The Ten Commandments of Art

The 10 Commandments of Art 

by M.D. Campbell

“Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist” – Pablo Picasso

I wanted to give you a little back story as to why I am presenting this list. At the local high school, the head of the art department is a good friend of mine whom I’ve known since college. Unfortunately, due to a medical situation he will be out of the classroom for a few months. He asked me if I’d consider taking over his classes for him during his absence. He wanted someone he could trust his students with who shared a similar view and passion for art as he has. I was humbled and flattered, and immediately said yes. 

I haven’t been in a classroom teaching in over 25 years. And even though my experience is both at the public school level and the college level, this is a very different time. Not only would I be filling in for a man these students love and trust, and would have to work hard to gain their trust for myself, but teaching high school students can be challenging especially with so many distractions like phones, friends, and social media. 

Young people are like sponges, except when it comes to anything that sounds technical, like a lecture, or like an authority figure. So, I thought it was a great opportunity to dust off my old Rules of an Artist that I used to teach 25 years ago, and skinny them down into this list of The 10 Commandments of Art. They’ve been updated to fit many areas of art, not just visual arts, but music, writing, and more. 

In the classroom, the dialogue has been interactive and my concern that students would be distracted was for naught – they were genuinely engaged in the discussion, which is why I considered this for both a video and this month’s topic. 

So, what is a commandment? 

The dictionary says that a commandment is basically a divine rule or command, usually handed down by God, which must be followed in order to live a full, productive, and morally sound life. This list is not, by any means, a compilation of divine rules, nor is it handed down by God or any deity; this list is merely my suggestion of ten basic, foundation principles on how to lead a more full, productive, and artistically sound life as a creative person. 

I typically would apply them to visual artists, but they can apply to musicians, poets, writers, dancers, athletes, and most any field which requires creativity in some capacity. Again, these are my suggestions and based purely on my own experience and opinion, so if you have any additional thoughts or questions, please let me know in the comments below. I’d love learn your thoughts on this topic, as well.

The 10 Commandments of Art. 

1. We Do Not Own Our Creativity. It is Borrowed from the Universe 

No matter what we believe or don’t believe, it’s important for us to recognize that whatever creative skills we possess can be altered or taken away, at any time, by forces beyond our control. That we exist for a very brief moment in time and that our ability to express ourselves, creatively, is merely borrowed from the creative power of the universe. This is why it is important not to waste our talent or squander opportunities to be creative. In other words, we’re born, we grow, and the time to truly be creative goes by very quickly before we expire and our life is over. I know for me, I don’t want to leave without having done everything I wanted. 

2. Art Will Not Be About Money

Those looking to get rich or famous in the arts may be in for a rude awakening. Like professional sports or music, breaking into it can take years or require an extreme amount of skill.
Most artists working in their field are barely able to make ends meet, let alone entertain dreams of making it big. Art is not about money or fame, but rather a personal creative process of exploration and discovery, and learning to speak in a language of expression to share what has been learned. A true artist will describe their need to create as more than a want, but rather an unyielding desire. For those where their art does bring wealth and fame, it’s usually in their older years after a lifetime of experience, or often, after they’ve passed away. Others, who get into the business of art, can make a lucrative living in dealing art. Larry Gagosian, owner of one of the most prominent galleries in New York, was estimated by Forbes to be worth over $925 million dollars. 

3. All Art is a Self Portrait 

Many artists do not realize that each unique piece they create is a symbolic self portrait containing great amounts of information revealing themselves in color, mood, attitude, and state of mind. Anyone familiar with Picasso, O’Keefe, or Rembrandt can immediately recognize the style with which they created their artwork. Despite the subject or the quality, the style in the artwork is reflective of the artist, themselves, at the time they created it. So, while we may not be able to see it in our own work, others looking at our work can see that same signature self-portrait in every piece we create. 

4. Creative Time is to Be Revered as Sacred

With our lives so busy between work, school, family, chores, and just running around, there seems to be little time to devote to being fully immersed in creativity these days. When we do find time, it’s usually in increments of just a few hours, if we’re lucky. Often, it’s between one activity or chore and another. This is why when we are able to find that block of time to be creative, it must be acted upon and revered as sacred time, much like meditation, prayer, or even therapy. It must be treated with respect and every moment cherished and enjoyed. It must never be squandered or wasted, or forfeited to distractions like phones, games, social media or trivial tasks that can be attended to at any time. Creativity requires dedicated, uninterrupted time, just like reading, cooking, or exercise. And the best part is, when we embrace and indulge that time, it can be an almost spiritual experience. 

5. We Will Honor & Respect Our Creativity 

In the film, A Bronx Tale, Robert DeNiro portrays a father who lends sage advice to his son by saying, “The saddest thing in life is wasted talent and the choices that you make will shape your life forever.” It’s a humbling quote that many of us can quietly agree to as we reflect on the things we spent wasting our time on throughout our lives. We first learn through life from our parents and guardians. They provide the foundations for what we will become or, in some cases, what we will not become. Later, we learn through our peer experiences and then school and work, until we are in the position to begin shaping our world to suit our own needs. I often wonder how does one decide to become a biochemical engineer while another becomes a tour guide for a local zoo? For artists, we are given a skill - a gifted opportunity - from an early age. To play, explore, create, discover and share what we learn with the world around us in a unique form of communication and expression. And that expression is worth honoring. Wasting our talent by giving it away, using it for cheap or tawdry ends, as a gimmick, or simply not using it at all, is to forfeit that opportunity and disrespect ourselves and the gift we’re given in this life. So, sure, the saddest thing in life may be wasted talent, but to me, the most unfortunate thing is talent that goes unrecognized. 

