“The essence of all beautiful art, all great art, is gratitude.” –Friedrich Nietzsche
In this month of gratitude, with Thanksgiving having just passed (happy belated Turkey Day, by the way), I thought this was a perfect moment to talk about the role gratitude plays in art.
Gratitude is defined as the quality of being thankful; readiness to show appreciation for kindness; readiness to return kindness. By definition, gratitude is not just thankfulness or gratefulness—it is indebtedness, recognition, and acknowledgement.
Whether you’re a fan of Nietzsche or not, his above quote offers a deeper understanding of art and how to make meaningful work if you’re an artist.
Gratitude is an essential aspect of any artistic work. Without this appreciative expression, art is empty. Truly excellent art, the kind that speaks to people, must speak about what is owed to have created the work in the first place—what experience contributed to every brush stroke, every lyric or line of prose, every scene, every melody, every choreographed movement…
We all face vastly different and yet similar experiences. And it goes without saying that each of us has a unique perspective on the events of our own lives and those of others. It is through the painting, or the film, or the ballet that an artist has taken the experience (whatever pain or joy) and turned it into an expression of acknowledgment and recognition.
The most beautiful song returns kindness by divulging a truth about the world—a reflection of dark days, an account of first love, whatever experience brought that work into existence. Without this gratitude, this indebtedness levied, the art speaks of nothing. It is vapid, pointless, and fails to speak the emotional language of humankind.
By my inference, this is why people say great art is “inspired.” It comes from someplace; it comes from that specific event, seen from that unique point of view. This inspiration, manifested through art, is the artist’s way of recognizing what has happened. Perhaps not explicitly saying “thank you,” but certainly possessing the quality of thankfulness – because without that experience, the work of art could not exist in the same way.
Becoming a Better Artist Through Gratitude
Gratefulness in art is not about saying please and thank you. It is about finding stories from your own life or others, real or mythological, and creatively acknowledging their influence. On a canvas. Through a lens. Into a microphone. Whichever medium you’re drawn to.
There’s a prevalent saying about writers in particular—write what you know (a novice piece of writing advice, not necessarily bad, that has often been misunderstood or taken too literally—but that’s for another blog). To me, the core message of this advice is the same thing as saying, write from a place of gratitude. It’s about speaking a truthful emotional language, which is undoubtedly, nearly always, born out of human experience.
So if you’re ever creatively blocked, simply acknowledge an experience.
I say “simply,” but this is hard to do sometimes. More challenging than you might think. Just stop and take a moment to reflect. Reflect on your own life, on someone else’s life, on a cultural event—anything that has a visceral impact when it comes to mind. Take that seed of inspiration and acknowledge its truth as you view it. Whatever it is, if you’re thinking about it, it has shaped you in some way. Pay back that debt. It may not be the whole artistic piece, it may only be part of the piece. Your expression may be made up of a thousand experiences, a thousand truths as you’ve known them, and as you now acknowledge them.
By the time you’re finished, you may be overflowing with gratitude. And that is something beautiful. Something truly great.