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The Portrait of the artist as a millenial

by Nat Raum

march 8th, 2021

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The Portrait of the Artist as a Millenial

by Nat Raum

Critic Jerry Saltz stirred up drama on Twitter recently with a tweet that seemingly insinuated that critics have it harder than artists. “The artist,” he said, “only creates. The critic must plumb that creation & also write creatively enough to deliver the full volume of the art while also creating a thing of beauty & clarity itself.” Saltz later admitted that his choice of wording was poor and did not express his point properly, but this left me thinking about familiar messages that were drilled into my head at a young age: art is easy, and doesn’t add value to society. 

At least once a week, I remember a conversation I had when I was in kindergarten on a day when I was excited that we had art class and not science. My classmate made fun of me and implied that art was less important than science. I was always artistic; I later grew up to develop a passion for photography and ended up attending an art college. I now make my living as a graphic designer, and I maintain an art practice on the side. I think about how much heart and soul go into what I make, and I have always been drawn to not only creating but experiencing art. Despite what my classmate said, there is so much value for me in it.

I recently engaged in a number of conversations with other emerging artists whose practices span disciplines, concepts, and geographic borders. The common thread was clear: for so many of us, creativity is the only way of life, and we are incomplete without this outlet. We make art because there is something within us that drives us to continue to make art, whether it is to discuss important topics or simply for its own sake.

Photographer Larissa Ramey “primarily [photographs her] family and community, which brings [their] history and stories closer together.” The act of photographing, which Ramey describes as a “journey of transformation”, has grown almost sacred for many artists, even those who do not consider themselves photographers. The ability to capture an image gives us the ability to freeze a moment. By sheer virtue of my own practice and its associated network, I spoke to a lot of photographers, but something about Ramey’s words resonated particularly strongly with me and my own practice. If given the opportunity to speak to herself five years ago, Ramey would urge her past self to “do as [her] heart prompts her.” 

A similar sentiment came from artist Jena Ardell, who proclaims that she ”[makes] art because [she has] to.” This intrinsic desire to create creates a hunger inside the mind of an artist. “If I’m consuming much more than I am creating, I feel gross. I need to make stuff. It’s my way of quieting my brain and being able to live in the moment,” Ardell explains. As a fellow artist, I can relate to this deeply. I use my work to convey difficult emotions, existential crises, and deep dark secrets. Without this creative outlet, I would be lost.

Continuing to echo the urgency of creation is Laidric Stevenson. “I make photographs because I have to,” insists Stevenson. “I seriously couldn’t see my life where I wasn’t making photographs, where I wasn’t exploring the world, guided by not only my curiosity, but a need to communicate those things that I’m curious about to other people.” This is evident in Stevenson’s brilliant and beautiful photojournalistic works, which are clearly motivated by this innate curiosity he speaks of.

Natalia Celine Arias’s process is motivated by similar notions. She describes her practice as “[creating] worlds of [her] own to escape to.” A multimedia artist working primarily with (media), my conversation with Arias also underscored some very important points surrounding representation in the arts. “POC and especially WOC voices are simply not heard or brought to the forefront. I am looking forward to continuing that shift to bring on true change,” she says. It is largely this sentiment that led me to have these conversations with artists; so much of the art canon is dominated by white cisgender men. As a consumer and curator of artwork (and as an AFAB queer person facing similar challenges in my practice), I find myself seeking out more diversity in the work I experience.

It would seem, so far, that this urge to create is a common thread among photographers and media artists, for whom the urge is generally satisfied quickly in the form of more accessible digital media. I have always found myself drawn to other media, holding off mostly because of a lack of resources (and secondarily, a fear of failure). An artist I have always admired is Alexa Johnson, a fiber artist who allows her creative urges to manifest in the form of expanded doodles. Johnson’s work “utilizes fiber processes to slow down quick gestures viewers can spend time with, comparable to a notebook,” and like many of the other artists I spoke to, she finds that her process is a form of escapism. “[It] truly aids me in forgetting the stressors everyday seems to throw,” Johnson says.

Illustrator and surface designer Lauren Young has been making art “as long as [she] can remember.” For so many of us, this creativity is something carried with us from early childhood throughout our lives. We create because we have to, and have never known any other way. I have long rejected the notion that artists are born with innate ability, but I will say that we are more often than not born with a hunger to express and a curiosity that leads to making. I know very little about psychology and brain chemistry, but I am convinced there is something intangible that we all have in common. 

This is why I push back so hard against Saltz’s inference that artmaking is an easy process; making art comes so naturally, but it is the hardest thing I do. Artists are introspective and curious individuals, delicately weaving a human experience with the visuals our soul needs to create. There are layers upon layers to the process, and while I can appreciate Saltz’s sentiment that to critique art and do justice to the work itself is difficult, I don’t think it gives artists enough credit. In praise of artmaking, I leave you with the advice I’d give myself five years ago: don’t ever stop making.

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Meet the creative

Nat Raum

Hi, I'm Nat Raum (she/they), and I'm a multimedia artist and writer working primarily with photography, creative writing, and bookmaking. I graduated from Maryland Institute College of Art in 2018 with a BFA in photography. Since graduating, I have worked extensively in the hospitality industry in addition to my current role as a graphic designer. I am also the founder of Darkside Collective, a platform for emerging artists, and Fifth Wheel Press, a small press publishing lens-based artists of marginalized genders. When not creating, I enjoy playing video games, mixing cocktails, and watching Vine compilations.

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