I have been blessed with an ever-expanding circle of friends and family who are incredibly creative, talented and intelligent; all of whom, without exception, work jobs not at all or, not entirely, related to their real passion. None make a great deal of money at those jobs and subjugate their art to the spaces between work hours. I don’t easily squeeze in a few minutes of painting or poetry into the leftover spaces of the day. But increasingly we have to seize time to pursue our art.
If you’ve ever groggily reached for the nightstand lamp, fumbled for a pen and anything blank on which to write, in an attempt to capture that idea for your next story or a phrase that resonates so strongly you know it’s part of a future poem; if you stay up well past a reasonable hour for anyone working a ‘regular’ job seeking just the right combination of notes and words for your next song, then you know what I’m talking about. There are those of us who wake at 2:00 a.m. and know sleep will elude us unless we don our painting smock and put in a couple of hours at the easel. We risk our health pursuing these creative endeavors because they are what feed our souls. But they won’t feed our stomachs.
This is the real Artist’s Life. Coffee or other stimulants to make it through the day job to be able to have some remaining energy to support our creative efforts. A blog piece my husband, a literary fiction author, wrote about the recent news regarding paying for good reviews by authors of ‘best selling’ books led me to think about the difficulty of making a living through creative acts.
The ‘starving artist’ has been considered a normal state of affairs for a long time. In the political and economic climate we have today it is not just a romantic notion, for most its reality. Some believe that becoming a graphic designer, web designer, or video game developer equates to be being successful as a visual artist (and not being a sell-out) but those are really just substitutions. The only difference between them and waiting tables or working in a retail shop is a diaphanous link to creativity and while they certainly pay better they are still not what most artists want to be doing.
We want to be writing our next great book, developing our craft as a poet, composing songs that mean something (not just the formulaic songs we are inundated with today), or painting creatively without the mechanical aid. Projecting and tracing images has become so accepted that well-known artists start books by discussing the process and multiple types of equipment are available for that purpose.
Okay, so there’s an ongoing debate about whether old masters used the camera obscura to project images but that’s just a handful of artists compared to all the artists through the centuries. Besides, why do we need to produce photo-realistic art today when we have actual cameras!? When I look at Van Gogh’s Starry Night or Pissarro’s Rue Saint-Lazare I I don’t see photographic art. I see color, imagination, composition, focus and, yes, brush strokes.
I have a personal preference for fine art; art that goes far beyond what can be produced with a camera. One argument for using a projector is that it allows you to get the drawing done quickly so you can focus on what you want to be doing which is painting; more work can be produced in less time. But do we want quantity of art or originality? Why is it deemed foolhardy to want to take the time to create fine art and make a living doing so?
I have some theories on why it’s not just the economy that affects artists’ being able to make a living doing what they love. The one I’ve discussed above is the desire for art to mimic life to the point of looking like a photograph. While I respect techniques of photorealistic artists that don’t use projectors – why not just take a photograph? And don’t get me started on digital manipulation of photographs into ‘art’. Another contributing factor is the dumbing-down, activity-ramping-up lifestyles in America and time-trapping social media used to inform but not inspire or instruct.
People expect everything to be quick and amusing. If they are going to read a book it had better provide an escape not provoke thought. And it needs to be simple enough to browse through on a lunch hour, or in a waiting room, or on the bleachers while we watch our youngsters practice sports. Seems to me there’s too much playing and not enough learning going on but I’ve felt that way since I was a teenager. I saw, even then, the intense focus and funding on sports programs making music, art and scholastic studies a sideline. Understanding language and literature and being able to create an image that moves people, whether through art, books, or poetry don’t fade away with age. If tended properly those talents only get better. But if we followed the route of true education it might cause individualism to abound.
We have achieved individualism but with a different face. Today’s definition of individualism has become, “My desires are all that matter”. It is such self-absorption that makes it easier to see paying to get ahead as legitimate. Why should I be concerned about misdirecting people into thinking something is really good when it’s simply average. Caveat Emptor, right? So people buy books they are told by ‘reliable’ sources are good and miss out on reading something perhaps truly great. We see photorealistic artists getting the most exposure and generic music by voice-manipulated ‘stars’ viewed as valid. If we are constantly bombarded by the mediocre how will we ever be able to recognize greatness?
Sadly very few non-artists will ever care about these issues and the starving artist will continue to be accepted as normal. After all it is more significant to discuss drug use among athletes or compromised referees in the NFL than the downward spiral of American culture.