An artist is something you are, not something you do.
I first encountered this Seussian syllogism in a used-book store, where I spent an extra thirty minutes fake-browsing just so I might continue to eavesdrop on the cashier, who was expounding to his friend about Johnny Got His Gun, Dalton Trumbo’s classic antiwar novel. The cashier had a theory about the book’s protagonist, Johnny, wounded and blinded and amputated to such an extent that, while sentient, he was little more than an unresponsive trunk of meat with a rich inner life.
“So I asked myself: If this guy was Picasso, would he have been any less of an artist or less of a genius just because he couldn’t paint? And my thinking is no, he wouldn’t.” I lacked the bravery to challenge him more openly than a muttered “Oh, brother” from the stacks, choosing instead to ridicule and sell him out years later, here in print. But it’s the same reasoning: indolence as proof positive of prodigious gifts. You can arguably invent Cubism and be the very embodiment of Modernism if you get a kick out of that sort of thing. But you hardly need to, Armless Picasso. Artists are artists whether they produce or not. None of it requires much more than hanging out.
And hanging out can be marvelous. But hanging out does not make one an artist. A secondhand wardrobe does not make one an artist. Neither do a hair-trigger temper, melancholic nature, propensity for tears, hating your parents, nor even HIV—I hate to say it—none of these make one an artist. They can help, but just as being gay does not make one witty (you can suck a mile of cock, as my friend Sarah Thyre puts it, it still won’t make you Oscar Wilde, believe me), the only thing that makes one an artist is making art. And that requires the precise opposite of hanging out; a deeply lonely and unglamorous task of tolerating oneself long enough to push something out.Here's Wolfe:
The Conceptualists liked to propound the following question: Suppose the greatest artist in the history of the world, impoverished and unknown at the time, had been sitting at a table in the old Automat at Union Square, cadging some free water and hoping to cop a leftover crust of toasted corn muffin or a few abandoned translucent chartreuse waxed beans or some other item of that amazing range of Yellow Food the Automat went in for— and suddenly he got the inspiration for the greatest work of art in the history of the world. Possessing not even so much as a pencil or a burnt match, he dipped his forefinger into the glass of water and began recording this greatest of all inspirations, this high point in the history of man as a sentient being, on a paper napkin, with New York tap water as his paint. In a matter of seconds, of course, the water had diffused through the paper and the grand design vanished, whereupon the greatest artist in the history of the world slumped to the table and died of a broken heart, and the manager came over, and he thought that here was nothing more than a dead wino with a wet napkin. Now, the question is: Would that have been the greatest work of art in the history of the world or not? The Conceptualists would answer: Of course, it was. It’s not permanence and materials, all that Winsor & Newton paint and other crap, that are at the heart of art, but two things only: Genius and the process of creation! Later they decided that Genius might as well take a walk, too.