Busy Being Born
an Essay by Daniel Botkin
Prenatal Self Portrait by Daniel Botkin
Spring. A time to be born. Artists are born into this world in embryo form. They have to grow and develop and then be artistically born again. In the 1960s Bob Dylan sang, "He not busy being born is busy dying." About a decade before Dylan sang his famous line, Erich Fromm wrote Creativity and Its Cultivation. Fromm stated that one of the conditions for creatvity is "the willingness to be born every day." About a decade before that, Willa Cather wrote: "Every artist makes himself born. It is very much harder than the other time and longer. You must bring the artist into the world yourself."
I have watched my wife bring seven children into the world. Each time it has been hard and long. As I struggle to stay "busy being born" artistically, I find that this, too, is hard and long.
When my wife was pregnant with our first child, someone gave us a copy of A Child Is Born, a book filled with Lennart Nilsson's fascinating photos of life inside the womb. By looking through this book, one can see the various stages of growth and development that a baby goes through in the womb. In a similar way, by looking through books that show retrospectives of the works of individual artists, we can see the various stages of artistic growth and development that individual artists go through. If we think of artistic growth and development as a sort of in-the-womb experience, we can see some interesting parallels in the development of a baby in the womb.
The first stage is the initial conception, when the seed is planted into the ovum. This is where the mystery of human existence begins. The biological facts only tell us the source of the biological part of the person, the body. The source of the spiritual and psychological part of the person remains a mystery. Equally mysterious is the question of why some people have a burning desire to become artists. Who planted that idea into our minds, anyway? What is the source of the stubborn determination that makes a person willing to sacrifice and suffer in order to become an artist, even if the artist's work does not bring fortune or fame?
Maybe some artists can answer those questions on a personal level, but I can't. Ask me why I wanted to become an artist, and I will tell you that I don't have a clue. For me, it was an inborn, intuitive desire that manifested itself as soon as I was old enough to hold a crayon or pencil. (I still have a pencil-and-crayon drawing that I did in 1952 when I was three years old. I barely remember drawing it, but my mother told me I titled it "Indian Boy With Freckles.") To me, the conception of artistic desire in the soul is as mysterious as the conception of human life in the womb.
After conception, the organs, limbs, and bones begin to develop. All these parts of the body have to develop enough to enable the baby to live outside the womb. Everything happening inside the womb is in preparation for the baby's life outside the womb, because the baby's ultimate destination is outside. "Outside" is where the artist belongs, too. In a 1984 interview in Artlines magazine, Sam Scott said to artists, "You have to understand very clearly that your position is on the outside. If you want to be an artist and have the cake, you've got to forget it... The fact is that the artist is not meant to 'fit'... Unfortunately, where we fit is at the edge, and you can be pretty damn unhappy until you recognize that fact."
The preparatory in-womb development of the baby's organs, limbs, and bones can be likened to the artist's preparatory training and education (whether formal, informal, or self-taught) while the artist-in-training develops the technical skills, direction, and style that will allow the artist to emerge and live on the outside.
Babies have to emerge when they get too big to live inside the womb. Artists eventually have to emerge, too. They eventually reach that point where they know that nothing is going to hold them back. They are going to be artists. Some will be great artists and some will be mediocre artists. Most will be somewhere between greatness and mediocrity, but they will be artists. Just as some babies are beautiful, strong, and healthy, while others are plain-looking, weak, and sickly, so some artists will do great works and become rich and famous, while others will do mediocre works and remain poor and unknown. But they will be artists nonetheless.
Let's strive for greatness. But whether we ever achieve greatness or not, let's stay busy being born. Otherwise we'll be busy dying.
The above essay by Daniel Botkin was published in Art Calendar, a business magazine for visual artists. The author grants permission to reprint his essay with the following conditions: The essay must be reprinted in its entirety without any form of editing and must be attributed to Daniel Botkin.