Priceless advice On Being An Artist in Michael Craig-Martin's new book

21 May 2015

In some circumstances, calling a book On Being An Artist would seem pretentious and pompous, but if anyone knows about being an artist, it’s Michael Craig-Martin. Over his extraordinary career he has studied with Chuck Close and Richard Serra, met the likes of Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns, John Cage and Charles Saatchi, had work shown at Tate Modern, the Pompidou Centre and MoMA, and taught some of the YBAs’ leading lights including Damien Hirst and Sarah Lucas.

His recently published book is an erudite, insightful and hugely readable collection of his own writing; 150 short essays ranging from a couple of paragraphs to a few pages covering practical topics On finding a mentor, or On commercial galleries to more theoretical musings On Catholicism and On ideas. It’s interspersed with his artworks and some fantastic photographs from down the decades both of, and taken by Michael – him as a child, installing an exhibition, his studio. All in all this is an intelligent, entertaining and inspiring journey into the mind of one of the the leading artistic figures working today.

Thanks to the publishers Art/Books, we are delighted to be able to reproduce three extracts from the book below…


Michael Craig-Martin: Always Now exhibition, Kunstverein
Hannover, 1998

By far the most important characteristic for anyone wanting to be an artist is desire: the passionate, inexplicable desire to make art. This desire is more important than talent. To have enviable talent but qualified desire is not enough; to have little obvious talent but overwhelming desire may lead to success. Desire can be encouraged but not taught. In my experience, a driven person lacking any recognisable talent may, out of necessity, invent a way to work at which they excel. This is what we call originality.

Pleasure in doing is the essential basis for making art. When you love what you do, no effort is too great, no time too long. We are all capable of doing a lot of things for a while, but not for long. Art can only come from what we are able to sustain.

I would never advise anyone to become an artist. If you have another option, take it. Most people who end up as artists rarely feel they had an option.

Art is the only endeavour I know that models itself around the abilities, experiences and needs of each individual who engages in it. It is entirely accepting, respects everyone for who they are, offers no strict rules of right and wrong. It enables one to turn everything about oneself, one’s limitations as well as one’s strengths, into advantages. Much of the best art has been made by those who failed to succeed in other more conventional activities.

For art to work for you, you must work at it in the ways that give you the greatest satisfaction, that reflect your interests and your passions, that occupy your time without effort, that change with you as you change over time.

Don’t try to be too inventive. The more your art reflects you, the more it will speak to other people. If you are not sure what you should do, just do whatever comes into your head or catches your imagination. Gradually, it will lead you to where you should be. Making art is a path not a destination.


Michael Craig-Martin: Untitled (bulb),

There is nothing that happens in an artist’s life – whether good or bad, no matter how dramatically important or apparently trivial – that cannot be turned to effective use in their art. Any crummy part-time job, any minor incident, any childhood memory. Other people can read a book for pleasure or enlightenment. An artist may read a book and it can alter the whole course of their life’s work. Artists are unusually vulnerable to the world in this way. And they, in turn, use their work to seduce others into valuing what they value.

After many years of teaching, I came to believe that the key to a student’s success lay not in the work itself but in the relationship between the student and the work. My own work has the character it does, looks as it does, deals with the issues it does not just because of decisions I have made but because it comes naturally to me, and although I am not its subject, it is a manifestation of me. If someone seeks to make work like mine, my work will always be better, because it cannot come from them as it does from me. Steal from me yes; copy me no.

It is not only necessary to recognise and use one’s strengths, whatever they may be, but also one’s weaknesses and limitations. I have watched many students turn what in other circumstances would be considered a disadvantage into an advantage in their art. Art gives us permission to turn the tables.

Students often feel under pressure to work in a certain way. Sometimes this pressure comes from outside – from a teacher, a parent or a peer. More often it comes from within, in a form of self-censorship, anxiety about self-image. Students worry that what they really want to do is too banal, too obvious, too weird, too unexplainable, too uncool. I have had floundering students admit that they had done secret work at home that they would never bring to school or show anybody because it embarrassed them. Invariably, this work is better than the ‘serious’ work done at school because it is born from a passionate engagement the other work lacks. The nature of the relationship between the artist and the work is always expressed in the work. The expressive power of art should never be underestimated.


Michael Craig-Martin: Umbrella


Michael Craig-Martin: Installing Reading (with Globe)
at Tate Gallery, 1981


Michael Craig-Martin: Eye of the Storm


Michael Craig-Martin: On being An Artist

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About the Author

Rob Alderson

Rob joined It’s Nice That as Online Editor in July 2011 before becoming Editor-in-Chief and working across all editorial projects including, Printed Pages, Here and Nicer Tuesdays. Rob left It’s Nice That in June 2015.

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