Serious artist


Dear Artist,

In the jargon of the critic or art historian “serious artist” is often equated with “important.” I’ve always taken it to mean something else — someone who takes his or her work seriously.


​Marcel Duchamp, 1952
“I am still a victim of chess. It has all the beauty of art – and much more.” (Marcel Duchamp)

If you accept this latter definition then the idea of quality is left out. An artist may struggle for a lifetime of seriousness in a morass of inadequacy. Top notch work is illusive, even for us geniuses. This thought is so depressing that it has been known to drive some people into chartered accountancy.

Blessed are those who live in the minutiae of obsession, pressing passion, standing somewhere on the high moral ground of creativity, going about their business. When you add the expectation of quality the game takes on an even richer dimension: inventing, undoing, redoing — demanding and serious work for anyone. It’s so rewarding I’m sure if it were easy everyone would be doing it.

If there is one creative device that this sort of life requires, it’s the space and time to be alone with your mind. We need a private space of retreat where we can be one with our self-directed progress. This is an earned privilege — as much a state of mind as a place of being — a place to be serious.


“Fountain” 1917​
photograph by Alfred Stieglitz
“I’m not at all sure that the concept of the readymade isn’t the most important single idea to come out of my work.” (Marcel Duchamp)

Best regards,


PS: “I believe in my work and the joy of it. You have to be with the work and the work has to be with you. It absorbs you totally and you absorb it totally. Everything must fall by the wayside by comparison.” (Louise Nevelson) “You need a room with no view so imagination can meet memory in the dark.” (Annie Dillard)

Esoterica: Serious: Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968) one of the celebrated founders of Dada, contributed “ready-made art” such as a bottle rack and a urinal. The latter was exhibited in 1917 under the title of “Fountain” and signed R. Mutt. The last forty years of Duchamp’s life were largely devoted to chess.

This letter was originally published as Serious artist” on July 11, 2000.



  1. Dead serious. Utterly committed and commitable. Completely obsessed. Totally OK with that. Quality is everything- so there’s a lot less work. But the work is what’s important- and it will live on long after I’m gone. Totally detail oriented- yet able to see the big picture. Fully plugged into Universal Consciousness. The Maker and the Muse wedded into one whole being. AWAKE. Ecstatic- yet still depressed over financial absurdities. Oh well. Must keep working. Must keep creating. INSANE. No sane person would do what I’m doing. Happy with the self and the work. Sad about the cultural indifference. Care about what I care about- but don’t care anymore. Naked- yet invulnerable. This is a perfect letter. Thanks Robert.

  2. Sara, Your father’s letter comes at a perfect time, when work comes and I have committed for the long haul. I don’t need or seek praise and the work itself is a joy. Looking at creative life now, it is as consuming as the West’s wildfires and transforming as well. Thank you for this one.

  3. Thank you so much for your thoughts. I would like to add how important it is to remember artist are not decorators?
    We are story tellers, someone who can create emotional reactions and cause a person to remember past events and challenge the mind to embrace the future. We can make people weep, laugh and angry it’s all in how you tell your story through mediums.

  4. I so needed this today. You will never now how much I needed it. Thank you. I am eternally grateful for your newsletters so full of insight and wisdom.

    • I love this comment because I don’t care how menial it is, I don’t feel like I’ve accomplished anything worth while during my day unless I’ve created something. Just the opposite of what “everyone else thinks!” YAY!!

    • I tell my art students over and over again: DOING ART IS NEVER A WASTE OF TIME.
      It is soul enriching. Even if it is an abject failure, the artist has learned how to be creative in the process.

  5. Duchamp was a coward when it came to painting and drawing.

    His initial motive for doing the ready mades was to mock the high art world. This of course has been completely edited out of contemporary art history. To much money and power at stake. I am tired of the conceptualized comodification of the high art world. Time for it to die, so we can move back towards visual freedom and robust authenticity!

