Unlike many of my blog posts, which directly recount art activities or musings on the workings of creativity, this one I’ll write today is grounded more firmly in my own subjective experience….specifically, my experience of what happens when I tell the average person I’m an artist.
“So, do you make money at that?” is most often what I get. That’s a pretty personal question, for starters. Inquiring about someone’s salary is usually considered gauche in our society but perhaps isn’t so infrequent a thing, and certainly in some cultures it’s a more or less acceptable question. Asking if you make money at all, however, is a whole other kettle of fish.
I used to respond frankly, explaining that some of my commitments are funded – i.e. through traditional employment/pay structure, or grants, or commissions… – and others are volunteer, to differing degrees and for various reasons. My going assumption has been (and remains) that the average person is largely unfamiliar with the field of art (though intimately acquainted with the “starving artist” trope) and is on the one hand just exercising curiosity to figure out what an arts career looks like. The problem, I have increasingly come to feel, is what happens on the other hand. Simply put, the whole thing can come across as an attack. And often enough, it is.
There are few other fields where this would even be a valid question, given the driving assumption that a job of course nets money. Unfortunately, it is true in the arts that building a career can be a struggle, even a terrific one, and so some element of this reflected in public thought is to be naturally expected. What is equally natural, but really doesn’t feel so great, is the sense of pronouncement hanging over the question. Being judged on the basis of what one earns certainly isn’t particular to art, but, coupled with the relatively arcane character of the art world, the mythically low income of the artist makes a double difficulty for a great many people to ascertain the value of the career or, more poignantly, its practitioners.
Intentional meanies are one thing. You can do very little to sort those folks out. My message is geared towards those who don’t know art and inquire in simple ignorance. Let me tell you: An artist is successful if they’re making art! And it can be hard to establish even this form of success, with opposing commitments in the direction of making money. Production can be very touch and go during the balancing act that most artists experience. But in the meanwhile, an artist through their push to make it work creates the greatest social contribution there is: they are also working on themselves, growing and changing, working on the special puzzles that drive creation in the first place. People should of course be universally valued, but the answer to the question “What good is an artist?” resides primarily in the artist’s work – and yes, I believe the mere fact of its existence is enough. The work evidences one’s mind and heart and is what the artist shares with the world – objects and ideas of beauty. Isn’t that enough? Lots of people don’t make ANYTHING, do not try, do not dare.
So my special suggestion to you is DON’T ask artists point blank if they make money at their craft. It’s rude! It can presume that an artist is only successful (i.e. a “real” artist) if they produce big bucks as well as doodles (or whatever) and can even subtly imply that the whole state of affairs is such as it is because art itself may not be all that worthwhile. In the case of the artist who doesn’t earn so much, you may be touching on a serious nerve.
That’s my rant!