To Call Oneself an Artist


For the fear of sounding pretentious, people have given up referring to themselves are ‘artists.’ When people ask them who they are and what they do, many people would prefer to refer to themselves as ‘teachers,’ ‘statesmen,’ or ‘grad students.’ Meanwhile, the artist goes to his cave at night when the day’s work—which funds the very allotted time that turns art into a mere hobby—is done.

Granted, if you’re an artist who has a day job he finds stimulating, then wonderful. For many people of my generation, art is something done in the margins of life, often compromised and squandered up in devotion to cultural activities and ‘entertainment.’ One might argue that the price of being a true artist is high, but is not the price of assigning art to the realm of ‘hobby’ not higher? It only proves the unfortunate contingency of our world today: that that which is worth doing is not worth living for. And why is it not worth living for? Usually because it doesn’t pay.

Since we all know that respectable citizens go to university and get jobs, an artist must be someone with superhuman strength of intellect and energy, willing to produce masterpieces and best-sellers in eight-hour spurts on the weekends over the course of ten years, right? For some of us, this simply isn’t good enough.

The starving artist is a romantic image for those who have prevailed, ‘made it,’ in other words, with a big royalty check, a big advance or a television spots. There is a subtle belief that goes with this romantic image that one day if one starves long enough, it will pay off when they inevitably ‘make it big.’ We take for granted that, in ancient times, artists were not often issued royalties or given television spots. They did not have blogs, agents, promoters and zines. They sung, spoke and wrote, aware that their lives were not long (as they were indeed shorter) and that each day would see the furthering of art and life. At the end of life would come the end of art.

An artist who is charming enough can get by homeless. Eventually, a charming person may find someone or some people who are willing to take care of the homeless artist for a time while he does what he does best (and if not what he does best, then what he does inevitably). Unfortunately, there is no aptitude test to measure charm, so one best put this potential future out of ones mind (since most people, artists included, are not terribly charming anyway). The next option is to live for your art with no expectations at all—no hope that anyone will reward you or that anyone will offer you an open door or any easy way out. At the very least, this way, you are bound to make art that isn’t constricted to the limits that other art runs up against—that art which can only be made under comfortable circumstances.

Some artists might be in the fortunate position of a Goethe or a Proust—coming from money and, therefore, having little to worry about but the production of their art. Everyone else, however, must consider different options if they don’t want their art to belong to the realm of ‘hobby.’ The starving artist lifestyle may suit some people just fine, but there is another solution too, for those of you who want to live somewhat comfortably without compromising your entire life by doing something you hate.

It comes down to the very attitude with which you approach your life. Are you going to school to be a teacher, but what you really want to do is paint? Perhaps you feel that teaching will help your painting. In this case, when people ask you ‘what you do,’ tell them you paint. Most of the time, the question ‘what do you do’ means ‘how do you make money,’ but that wasn’t what was actually asked, was it? If it wasn’t asked, put the ball in your court. Don’t tell people you’re a bank clerk or a salesperson if that’s not how you identify yourself. Tell people the thing that you think most about yourself, and people will see you that way. Tell people you are an artist and they will treat you like one. They won’t want to talk about how much money you make; they will want to see/hear/experience your art. You might even run into someone renting out an incredibly inexpensive room or even opting it out for free, simply because they believe in your art as much as you believe in it.

If your art isn’t making you a living, be honest with your employers and potential employers. If you’re working full time at a job that offers part time work, take the part time work and let them know that the activities you are doing in what is deceptively called ‘free time’ is just as important to you as medical school would be for someone else. When you go to job interviews and your potential employer asks you what your long term goals and plans are and what you want out of the company or the business or the hustle, tell them that you want to do something fun which will provide for you and stimulate the more important activity you do outside of work. When you’re transparent about these things, you will get the life you want. You will probably be turned away from several dozen more interviews, but who cares? There are many ways to make quick money and quick money is usually a small compromise. A small compromise is better than the big compromise: lying to yourself and your employers in interviews for jobs you are going to hate for the next five years.

It is still possible to be an artist in this world. You may need to come to a compromise, but let the world compromise with you and not the other way around.