The Myth of the Professional Artist

This essay is a fairly compelling and representative example of the “it’s hard to be an artist” genre of essays.

First of all, it’s true, and I’m sympathetic. My labor has been exploited as both a creative person and as a lifter-of-heavy things, in the past. Which is not to say that I’ve had it rough – merely that I’ve paid some dues, that I feel qualified to comment on this subject.

I also succeeded, via good fortune, plenty of privilege, and a certain amount of savvy, in building a career for myself wherein I get paid a relatively comfortable wage to make videos for individuals, nonprofit organizations, and corporations. Relatively comfortable meaning $30,000-$50,000 a year, before taxes, for the last half-dozen years or so. In other words, I have a day-job.

I also make art, and I consider my artwork completely separate from my video career. My art involves video, and 16mm film, and various other media forms. I do not ever expect to make any money from my art. Let me say that again: I do not ever expect to make any money from my art. I consider this, without exaggeration, to be the key to my happiness as an artist, and as a professional adult human in the world.

In fact, I believe that my art will always cost me money. I will always pay to make art – for materials, for other people’s time, for training and continuing education. Art exists as a part of my budget exclusively in the column of liability, cost, subtraction. When occasionally I win a grant or (maybe someday) a fellowship, that money will defray the cost of the art I’m making, but it will never pay me to live. The net impact to my finances of my existence as an artist will always be negative, I believe, for the rest of my life.

These categories aren’t arbitrarily determined – they came about as the (continually evolving) result of a lot of trial and error on my part, and as the result of years and years witnessing lots and lots and lots of suffering experienced by my friends and myself, in the name of Art.

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I firmly believe in the value and necessity of art, in its importance to our daily lives, in its centrality to meaningful life in the world. And, at the same time, I think that the concept of the “professional artist” is dubious at best.

Ever since I started working in film and video, I’ve been around this conversation, this handwringing about the status of the “professional artist.” Artists worry about whether or not they’re allowed to call themselves artists, whether they’ve earned the title, or whether it’s merely a hobby.

A Professional Artist is supposedly someone who earns their living by making art, who doesn’t have a day job, who doesn’t do anything else. But I find this definition problematic. I know people at all strata of the film industry, in the worlds of literature and fine art and dance, and I don’t know anyone who doesn’t have some kind of job. Sometimes the job is making a product that could be considered a work of art, such as a big film project or dance project – but there are still grant applications to write, funders to pitch, producers to negotiate with, donors to woo, nonprofit boards to appease.

A big-deal film director gets out of bed in the morning with a to-do list, and is stressed out about some important meeting, just like you and me. It’s possible that all of this work is towards some amazing and wonderful art film, but the creative part of the day is still a fraction of the overall work. And there’s still buying and selling and negotiating to do, before, during and after the creative part.

The one exception to this that I have found to the necessity of a job is economic class-based: there are indeed Artists in the world who don’t work, who only make art – but they are in fact underwritten entirely by a wealthy family, a well-compensated corporate spouse, or by wealthy friends-of-the-family. When one looks closely at the boards and benefactors of some artists, one often finds many familiar, familial names recurring. I doubt this is a coincidence.

I think there’s a very damaging mythology around the heroic archetype of the Professional Artist, which I have certainly found enchanting at different points in my life. This is the person who is so brilliant and creative and prolific that they just get up in the morning and follow their genius, their muse, and the world is so compelled by the work they create that people spontaneously rally around them and support them, funding their projects unquestioningly, meeting their financial and logistical needs with a gracious smile.

This seductive narrative is essentially a secular form of the religious fantasy of salvation, of heaven on earth – being so creatively fulfilled, loved and supported that one is allowed to transcend the toil of daily life.

And, I don’t believe it for a minute. I think that people who do work in the arts – emphasis on the word work – have a vested interest in embodying this mythology to the best of their ability. It’s just good marketing to present yourself as that transcendent figure, because it must mean you’re a really good artist, right? You can complain about your struggles to close friends and family, but professionalism dictates that you sell yourself as a pure, brilliant soul, above the petty burdens of the day-to-day. You don’t get stuck in traffic, you don’t burn your tongue on pizza – your life is frictionless and sublime.

It makes sense to me that people at the higher echelons of the world of artists would follow this script; in fact, I suppose it’s a prerequisite to achieving this level of success. But the real damage is done several steps down the food chain, where people ingest and believe these fictions, these mythologies about what life is like for a big-deal director, sculptor, choreographer.

The fantasy of the Professional Artist takes up a lot of mental space, sucks up a lot of emotional energy, and gets in the way of the day-to-day realities of actually making art, realities which are glorious and banal and obnoxious and transcendent and annoying and everywhere else on the spectrum of human experience.

