Here’s to Amateurs

Don’t fake it till you make it. Just make it.

They say, “fake it till you make it.” If you act like a pro, you’ll soon be recognised as one. But if you wouldn’t do what you’re doing for free, why do it at all?

Professionalism is the benchmark of validation in the creative sphere, yet creatives often find themselves compromised by going pro (or trying to), and true creativity often goes unrecognised because it isn’t produced by a professional. That’s not to mention the countless creatives who never reveal their work to the world for fear of embarrassment.

It’s a shame we feel the pressure of going professional or feel like failures if we have to hold down a day job to pay the bills.

The work of art above was painted by an amateur. It wouldn’t be for another 16 years that its author, Henri Rousseau, would be recognised as a professional.

The painting depicts a scene that is exotic and remote, yet evocative and also enigmatic. Is the tiger about to surprise its prey? Or is it itself surprised by the flashes of lightning that streak through the darkened sky beyond?

The tiger is a fierce creature, and we can be fierce too. We can be vulnerable, so too can the tiger. I can’t help but feel for it, crouching under the lashing rain, lightning and booming thunder. It seems to resist the diagonal pull of the rain and the heaving leaves and branches toward the bottom right of the painting.

It’s one of the jungle scenes that Rousseau, the great “outsider” artist, became an insider for.

Rousseau painted many jungles but never left France his entire life. He joined the army as a young man (to escape prosecution for theft) and claimed that he served with the French expeditionary force in Mexico. But the claim was a lie. Rousseau had never stepped foot in a jungle. He copied animals and figures from children’s books and visited botanical gardens and zoos in Paris.

The foliage of his jungles is a mishmash of house plants and impressive botanical specimens. Huge fronds and leaves are over-exaggerated because Rousseau assumed plants in the fearsome jungle were big, but he had no real idea of how big.

The tiger was likely copied from a childrens book. The exact same tiger, albeit reversed as a mirror image, appears in another painting. The teeth are all the same size and type — all canine teeth — it’s an imaginative guess at what the open jaws of this fearsome creature would reveal. Look how its back foot seems to awkwardly float on top the exaggerated grass.

But it’s still a beautiful painting. Full of mystery and wisdom. Ignore the technical faults and naive mistakes, just look at the meticulous layering of greens, and those bright flashes of teeth and lightening — the brightest parts of the painting. The ropes of rain were formed by trailing strands of silver paint across the entire canvas. The heaving wind of the tempest is palpable. Who cares about accuracy when the story told is so powerful?

In 1908, Pablo Picasso — at the time a 27-year-old rising star — invited 63-year-old Rousseau to a party at his studio in Le Bateau-Lavoir, the foundry of some of the greatest art produced in the 20th century.

Amid much drinking, Picasso presented him with a giant medal made of cardboard which bore the hastily painted inscription “The World’s Greatest Artist”. Rousseau proudly wore the medal, put his arm over Picasso’s shoulder and without irony announced, “We are the world’s greatest artists.”

There were and are many others like Rousseau. Passionate amateurs. 99.9% of them will live and die in obscurity. Rousseau got lucky because Picasso picked up one of his paintings at a market and admired it.

Thanks to Picasso, Rousseau is no longer ridiculed by art critics. Instead, they take him seriously. After the death of his wife in 1888, Rousseau gave up his day job and lived in near-poverty at the service of his art. It took decades for the adulation to come.

But fame isn’t the point. The point is that Rousseau did what he did because it gave his life meaning and purpose. Too many people think that the validation that comes from professionalism is the meaning you need.

The other great amateur I’ve written about recently is Michel de Montaigne. Montaigne wrote for himself. He revelled in his amateurism. He coined the word “Essay” from the French verb “to try”, his writings were “tries”.

He carved “What do I know?” in his panelled library just to remind himself of his own ignorance. He admitted to mistakes, to spelling and grammar errors in his writing. He was modest, but his modesty was honesty and honesty is what we love his writing for. He wrote:

“These writings of mine are no more than the ravings of a man who has never done more than taste the outer crust of knowledge.”

Knowledge and Understanding

I am a trained historian. I have a PhD. I learned to write with a great deal of rigour, using extensive footnotes according to conventions of style. I wrote a lot of complicated academic papers, full of the latest theory trends and long words.

But no more. I have no concern with theory, and I stopped with the rigour and the long words. I no longer use citations and footnotes. I just want my reader to trust in the meaning of what I am trying to convey, not to trust my sources.

That’s not to disparage academics and professional writers. We need people to write rigorous books, papers and articles. This is how we build knowledge. Knowledge is important.

But I’m personally not interested in “knowledge” anymore as a writer. What concerns me is not what people think about but the way they think about it. It’s about the form, not the content, of thought. I want to be more like Rousseau and Montaigne, I want to speak the truth of the amateur.

I’m an amateur and I like it like that. Maybe the occasional typo pops up, or the occasional misspelling. When I’m reading other writers I never scoff at their making the same mistake.

Rousseau had little knowledge of how to make art. His perspectives are all messed up, his figures are anatomically incorrect. But he understood what makes a good painting.

Henri Rousseau, Self-portrait, 1890. (source: Wikipedia)

Montaigne and Rousseau never changed the way they worked to be validated by critics, publishers and agents — the gatekeepers of professionalism. The validation was welcome when it came, but they didn’t need it. The focus is on the process, not the outcome.

Look at the determination, the artistic nobility, in the eyes of Rousseau’s self-portrait above. Not many self-portraits say “I am an artist” like this one does. Rousseau and Montaigne didn’t need to be chosen because they chose themselves.

Montaigne wrote:

“Ambition is the humour most contrary to seclusion. Glory and tranquility cannot dwell in the same lodgings.”

To be an amateur is to believe in yourself without the safety ropes of praise, to risk humiliation, to be driven by a hunger for what you need most, to subject yourself to scrutiny, to feel vulnerable. Like a tiger in a tropical storm.

Thank you for reading.

The lessons of philosophy and history, their practical benefits for your life and work. Feel free to get in touch:

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store