony
Rob Liefeld illustrates Artistic Gluttony perfectly to people who aren’t fans of his work: taking one detail that would be good, or even essential, in moderation but then ramping it up to obscene excess. Stronger men have muscular chests so lets give Captain America a chest the size of a washing machine. Physically attractive women are often depicted with ample breasts and shapely buttocks so let’s pump them eight times whats humanly possible and lets make sure we see both boobs and butts in stark profile on every shot at the same time, even if it requires giving the characters impossibly twisty spines. And feet? No one cares about feet!
This is the point of one of Art’s most universally agreed-upon virtues: creative restraint. It demands reminding yourself constantly that just because something worked well once somewhere, doesn’t mean even more of it will always be better. Proportionality, variety, and contrast all act as counterweights to Artistic Gluttony within a work and trying out new styles can help you avoid it in practice.
Something can also be said about being glutinous when it comes to taking in more projects than you can handle but that’s a different blog post for another day.
The Sin: Greed
We talked about this sin in the previous blog post but it may bear discussing: Artistic Greed is putting what you stand to gain from an artwork before the artwork itself. Art, after all, is always transaction whether it’s for money, acclaim, social media validation or just some kind of credit. Artistic Greed is a kind of wilfulness to take more than you’re willing to give through your art.
This, of course, is not about the old indictment against artists “selling out.” Of course artists often do it for the pay check, that’s how most career artists get to eat. This isn’t even about artists demanding hefty sums for their talent and expertise. Michelangelo managed to retire a wealthy landowner on the Pope’s dime when he was working on the whole Vatican City project. However, even if Michelangelo’s entire motivation had been to get in on the Counter-Reformation’s gilded war chest (though probably not), he was still willing to go nearly blind, painting the Sistine Chapel ceiling from a scaffold for hours on end, to produce a work of art whose tourist revenues can sustain a small country for nearly five hundred years. He could’ve done it for the money (insisting he was a sculptor and not a painter, he didn’t want to in the first place anyway) but he certainly gave his clients their money’s worth.
As for Barnett Neuman’s $44M “white-line-on-blue-and-that’s-about-it,” we’re not here to judge. Perhaps only he knows what he’s done.
The Sin: Pride
Here is the Prince of Sins, the sin from which all others supposedly stem. No, this is not about being happy about your skills or achievements. It’s not even about being inordinately happy about thinking you’re better than you actually are either. Usually, artists aren’t even very consistent with self-appraisal to begin with: we can find ourselves at the pinnacle of our field before lunch and feel like absolutely forgettable garbage halfway through dinner. Regardless of how highly or lowly we appraise ourselves, Pride is there to take us unawares. We’re even encouraged to give in to it quite often.
Pride, sometimes called Hubris, is essentially making yourself - unfettered, unchallenged, and unassailable- the only standard. It fosters Artistic Lust by making your giddiness your artistic benchmark. It reinforces Artistic Sloth by only accepting what comes “naturally” out of one’s present means. It exacerbates Artistic Envy, it fuels Artistic Wrath, it motivates Artistic Gluttony and it justifies Artistic Greed. Artistic Pride is that impetus in the human heart that drowns all other considerations - for the good of others, for the good of the work itself, or even for ones own long term good with that deafening mantra “Me! Me! Me! Mine! Mine! Mine! Now! Now! Now!”
With such a mindset, it becomes easy to inoculate ourselves from correction or critique, bringing up things like our experience, our position, our achievements or our free-spirit spiritednesses to somehow justify against any legitimate reason to change for the better. Turned around to face other people, we might become overly critical, taking every opportunity to feel personally affronted by unfamiliar tones of voice in emails or by strangers only acting familiar out of fandom.
As it turns out, the kind of humility that deals with Artistic Pride is the same kind of humility that deals with all pride: it’s learning to be able to take the hit, whether it’s owning up to a mistake or taking criticism from someone less experienced but potentially right. It’s knowing that being humbled and being humiliated isn’t all that different and that you have more to gain from criticism than praise. Finally, it’s understanding that none of us down here is the measure of all things and that there’s really no use in acting like it.