Tuesday, February 06, 2007

The Arts as a Profession.

Having covered some of my thoughts about the dealer/gallery owner side of the art world, I thought that I'd formulate a post about the artist's role in the scheme. Most artists would like to be above and beyond financial considerations. If they are working purely for the love of creating, then this is a viable position. Even so, creators need to have the time and resources to pursue their chosen medium. Paintings, canvasses, inks, prints, cameras, clay, tools, brushes... none of this stuff is particularly cheap. Depending on the nature of the work, artists may need a significant space to work in, away from the distractions of routine life.

Obviously, if an artist does not intend to show or sell his/her work, (s)he can avoid some of the more thorny issues of economics. Some people just give away their stuff to family and friends, while others horde their work at home. But the lures of public recognition and success are strong, and the human impulse to dream is almost irrepressible. There are elements of purity and romanticism in the image of a working artist that are had to resist. Who doesn't want to construct the terms of their own life, be their own boss and get paid for self-expression?

If my son came to me and told me he would like to be an artist, I would likely respond by suggesting that he try to become a professional athlete instead. While this sounds ludicrous on the face of things... give some thought to the odds before dismissing the idea. There are at least four major league sports in the United States today. In each there are over six hundred athletes making an average of over a million dollars a year. If you add the multitudes of minor league athletes who make a living wage off of their respective sports, you can add thousands to the initial number. How many artists do you think make a living wage (let alone a million a year) purely from their art? How many do you know of in your city? If I had a daughter instead, I might suggest she try modeling (or maybe stripping?).

I would certainly hesitate to discourage my child from pursuing art. There is much to be gained from a life in the arts, even if it is nearly impossible to make a living from it. But I would emphasize the importance of some kind of backup plan. Getting an MFA can land you a position in arts education. While there is plenty of competition for proffesorial positions, there are still a fair amount of spots available to teach arts in the public schools. With summers and holidays off, a secure job and benefits, the life of a high school arts teacher looks pretty good. Failing that there are opportunities to pimp your artistic abilities in commercial fields such as advertising, illustration or design. The downside of these options is that they may sap the vital crative juices away from the artist who would like to complete work on their own terms and on their own time.

The most likely scenario for the aspiring artist is that (s)he will have to work a job to support his/her "avocation". Get used to the idea of preparing a convoluted answer to the ubiquitous question, "So what do you do?" And you may someday find yourself on the opposite end of your expectations... you may find fame in something other than art... like frustrated creators Adolph Hitler and John Wayne Gacy.


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