I encounter this fantasy constantly in the art worlds I navigate, at all levels of experience and ability, and at this point I can spot it from a mile away: within five minutes of talking about a project, the (hypothetical) artist has already transitioned on to The Next Step – how much it will appeal to audiences, which film festivals they’ll send it to, how marketable it will be, what other successful movies it’s like, and how it will advance their career.

What I always say, what was told to me as an impressionable 20-year-old, what I can’t say enough, and what many people don’t want to hear or absorb no matter how much I say it, is this: stop thinking about your career. Stop thinking about your career.

What I recommend, which may not work for everybody but certainly has worked for me, is to assume that you will never be successful, by any conventional definition. Save yourself the trouble and stress of seeking recognition and rewards and attention and just assume that it will never happen. Give up. The list of amazing artists who died poor and wretched and ignored is long and illustrious, including Vincent Van Gogh, Herman Melville, and Orson Welles.

You are not a Professional Artist, because there is no such thing as a Professional Artist. They are exactly as real as Unicorns. Your career as a Professional Artist is imaginary and detrimental to your health, so please stop thinking about it, talking about it, wishing for it, planning for it. It is sucking away your energy and happiness.

Instead, just make things. No, I don’t think I’m oversimplifying. I don’t believe in the Professional Artist, and my definition of Artist is “someone who is in the process of making art.” Not someone who once made a movie or has an MFA in Photography. Just someone who is currently, actively making something.

Equipment is not an issue – I tell this to my students constantly – paint is cheap, and even HD video cameras are only a few hundred dollars these days. If you can’t afford one you can rent or borrow one, or use someone’s camera phone.

Time is an issue, sometimes. That’s the biggest justification of the desire to be a Professional Artist that I hear: it’s the only way I’ll have TIME to make art. Well, I don’t buy it for several reasons: one is what I outlined above about how little time people who work in the arts spend making art, vs. board meetings and fundraisers and whatever. The other is simply this: if you don’t have time to make Big Art, you can make Smaller Art. There are plenty of feature films in the world – make a short. Make a micro-short. You can shoot a film in an hour if you really want to. I assign projects like this to my students every week.

Maybe you don’t even have time to make small art, between your job and your kids and your yard and whatever. That’s fine. You don’t have to make art at all! There will be enough art in the world, have faith. People were making art long before anybody paid anybody to make art. In fact, I’d guess that there used to be many more artists per capita in the world – people who painted or drew or played the guitar or sang or weaved or made furniture or told stories or wrote poems. They maybe never bothered to call themselves artists or think about themselves that way – they just made things. And that was beautiful.

You can make things, and no one even has to see them, and you can even be a secret artist. You can write poems in a notebook, you can put videos on a blog (like I’ve been doing since 2006). If you like making things, you can just make them, as people have been doing for thousands of years.

“But I need for my work to reach an audience!” – I hear that a lot too. Which is interesting, because being an artist and getting attention for being an artist are two completely different things, in my opinion. Maybe there are other ways to get attention? Maybe you’re looking for attention in the wrong place? A brilliant work of art is brilliant whether it’s presented to an audience of ten, or an audience of ten million. If an integral part of your desire to be a Professional Artist has to do with how many people will see your work, I’d say that’s a distinction worth investigating. These days we don’t seem to question the desire for a vast audience – it’s just assumed that everyone wants their output to be seen on an epic scale. Why? I mean, I understand why on one level, but really… why?

If what you really want is to be famous, I think you owe it to yourself, and to the rest of us, to at least be honest with yourself about the fact that that’s what you really want. Don’t confuse wanting to be an artist with wanting to be famous, or wealthy, for that matter. That way lies only frustration and depression. If you want to make art, the good news is You Can Make Art. There is really nothing standing in your way. If you want to be famous, that’s another matter – and I bet there are easier ways to get famous than as an artist.

In my cynical moments, I feel like the world today is full of people making as much noise as they can, and perpetually feeling upset that more people aren’t willing to pay attention to them. I want to help, and I think what I’m saying here is helpful – it has helped me. I love making the art that I make, and I love sharing it with people, and the scale upon which I get to do that is enough for me. It is really enough. And I don’t know what the future holds, and for the most part I don’t aspire to more and bigger and better than this, because this is pretty damn good, really.

My advice is simple, take it or leave it: be well, make beautiful things, share them with the people you care about. And let the Professional Artists and the Unicorns amble away over the horizon, in the misty morning, toward the end of the rainbow together.

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