15 Pieces of Inspirational Advice From Artists
Artists have a way of encapsulating the essential truths of life the way those of us without creative genius cannot. Phaidon’s latest book, Art is the Highest Form of Hope, brings the wisdom of visual artists to the public, collecting some of the best quotes from the art world.
You don’t have to be an artist to appreciate the sage advice offered by icons like Jackson Pollock or Frida Kahlo. Nor do they all apply just to making art. They’re arranged in categories—more than 40 in all—like “Advice,” “Childhood,” “Art School,” “Failure,” and “Money.” The pithy quotes were thoroughly researched by the Phaidon team and came from diaries, letters, notebooks, interviews, books, and even Twitter, ensuring a little more accuracy than the random inspirational posts that circulate the internet.
Besides the title quotation from German painter Gerhard Richter, other artists whose wisdom is collected in the relatively small volume include everyone from Vincent van Gogh and Paul Cézanne to more modern artists like Ai Weiwei, Jenny Holzer, and Theaster Gates.
Here are a few inspirational adages from the book.
1. BE ORGANIZED // EUGÈNE DELACROIX
In 1823, the French Romantic artist wrote in his journal: “Cultivate a well-ordered mind, it’s your only road to happiness; and to reach it, be orderly in everything, even in the smallest details.”
2. USE YOUR PAIN // YOKO ONO
You don’t need to go out of your way to hear Yoko Ono’s wisdom. In March 2016, she tweeted, “Don’t get rid of negative emotion, but just use it … like the salt in your food.”
3. STAND BEHIND YOUR WORK // APRIL GORNIK
American landscape painter April Gornik has some advice for the meek and self-effacing: “Don’t pretend that you’re not proud of your work.”
4. EMBRACE A LITTLE CHAOS // FRANCIS BACON
The British painter Francis Bacon, who died in 1992, was one to embrace the randomness of the world around him. New York Times art critic Michael Kimmelman’s 1998 book Portraits: Talking with Artists at the Met, the Modern, the Louvre, and Elsewhere quoted Bacon as saying, “I believe in a deeply ordered chaos and in the rules of chance.”
5. ENJOY THE RIDE // ROBERT RAUSCHENBERG
The Modern artist Robert Rauschenberg, winner of the 1993 National Medal of Arts, among other honors, advised trusting the journey. “I don’t know where I’m going but I’ll get there on time,” he told The New Yorker in 2005. He died in 2008.
6. JUST KEEP GOING // VINCENT VAN GOGH
Vincent van Gogh had similar guidance to Rauschenberg’s: “One must go on working silently, trusting the result to the future,” he advised.
7. GET A DAY JOB YOU DON'T HATE // JANE HAMMOND
The contemporary New York City artist has some decent advice for anyone who’s chafing at a soulless day job. “Find something to do that will make you some money, that can support your art, and that you can become good at so you can make a decent wage and that you don’t actually hate,” she said.
8. HAVE FAITH // GERHARD RICHTER
If you’re going to trust in the process, though, you’d better do it with a heavy dose of faith, according to Gerhard Richter. “I believe that you always have to believe,” he said in a 2011 interview.
9. BEWARE OF YOUR OWN SUCCESS // PABLO PICASSO
“Success is dangerous,” the incredibly influential Cubist Pablo Picasso said in a 1956 interview with Vogue. “One begins to copy oneself, and to copy oneself is more dangerous than to copy others.”
10. LEARN FROM FAILURE // AI WEIWEI
Most successful artists have experienced some degree of failure, whether it’s years spent trying to achieve a moderate degree of fame or a flop of a project after they do become well-known. “The only thing we can do is honestly learn from our falls,” the world-famous Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei says.
11. LOOK FOR THE UPSIDE // SALVADOR DALÍ
Ai Weiwei isn’t the only artist who has preached embracing failure. “Mistakes are almost always of a sacred nature,” according to remarks from Salvador Dalí’s diary.
12. BE BOLD // ANDREA ZITTEL
Californian artist Andrea Zittel, who specializes in installations and sculpture, also cautions against being too fearful of future stumbles. “You have to learn to feel confident about the prospect of failing because it’s so inevitable,” she said in a 2001 interview with Bomb.
13. FIND YOUR INSPIRATION // AGNES MARTIN
“Inspiration is the beginning the middle and the end,” according to abstract expressionist Agnes Martin, who died in 2004 in New Mexico.
14. LOOK AT THINGS YOU LOVE // DIANE ARBUS
All artists have different ways of sparking inspiration, but 20th century photographer Diane Arbus had this practice: “I like to put things around my bed all the time,” she explained at a lecture in New York City in 1970. “Pictures of mine I like and other things, and I change it every month or so. There’s some funny subliminal thing that happens. It isn’t just looking at it. It’s looking at it when you’re not looking at it. It really begins to act on you in a funny way.”
15. KEEP YOUR PRIORITIES STRAIGHT // ALBERTO GIACOMETTI
While the creative life might be vital, it’s important to have priorities that include the world at large, according to 20th century Swiss artist Alberto Giacometti. “In a burning building, I would save a cat before a Rembrandt,” he once remarked. And no, he wasn't saying he hated the Dutch master.
The book is $25 on Amazon.