Apr 15 2014 10:30am

Is Art Selfish?

Oscar Wilde once said, “Art is the most intense form of individualism the world has ever known.”

And perhaps he’s right. When I’m working on my comics, I lock myself in my art studio (i.e. spare bedroom) for hours. At least once a day, my four-year-old will tiptoe down our hallway. She’ll scratch at my door quietly, like a cat. After her scratches don’t bring any response, she’ll try whispering. Then knocking. Then shouting. “Daddy?! When are you coming out, Daddy?! Daddy, can you even hear me?!”

I have to fight off wave after wave of fatherly guilt in order to keep that door closed. I know that if I open it, I will be overwhelmed by my daughter’s cuteness (it’s like a superpower) and all hope of finishing a page before dinner will be lost.

Luckily for me, my wife usually notices that our daughter’s escaped before I ever reach for the doorknob. Our four-year-old is quickly whisked away, back to her arts-and-crafts table. My daily page is saved.

But that guilt lingers. I still feel like I’m being selfish when I devote so much time to my art.

To be honest, the money helps. These days, my family depends, at least in part, on my comics income. I’m incredibly lucky. My turning point was in 2006, when my graphic novel American Born Chinese was published. The book did well, much better than I ever dreamed possible, thanks to generous readers, retailers, and librarians everywhere. That’s when my comics changed from an expense to an income.

The Shadow Hero #3It feels good to support my family through my comics. But what if 2006 hadn’t happened for me? Would my art then be pure selfishness? That doesn’t seem right, does it? Doesn’t art have some intrinsic value apart from the money you can charge for it?

Just the other day, I posed this question to my wife. “Is art selfish?”

This is the woman who has seen me at my most selfish. She thought for a moment and said, “It can be.”

She’s right, of course. My wife is both wise and succinct. Art can be selfish… but that also means can be selfless. What distinguishes the two?

I can’t give you a solid answer to that question because I don’t think one exists. There’s no distinct dividing line. But I would like to share two insights that have helped me in my own artistic life. One is from Comic-Con cosplayers, and the other from Neil Gaiman.

At Comic-Con last year, I was hanging out with my editor Mark Siegel when a group of Avatar: The Last Airbender cosplayers (the best kind of cosplayers, in my opinion) walked by. Mark turned to me and said, “It feels like there’s something religious going on there, doesn’t it? Something essential.”

It really did. Those cosplayers demonstrated the human need for story. We are a storytelling species. It’s what defines us. It’s why we’ve been religious for almost all of our history. It’s why we gather in dark places to take in stories, either as scripture or as personal testimony or as summer blockbusters. It’s why we walk around convention floors dressed in fancy costumes. Our stories are so important to us that we want to embody them, to immerse ourselves in them. We want to become them.

The arts, especially the storytelling arts, give us maps to find who we are and where we belong in the world. They teach us how to organize our lives. When you make art, you’re doing something essential.

But even though art is essential, it still can’t be all of us. Art is essential the way our livers are essential. We can’t live without our livers, but we are not all liver. (Because that would be gross.)

Artists create our art from the stuff of our lives. If our lives are completely devoted to art, then our art and our lives become two mirrors reflecting each other endlessly. (That sort of thing is only interesting for about two minutes, tops.) We become skilled artists with nothing important to say.

To aspiring writers in danger of making their lives all art, Neil Gaiman offers the following advice: “Go get a job somewhere. Go around the world. Go do stuff. Go get your heart broken. Then come back and write.”

In other words, make a life for yourself that includes art, but isn’t all art. Do what is essential, but don’t be all liver.

Gene Luen Yang’s first book with First Second, American Born Chinese, is now in print in over ten languages and was a National Book Award finalist and winner of the Printz Award. Yang’s other works include the popular comics adaptation of Avatar: The Last Airbender, and the New York Times Best-Selling graphic novel diptych Boxers & Saints. The Shadow Hero, the story of the first Asian-American superhero is his most recent graphic novel. It is being published in six e-issues, starting in February, 2014; the third issue will be available on April 15th.

Martin Cohn
1. arixan
GB Shaw from Man and Superman:

Quite unscrupulous. The true artist will let his wife
starve, his children go barefoot, his mother drudge for his living at seventy, sooner than work at anything but his art. To women he is half vivisector, half vampire. He gets into intimate relations with them to study them, to strip the mask of convention from them, to surprise their inmost secrets, knowing that they have the power to rouse his deepest creative energies, to rescue him from his cold reason, to make him see visions and dream dreams, to inspire him, as he calls it. He persuades women that they may do this for their own purpose whilst he really means them to do it for his. He steals the mother's milk and blackens it to make printer's ink to scoff at her and glorify ideal women with. He pretends to spare her the pangs of childbearing so that he may have for himself the tenderness and fostering that belong of right to her children. Since marriage began, the great artist has been known as a bad husband. But he is worse: he is a child-robber, a bloodsucker, a hypocrite and a cheat. Perish the race and wither a thousand women if only the sacrifice of them enable him to act Hamlet better, to paint a finer picture, to write a deeper poem, a greater play, a profounder philosophy!
stuart Easthouse
2. Solonomy
It is an interesting question. I remember when I joined a poetry class
in my early twenties. The class was held in a glass and steel college
and it was evening and our tutor was a soft-spoken man who introduced both poetry and writing to us all. The first challenge set was to write a riddle. Once we had managed to thoroughly confuse each other our tutor explained that writing is always a kind of a riddle and always internal.

I have since then taken this to mean that art is a kind of a secret and that the secret is a part of the energy of how a work of art works.

Secrecy and selfishness are not perhaps so closely related. I take selfishness to be the demand that all outcomes lead to oneself. Art however, though it might withdraw into the life of the artist, is often in a distant and perhaps unforeseen way intended to be something discovered by another. We perhaps need to judge the effect the art has on those others before we declare it selfish.
3. mecalexander
Interesting post--I am constantly thinking about this question. I haven't come up with an answer. Some days, the selfish nature of it rings so loud and true to me that I say, of course, it is selfish, and I feel so guilty just writing or planning a story/project. Other days, I just don't care about the question... or everything becomes rosy to me.

I like your point about how we historically are storytelling creatures, and that's just in us. Never really gave that idea much thought--storytelling being more fundemental to our lives than we think. Hmmm, I shall think on this. But thank you!
5. Yulia P
You being locked in the room with your art finishing page before dinner being a provider for your family is not more selfish than a bricklayer trying to finish the wall and telling his wife to keep his four y.old away so he could concentrate on his work. Both are doing what they can do best (and what makes them feeling a MAN) cushioned with the thought the family relies on the outcome of their activity. The question is what happens next. Are you feeling guilty finishing your work and being exhausted emotionally so you still do not want an invasion into your SELF. Can you not give that quality time which defins their world to your child and wife? The turning point is when your family turns into annoying creatures. :) holding you back from "real" life which is in your art which is pure you which is an ultimate form of selfishness. :)
6. Shannon Tao
Thank you for posting! Your last words of advice were quite beautiful. I think for me at this point, I have so much of the world to discover and experience before I can devote myself fully to producing art.


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