Are you an artist? (In 5 quotes)

Art is usually thought of as an object, a painting, musical score, or a book; and by extension; an artist is someone who creates these objects. But perhaps this view of art as object is too limiting.

“Art is not a thing — it is a way.” Elbert Hubbard

Hubbard opens up a far greater possibility, that art is an activity, a verb, not just an object. As a result, how we do our work is, in part, a form of artistry. While it is easier for me to think of having done a difficult procedure as an “artistic” moment, it is equally true for the care a nurse might provide or an administrator’s finessing a difficult budget decision. We all have those moments when our work gives us the same satisfaction that engaging with art provides.

Art resides in the quality of doing; process is not magic.” Charles Eames

There is a tendency to view artists, these others, as having natural gifts that allow them to create inspirational art – that artists are born, rather than created. Eames recognizes that the work of the artist is not a magical process but comes from the doing and recombination of basic skills with quality. It is impossible to deny Michelangelo’s artistry, but at what inspires such awe, that seems magical, emerges from application of basic skills. In healthcare, procedural skills are easily identified, but relational skills, empathy and generosity among others are equally important and are basic skills of our artistry that we do ‘with quality.’ There are limitations put upon our work, most frequently the limitation of time and the resulting perceived need “to multitask”, techno speak for loss of focus. Our work is constrained by varying rules, regulations and policy but that does not preclude it from being art or forbidding “artistic expression.

“The absence of limitations is the enemy of art.” Orson Welles

I would argue that the presence of these constraints is part of what lets our artistry emerge. The moment of connection in a 10 minute patient visit, the pause to sit at the bedside, the thank you for bringing all of the issues “to the table” are the work of artists. They are part of our daily activity our work “doing.” Part of our artistry lies in the ability to identify and steal these moments within a workflow that is stressful, hectic and goal driven.

“All art is autobiographical; the pearl is the oyster’s autobiography.” Federico Fellini

And I found this to be a very interesting thought, because our work is a reflection of our experience. Again, we tend to recognize this more in a work situation when we remember a past moment and apply it to a new situation or when we seek or provide guidance to our peers. But we bring all of our lives and history to work because our life experience and specifically our healthcare life experience is what we share with our patients and peers. That sharing of ourselves is what I think makes us feel emotionally drained and exhilarated by our work. 

“Art is the most intense mode of individualism that the world has known.” Oscar Wilde

This speaks to the I versus we, the team versus workgroup tensions we experience daily. It helps explain our fears of loss of autonomy, our belief that “we” could have done it better. We all have our solos, our artistic moments; what we (or is it just me) have to see is how those individual moments are woven together into a larger symphony. So I believe the answer is yes, artistry lies in our work. Sometimes the art is not great, sometimes it is a sketch, sometimes when we are lucky a symphony. But once we recognize our art, we must inevitably conclude that we are artists.