Here’s a post for all the people who are trying to be artists. It is not a friendly post. I do not think that people who want to create art need to get paid to do it. Do you get paid to have sex? No. Same thing. You love it, but you just do it after work. And sometimes, if you are driven mad by it, you leave work in the middle of the day for it.
Treat art the same way, and you will stay sane. Really. Here are five things I would nag you about if you were talking with me about your burgeoning career as an artist:
1. You cannot do art if you are starving.
The starving artist routine is total bullshit. I know because I did it. Once you know that you are not going to make rent, you can’t really make art. Because your sense of self-preservation insists that your brain focus on the possibility that you will be out on the street. Your brain cannot stop solving that problem long enough to solve the problem of what is truth and beauty.
Here are some things I did while I was becoming a writer: I ate only bagels because I didn’t have enough money for anything else and then I got anemic and had to go to the doctor but I didn’t have health insurance so I had to lie and say I did in order to get the iron pills I needed so that I didn’t pass out from exhaustion the moment I woke up in the morning. Believe me, I was not making great art during this period.
2. Art emanating from a black hole is a choice.
There’s a reason that Jean-Michel Basquiat’s paintings look like horror films: Because his life was a crack-house horror film. And there’s a reason that Picasso is tearing apart voluptuous women in gorgeous surroundings: That’s what he did in real life.
So don’t kid yourself: Your art reflects your surroundings, and you can live like a pauper, but that limits the range of your art.
During my art days, I did not go out with friends. Ever. Because I didn’t even have enough money to go to a coffee shop. And I was always cold because I lived in Boston and didn’t have a winter coat. At many points I did not have a home, so I just sort of carried my laptop around and wrote and hoped that something would come up by the end of the day. And I almost never had clean clothes because I didn’t have money to buy detergent.
So I wrote stories, every day, about not seeing anyone, and my mentor would say things like, “How about adding a character so that the narrator can have a conversation?” And that would strike me as a revolutionary idea.
3. Real artists will make art no matter what.
You do not need a studio, or a desk, or peace and quiet. Really. Because making art comes from a place that you cannot stop. People who need to make art make art no matter what.
Do you know how many blog posts I throw out? Maybe two a week. Because sometimes something happens and I absolutely have to write about it, and I see, from the beginning, that there’s no way I’ll be able to relate it to careers, so it’s going to end up in the blogging trash can. But I write it anyway.
Do you know Christo and Jeanne-Claude? Wait. Here, look at some photos. The guy is nuts. He thinks so big that it makes him crazy. He’s been making plans to put up cloth all over Central Park for 26 years. He can’t stop himself. Finally, he did it. But who knew if it would ever happen? This is what I mean. If you need to do art, you just go there. Nothing stops you.
So if you think you’re an artist and you are not making art now, but you think that in the right circumstance you’d make art, you are lying to yourself. I’m sorry. But it’s true. Unless you are starving. If you are starving, see point number one: You need to get a job.
4. You do not need to quit your day job.
Are you making money and you’re wondering if you should quit your job to do art full time? Take this test: Did you marry rich? Do you have a trust fund? Do you have reliable buyers for almost everything you produce? If you did not answer yes to any of these, then keep your day job.
Also, most corporate jobs can be creative outlets because businesses solve problems. So if you are an inherently creative thinker, you probably bring that to whatever job you have. You can’t stop yourself.
5. You are not a better artist if you can do it full time.
I don’t want to see snooty comments on this post about how great you are for being able to support yourself with your art. Because I can do that too. And you know what? I was not a worse writer when I could not support myself. The only difference between artists making money and artists not making money is that the first group is better at business. And there is no evidence that artists who are better at business make better art.
Do you want to know if you’re going to be good at earning money from art? Take this test about networking from UpMo and Pepperdine University. The test will tell you how good you are at networking. And if you are not good at this test, you are not going to be good at selling your art, because the days of discovering someone with a sawed-off ear in an insane asylum are over. You need to market yourself. Do you want to know why there are so many crappy films in the world? Because there are so many great networkers who want to direct.
So everyone can stop being a snob about asking people how much money they make from their art. And everyone can stop thinking that the be-all-end-all is to quit the day job and do art full time.
Do you want to know how to be an artist? Make art. Do it because you need to do it. Because you think you will die if you don’t do it. Stop making it a career problem. It’s not. And, I leave you with one of my favorite posts, that I never get to link to, about me making myself crazy being an artist.