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The Last Artist on Earth

May 16, 2019

As an artist, you are driven to create art. Perhaps you create art to make a living or maybe you spend your hours making art as a hobby – but you keep coming back to it. As a creative individual, that need to create is an integral part of who you are. You simply cannot avoid the drive to create.

There have been times when I have neglected my creative side – either because I was too busy with other things or maybe I was in a bit of a slump. I definitely felt like a part of me was missing, until I did something creative -whether it was picking up the guitar, doodling during a meeting, or hitting the studio and churning out some real work. After I’d made something happen (whether it was a success or a failure), I’d suddenly feel alive again. That drive to create keeps me going.

I often think that the artist’s (our) need to create is so strong that we’d keep making art no matter what. Even if it didn’t pay, if we never achieved any kind of critical acclaim, never made it into galleries, even if our friends and family didn’t like it, we’d still keep going just to satisfy that creative drive.
I think the ultimate question for artists is, “If you were the last person on earth, would you still keep making art?” I believe that most artists would answer in the affirmative. Even without an audience, the artist still has an audience – themselves. Sometimes the audience within can be the most difficult to please.

So, today – we’re going to get a bit introspective and perhaps a bit selfish, by proposing a thought experiment. I want you to ask yourself – “If I were the last person on earth, how would my art change?” If you had no one to please but yourself, how would you approach your art? What would you do differently? Rather than the last person on earth, I suppose you could go with the “stranded on a deserted island” scenario, but that would imply that all of your art supplies would be limited to coconuts and palm leaves like the survivors stranded on Gilligan’s Island.  Being the “last artist on earth” implies that traditional art supplies might still be available.  While the thought of being all alone in the world might initially come across as depressing, you can instead imagine yourself as the last ambassador of human culture.

If you were all alone with no one to impress other than yourself, what direction would you go?  Would your work be huge and monumental- the size of skyscrapers and visible from satellites? Would you resort to tiny sketches that would fit in your pocket? The fun part about this thought experiment is that your answers will vary depending on your creative goals.  As an artist that’s been dabbling with found-object minimalism lately, I have to ask myself – how much more minimal could I get while still creating something meaningful and creative?  If I’m working with found objects, what could I do in a world where any object might be fair game for art repurposing?  

While it may be tempting to imagine myself moving toward more primal abstract work that would quickly satisfy my creative drive, I could very easily go the other direction.  Without the possibility of critical eyes or audiences viewing my work, I might consider delving more deeply into realism.  Would it matter if my figures had arms that were too long, or if they were slightly cross-eyed? With all the time in the world, I might focus more on developing and perfecting my skills.  The pursuit of self-inspired excellence might be enough to keep my motivated as I create for myself.

I also like to use the “last person on Earth” scenario when evaluating art as a viewer. I appreciate and respect almost all art, even if I don’t particularly like it myself. Of course, it can be completely overwhelming when you go to a major art museum and you are surrounded by so many wonderful works. Sometimes I’ll ponder- if I could take only one piece home with me from the museum, which one would it be? There are all kinds of ways to try to evaluate which would be the best choice- Is it your favorite piece? The one that inspires you the most? Or, perhaps the obvious answer – the one that is the most expensive.

By imagining you are the last art collector on Earth, you don’t have to worry about how your great taste might intrigue your friends, or how many millions of dollars the artwork is worth – all that matters is whether or not the piece speaks to you. I often find that when viewing art through this lens, that my taste in art almost becomes reversed. If I’m all alone on this planet with no one to impress, Robert Rauschenberg (perhaps my favorite artist) doesn’t fare too well against texture, light, and depth that you find in paintings by the Old Masters.

So, imagine yourself in this “Deserted Planet” thought experiment.  Would you still make art?  In a world where you are the only viewer and creator, what would keep you motivated?  How would you change? This imaginary scenario is good for helping you narrow your focus on your goals and helps you to simplify and distill your work to its purest essence.