6. We Will Not Seek Perfection - It Does Not Exist 

More times that I can say, I hear people use the excuse, “I’m a perfectionist,” to explain why they haven’t finished a project, made the revisions, moved on to the next phase, or done anything to step forward from the place they seem to be locked into. As though being a perfectionist was a good thing, because, well, we’re striving for perfection. But, what if we were told early on that there is no such thing as perfection? It doesn’t exist. It is an unattainable state of flawlessness. Would we still strive for it? Would we still claim that we are perfectionists? In theater design, I’ve learned one quote which I use almost all the time: “Done is good.” I teach high school students to understand that they need to recognize when a piece they’re working on is at a point where it needs to be done – any further effort is not going to change the piece and may end up overworking and ruining it. I tell them, “Done is good,” so review it, approve it, and let it go. There are exceptions, of course, and I too, often find myself lingering too long in a drawing or painting, or even when writing. It’s very easy to do. There are times when I don’t feel I can work if my space is too cluttered because it “needs to be perfect” before I can do anything. Then I remind myself that perfection is unattainable and I just need to clear enough space to do the work. 

7. We Must Know the Rules Before We Break Them 

As an art teacher, it’s a painful experience to watch the frustration of a young artist push paint around a canvas and not understand why their painting has gone completely out of their control. “It looks horrible but I don’t know what to do!” is the most common expression. I explain to them that there are certain foundations to learn before anyone can be really good at something. A writer needs to understand punctuation, grammar, and flow before writing a story; musicians need to understand scales, chords, and tempo before making a song; and even a builder needs to understand laying a foundation and constructing a frame before building a house. Learning basic principles of art, like form, composition, perspective, value, and color can then allow an artist the understanding to create based on that knowledge, and then deviate from it if they wish. I look at the work of Escher, who excelled in the skill of drawing, but was influenced by his friends in mathematics to create some of the most stunning, optically distorted images. And someone like Picasso, who was painting realistic figures and landscapes at the age of 15, went on to create entire new forms of art by completely breaking the rules of art that he’d been taught throughout his life. One abstract painter I know told me, “I’m not really a painter, because I don’t know the first thing about painting. I just make pretty pictures using colors and shapes people like.” 

8. We Will Pay Homage. We Do Not Steal 

In our culture it is common to find musicians stealing songs and facing hefty lawsuits or companies with products that imitate other products, only to be sued for big money. We’re taught that, “Imitation is the most sincere form of flattery.” And while that may hold some truth, when someone steals your work or idea and puts their name on it, then it becomes a very different matter. So why do people believe that it’s okay to take other people’s work and use it as their own? Because, there’s sometimes a fine line between negative stealing and positive stealing. Negative stealing is when someone plagiarizes, imitates, rips off, copies, or borrows someone else’s work without giving proper credit or getting permission. Positive stealing is when someone uses work to examine and learn from, offer praise or pay homage to, use as a reference foundation for something completely different, or in the case of music, to remix as long as proper credit is given. Paying homage and giving credit is a way to use someone else’s work as a starting point and saying, “I created this unique piece of work… because I was inspired by this person’s unique piece of work.” 

9. We Will Seek to Be Original. Everything has Not Been Done. 

This old phrase simply translates into either, “I’m too lazy to think of something new,” “I have no imagination of my own,” or “I’m not really interested in exploration.” There is an entire world of new, fresh ideas to explore in our world. Looking at the world and turning it upside down can produce the most amazing results and allow us to see things in a new way. Unfortunately, there are a lot of people who are quick to give up and unwilling to see the world in that way. So, for them, everything HAS been done before. But, for those who live a life that is always moving and evolving, almost nothing has been done before and each new experience is as fresh and unique as a brand new day. 

10. We Will Be Artists, Not Critics 

As artists, we’re privileged to be able to expand our perception of the world through the language of creative expression, whether it’s visually, with words, sound, culinary, or through performance. We are able to communicate with other artists in that language to share experiences, ideas, information, and even emotions through the works we create. It’s really an awesome ability that isn’t shared in other fields that don’t speak in the language of creative expression. As artists, there’s a sort of unwritten contract that we will do our best to see past being critical of other artist’s work, whether we like or dislike it, looking to find the message in the work, instead. And that’s not always easy, especially when we really just don’t like what we’re seeing. How many times have you been to a museum, performance, or seen something online that you just did not like at all?
It’s at that moment when we’re repelled that we have the conscious opportunity to look beyond our critical reaction and seek the deeper meaning in the work.
And not for nothing, sometimes, bad art is just bad art and holds no meaning. But, while as artists, we’re able to look through another artist’s eyes to understand the language they’re expressing in, it’s the critic who simply offers an objective review of the work, overall, not based on the language of expression, but on rules, assumed intentions, materials, and their own rationale. The critic takes it upon themselves to act as the middle-man between the artist and the audience, often misinterpreting the language of expression and offering only their judgmental impression. In some cases, the artist becomes the critic, which can often lead to disputes or debates about the true intention or meaning behind a work of art. It’s more important for us as artists to avoid personal criticism of another artist’s work and to focus on understanding the creative expression, in order to be influenced - whether positively or negatively - when developing expressions of our own work. 

There are certainly more “commandments” we could add to the list, like “Honor Your Art Supplies” and “Thou Shalt Not Covet Thy Neighbor’s Canvas,” but the one’s listed here are perhaps the most important and prominently worth discussing. 

I hope this was informative and you enjoyed this month’s installment.

I’m looking forward to my experience in the classroom and hope that these Ten Commandments of Art will help aid me in helping younger students learn the language of creative expression. 

Thank you always for your generous time and God bless!