Last week I described 12 roles that artists can play in society. This week I’d like to continue that discussion. Most artists never think through how they want to relate to their society or what role they want to adopt as an artist. Rather, they fall rather by accident into one role or another or into one relationship or another.

Let’s say that you want to prove the exception and mindfully choose your relationship to your society. Here are nine tips for doing that:

  1. First, think through the many roles that exist and that are available to you. If you agree that, as a general principle, gaining awareness is a large part of your job, then this is an excellent place to pay some specific attention and gain some specific awareness.

You might run through my list of roles or you might think the matter through in your own way and come up with some categories of your own that you think capture the opportunities available to artists today.

Try not to decide right off the bat which roles attract you and which roles repel you—as a first step just think through the nature and meaning of each category. You’ll learn a lot just by thinking through what a contemporary classical artist might look like, what a contemporary society artist might look like, what a contemporary revolutionary artist might look like, and so on.

  1. Second, for those roles that intrigue you, think through the pros and cons of adopting each role. Let’s take just one. Let’s say that the small business artist model intrigues you. You would calmly and carefully articulate the pros and cons of being that sort of artist.

The pros might include that you can keep your distance from society and mass market concerns and focus on those elements of society—those customers—who get what you are doing and who want what you are doing. Adopting this role, you could retain control of your product and your marketing efforts.

The cons might include that, just like the owner of the corner restaurant who has to come in at four a.m. to take deliveries and doesn’t close up until midnight, the nature of this role might have you doing business all the time, including during those times you would otherwise be doing your art.

For each role that intrigues you, do this patient, difficult work—you will learn a lot about how you want to be as an artist.

  1. Third, for those roles that intrigue you, try to think through if the role actually intrigues you or if it is resonating because of some old family messages, powerful family rules, or anything else in your history.

You may, for example, be attracted to the role of medieval artist and the idea of service but only because you have a religious upbringing that stressed service and because that religious upbringing included churches, whose atmosphere remains with you and therefore naturally makes the role of medieval artist attractive to you.

You may be attracted to a role like bohemian artist because you are still rebelling against your controlling parents; you may be attracted to a role like mass-market artist because of the messages you got at home about the importance of money; and so on. Make sure that the roles that intrigue you actually intrigue you and aren’t calling to you just because of some old associations or dynamics.

  1. Fourth, for those roles that intrigue you, think through which are likely to feel like meaning opportunities and which, even though they come with significant pluses, are unlikely to generate the experience of meaning.

For instance, the role of classical artist with its focus on formal beauty may speak to something in you. But you might, as you think the matter through, begin to see that any art you create from that place might appeal to your aesthetic sense but leave you intellectually dissatisfied and existentially cold.

Certain roles may seem more congenial to you or more natural to you than others, and comfort and naturalness certainly matter. But you want to check in with yourself to make sure that the role or roles you adopt actually serve your meaning needs.

  1. Fifth, for those roles that intrigue you, try to gauge which ones best match your values and your principles. You may find many reasons for choosing a role that focuses on the quality and the nature of the art you make, roles for example like classical artist or Renaissance artist, but when you think about it you may discover that such roles and such art do not really support your values and principles.

To put it aphoristically, you may want to be a Renaissance artist but need to be a revolutionary artist. You may conclude that your art must be the way you promote your values and your principles. On the other hand, you may decide that it’s perfectly proper to be a Renaissance artist, just so long as you support worthy causes also—that is, you may decide that your art does not need to carry an activist burden. You can only come to smart decisions about these matters by thinking them through.

  1. Sixth, think through the issue of money. You may decide that you need your art to make money and that you need to choose your artist role and your artist products based on monetary calculations. Not that those calculations are anything like easy to make: which is more likely to sell, beautiful flowers or something grotesque and painful to look at? It isn’t at all easy to answer such a question, as beautiful flowers are likely to sell more easily in general, but perhaps only at air fairs and for low prices; while grotesque art that crashes through and makes your name may make you an art scene darling.

However, despite the reality of this complexity, you can think the matter through and see if there is a way to tweak a role that you want to adopt so that you have a better chance at an income. For example, you might decide that a revolutionary artist can also be a mass-market artist and that you are going to figure out how to do that marrying!

  1. Seventh, make a choice. Your choice is necessarily tentative since you don’t really know if it will prove a good fit and because, as we’ve discussed before, genuine process involves a lot of not knowing. But you will want to commit to your choice even though you are holding it as a tentative choice. This is the same full-bodied but tentative commitment that we give to our creative projects, full-bodied because we really want to bite into them, tentative because a given project may have no life and no juice and will have to be abandoned.

Choose a role or roles that you think will really suit you on the several levels that we just identified—one that you suspect will be able to meet your meaning needs, that relates sensibly to your principles and values, and isn’t a mere ghost or shadow from the past, and so on—and tentatively and whole-heartedly commit to it.

  1. Eighth, think through what might serve as a test of the rightness of your choice. What experiment might you try, what first steps might you take, what creative projects might you pick?

Say, for example, that you decide that you want to try your hand at some revolutionary art and to see if the role of revolutionary artist really suits you. What first step might you take as a fledgling revolutionary artist? What actual project might flow from that decision? Imagine, returning to our example of flower painting, that you have always painted beautiful flowers—what will you paint now?

Will you paint flowers in a revolutionary way? Will you paint a bouquet of flowers that’s informed by revolutionary iconography? Will you change your subject matter entirely? These are the sorts of questions and challenges that naturally follow from your decision to mindfully choose your artist role and your relationship to society.

  1. Ninth, begin the process of trying out your new artist role. Bring some energy, courage, diligence, and your other personality strengths to this task.

Remember that it is a process with all the attributes of process: that you won’t know a lot of time, that you will make mistakes and messes, that you will doubt what you are doing and hate what you are doing some portion of the time, and so on.

Having made a useful decision that may pan out beautifully does not mean that you can avoid process just because you made the right decision. All that you’ve done is made new, hard work for yourself. Mindfully choosing your artist role and your relationship to society is the beginning of the process, not its end point.


Dr. Eric Maisel is the author of 40+ books including Life Purpose Boot Camp, Rethinking Depression, and Coaching the Artist Within. In 2015 he will be launching a Future of Mental Health initiative. You can learn more about Dr. Maisel’s books, services, trainings, and workshops at Contact Dr. Maisel at And don’t forget to attend the free Future of Mental Health virtual conference in February:


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