Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Artist Types

We all know that stereotypes can be big trouble. They are too often used to relegate whole groups of people to less than full membership in human society, to oppress them, rob them of their rights and of the full enjoyment of life’s blessings. But they can also sometimes point out interesting communalities and tendencies, they can inform, and they even be funny.

Of course, mocking comparisons are more easily digested when directed at self, and so I’m taking the opportunity to make an observation or two about artists, and in particular about writers and how they compare to other artists.

It’s not really a strange notion to acknowledge that particular occupations draw disproportionately from particular ‘types’. I first noticed this in life when, over a span of a couple of years, I worked in an upscale restaurant, a garden center, as a cab driver, and finally, in social work.

The waiting and bussing staff in the restaurant was full of aspiring artists, and a high portion of them were performing artists. That was a group full of flamboyant personalities who liked to talk, drink, share ideas and emote. There was always lots of to-do about romances and break-ups and other dramatic personal encounters.

After that bunch, the lot in the garden center was pretty dull. But so sweet! They were very gentle, patient and easy-going people, who appreciated that one day was much like the one before and the one likely to follow. They smiled a lot and said nice things to each other.

The cabbies, on the other hand, were a bunch of mis-matched, rootless characters, who seemed to have as little concern about where they were going in life as they did about the destination of the next fare to climb into the back seat, except that “the longer the trip, the better” was a universal sentiment that applied to both. Cabbies too liked drinking and playing, but fun in this world was more grab-as-grab-can, and relatively humorless.

And social workers? I found that this lot, with whom I’ve spent the bulk of my working life, was full of people who think and care a lot about the challenges of being human. And we tend to be as wrapped up in our own social and psychological development as in that of our clients, though we often overlook this point.

But what of the artists? They are the ones I’ve been comparing in my mind, thinking about the different temperaments and types I see among the musicians, the painters/sculptors and the writers I’ve known. Like that bunch I worked among in Ferdinand’s off of Harvard Square a long time ago. I’ve gotten to know quite a few artists over my years, and the more I experience them, the more they break down into sub-categories.

That’s like any group you want to stereotype, isn’t it? As soon as you come up with a general definition, the particulars force you to re-define, to sub-divide, to fine tune, and to then do the same with the exceptions. Again, we already know that the type-ology never really works, except on the most general level.

But here goes with what I’ve noticed about artists:

·         Musicians are the most fun! They like to have a good time, they like to ‘play’. They keep it light and spontaneous. They aren’t nearly so self-conscious as the rest of us, and don’t generally take themselves too very seriously. Never a dull moment!

·         Now, I haven’t gotten to know very many dancers or actors, but I suspect that they are the sexiest of artists. I must have to do with all that communicating directly via the body.

·         Visual artists are the most interesting. Full of ideas, attitudes and interpretations of things. Always ready for long and deep conversations. And they make for fantastic story-tellers (visual detail always being a great plus when telling a story). I think that the craftman-like working with the hands and with materials keeps the painters and sculptors pretty grounded

·         But when it comes to my own group – the Writers – I must confess that we are by far the weirdest, and probably the most annoying of artists. Yes, it’s true. I suspect that we have the highest incidence of mental illness – neuroses anyway. (And yes, I’ve paid my share of therapy bills). Of course, we’re pretty good with stories, too. But most of us are better at writing them than telling them. It’s just that we’re sooo self-conscious, so unable to stop exploring, examining and critiquing our own psyches, and then projecting what we learn into all our writing.

I just had this opinion confirmed over a drink with a friend tonight. She’s lived with two talented writers, she told me, and she’ll never live with another. The annoyance factor was just too high.

I think it comes from the fact that we writers have to spend so much time alone, inside our own thoughts and our imaginary worlds. Not a great way to develop grace in social situations.

So, there you have it! Kirby’s breakdown of artistic types. Tell me, do you think I’m right?


  1. as a fellow writer, i hope i don't annoy you too much, my friend! :)

    1. No, Mass, you're off the hook! I really enjoy your company - but I don't know if that's an endorsement, since I'm one of these oddball, nerdy writers myself! I'm sure that our tolerance for each other is higher than what others will have. (this kind of references my last post - we like others who mirror back to us our own qualities).
      But you know what your comment called to mind: I felt fine about posting this, since I was making disparaging comments about myself. It skipped my mind to think of all the fellow writers I might offend! Oops!
      And by the you think - as generalizations go - that I'm RIGHT?