Is painting a selfish activity?

I was talking with a friend today who reflected that painting is a selfish activity. As a form of self expression, painting tends to be a solitary pursuit, takes a lot of concentration, and in the near term, it might not seem to be in direct service to anyone but the artist. Perhaps it will serve a collector who buys the finished painting, or brighten a wall in a public space, but the reality is that few people will see most paintings. Is it OK that some paintings are probably not only by, but for the artist herself/himself? Sure, why not.

Painting is not an act of service as is emergency room care is (a special shout out to you ER professionals!), or feeding the hungry, or caring for little children, or seeing to the needs of an elderly loved one. But it does offer a service by providing a way to connect people, appreciate our amazing world, communicate ideas and emotions, provoke thought, evoke a memory, or delight the eye. A painting can compel the viewer toward some needful action, or lead to a change of perspective. A painting could even transport a viewer to some spiritual realm, I can think of paintings that did that for me. No question that people benefit, each with our unique sensibilities, from the art of others in myriad ways.

None of this matters to the painter who feels that s/he must proceed with painting whether the activity is blatantly selfish or not. The artist is served by the act of painting, receiving pleasure from the pursuit of an idea, handling of the paints, standing out in the open air, perhaps even producing a satisfactory painting. Reflection upon the resulting painting could uplift or challenge artist and viewers alike.

So then, is painting a selfish activity? Yes. For now, I’ll put my emphasis on the act of painting and on the eventual end product, and not worry too much about the impetus that led me to start the painting. Motive may be revealed in the exercise, or not. If I wait to identify my motive before I can begin, or wait until I’m not being selfish, then I might not start. If I’m going to get somewhere with this painting exploration, then I must at least START.

Alison C. Dibble | June 15, 2020

View from the overlook in the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument, by Alison C. Dibble, oil on Raymar panel 18 x 24 inches, sold
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