    • Not intending to be harsh or mean spirited, let me suggest that there is no “back”(wards) in creativity, only forward. If you are doing art that seems to be going “backwards” then really you are going forward with your interpretation of that thing that drives you. Duchamp a coward?I think he just pushed the idea as far as he could and left the rest to the next person who could push it forward some more. Progress in art ( or anything else) moves forward even if, in our lifetime, we do not see it. Cordially, Bill B.

    • I went to school at UCDavis during the 60’s when POP and FUNK ART were first being created. Wayne Thiebaud and Robert Arneson were my professors for all four years. Thiebaud’s POP PIES were just exercises that someone else grabbed and made famous for him as a great commentary about the mass production of the times. But Arneson was totally cynical. He and David Gilhooley and others, at least from my observations, were radically (and hysterically) irreverent, is the only word I can come up with. It was the start of a whole new era. They perfected their craft so the “art” became “high” but boy, did they mock the “establishment”. The more outrageous the better. It’s still that way in some circles, to the point of me seeing “high art” now as the Emperor with no clothes. I go to the SFMOMA and look at the art and compare it to the building, and then to the buildings surrounding it, and marvel at the comparison. The art doesn’t hold a candle to the architecture. Oh, well, just my two cents.

  6. being an artist ,to me is not just an occupation , or vocation . it is a lifestyle. it is what I am , not just what I do . taking one’s self seriously is not part of it . if people take it seriously enough to connect with it , then , then I guess it is serious work . this is a timeless letter and should be posted every few months to remind us of the sage words of your father

    • For me art is more what I am then what I do although doing it shows what I am. It is a calling from something bigger than me, a passion that no one can take from me. It is the lover of my life and I am devoted to it. It has brought me frustration,, criticism, but more joy and healing than I could possibly have imagined.
      I have no regret for staying with it!

  7. When I was a student at CSU Chico a homeless man (at least he looked homeless, he could have been an artist!) wandered through the art department on its upstairs level. He didn’t seem to be looking at wall art or in the classrooms to see what was going on. When he came to the end of the hall where the stairs were located, where I stood behind my easel, I saw him stop, turn around, and pee in the water fountain before he went down. Metaphorically, he had taken Duchamp’s “Fountain 1917” (aka men’s urinal) and turned it upside down. I wondered if he was making a comment about Duchamp’s work by intentionally turning a drinking fountain into a urinal. I wondered if he even knew about Duchamp’s ready made art. I’ll never know, but I prefer to think it was intentional. I wish Duchamp were alive so I could tell him what happened. he might have had a good laugh.

  8. All of the articles read are keepers, but unfortunately, all cannot be collected. This article, however; is going to be one that is held close.

    With art we can literally drive ourselves crazy. What is good, bad, right, wrong, finished, barely finished, and with this and over thinking of self-doubt. The eye of the beholder often decides what is worth keeping, and what is not.

    In the end all that is left is simple really, it’s the self-confidence that comes from doing, and the doing which comes from a passion that burns deep within us , the match that strikes the idea, the idea that we must create and finally the love for the finished product which shines through with confidence to those around us.

  9. Douglas Newman on

    Great article! Thank you, Robert! You are not gone. You have only become eternal.
    If I am the fire… into it I willingly go!

  10. My art is my way of saying, “Ev was here.” It comes from my life experiences. It in no way reflects an “ivory tower” artist — but rather one who simply wishes to express the joy of living through various media, and to share that with others.

  11. I am as blown away by the artist comments as I am the letter itself. Thank you artists of attention and intention.

  12. Raymond Mosier on

    I have always defined myself as a “serious amateur”. I paint because I have to, not to sell or make a living or chase fame. I guess I am serious because I strive to do the very best I am capable and always aspire to learn and to do better.

  13. Thank you, to all of the insightful comments. As an artist, I am most fulfilled when I’m creating or teaching. In order to give away what I know, I must practice and experiment with my painting process. One develops into the other, nicely. What a privilege it is to have the opportunity to do both.

  14. Thank you for this…I am just catching up on a few of these letters. Okay, enough procrastination – off to my studio to finish the portrait that I have been working on for weeks! This newsletter was the motivation that I needed.

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