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.


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