The Artist’s Life

Psychologists say that only five per cent of all people are mentally configured as full-blown artists. Many people have creative aspects to their personalities, do creative things, live creatively, or utilize imagination and inventiveness in their work. Only one person out of twenty will self-identify as a painter, unpublished novelist, musician, glass artist, or—perish the thought—poet: the kind of occupations that never appear in job descriptions.


People who identify as artists of some kind have a different neural network. Money rarely lights up a cranial hotspot, until they find out that the watercolor paper they’ve always used is now ten dollars a sheet. Everyone knows, including artists, that having money is infinitely better than not having it, but accumulating money isn’t a priority for the genuinely arty. What is a priority is manifesting that absolutely unique, one-of-a-kind thing that they have to give the world.


Not all artists are deathlessly great. But many are close to it, or close enough to give pleasure to a lot of people. Some achieve celebrity status for a while, like Damien Hirst, the guy who sliced the cow and put it is a glass case full of formaldehyde. His work is going down in value these days, and the new darling is Tracy Emin, who made millions on her bed, an art world mystery with Freudian undertones. But they got attention and fortune for doing something really different. That is the challenge to every artist: be unusual. It’s a life path with absolutely no manual.


Innovation is the lifeblood of the art business, although derivation has its place also. When Japanese anime became so popular, it was considered fine art to replicate that cartoon style on canvas. There are periods when artists may fall into a stylistic categories, but later branch out into a category that is entirely their own. Some invent their own categories entirely, and that’s one of the parts of greatness. It’s also one of the problems: being too different to be at all trendy and commercial.


The artist and the art business are strangely incompatible. The various businesses of art have the necessary priority of making money, and may accept or reject manuscripts, music, or art based on commercial viability, and not merit. The painter, on the other hand, usually has no taste for business, and has trouble submitting work for scrutiny and rejection. They must produce those detestable and dreaded artists’ statements to get anyone to pay the slightest attention, translating their visual genius into black and white things on a page.


All sorts of artists, writers, and musicians get rejected all the time—until they get that sudden break, and then everyone wants them. They may get rejected for years before they achieve any kind of success, and some only get it when they’re dead. Dying definitely increases a painter’s worth, because it limits supply rather effectively. Imagine having to drop dead to get a raise.


Everyone has to make money to survive, and many artists choose undemanding jobs so they don’t take work home with them. They make your coffee, frame your pictures, sell you books, serve your dinner, or write social media copy. After they’ve made some money, they go home to paint, write, practice—do their real jobs. Some artists have full-time work, with a lot of pressure, before they go home to their real jobs, but these are the practical ones. Practicality is not a common feature of creative people, but there is every type of personality in the community of the arts, just as there is anywhere else.


There is plenty of work for writers, because the Internet calls for constant content. Most of the people who ghostwrite blogs or write those click bait articles get paid about a nickel a word, unless they work for a popular site, and then they might get more. Most of them are contractors, with no benefits. After they have wracked their brains turning out something they can sell, they get back to another pass at the great American novel. There are a million online literary journals that pay no money, but give writers “exposure,” which won’t pay the rent.


How practical is it to be a poet? Zero job openings, of interest to a fraction of the population. How practical is it to write a first novel? Four years, five drafts, a hundred rejections. There’s really no percentage in it, as there is in designing software or becoming a lawyer. Being an artist isn’t necessarily a choice; it’s a calling.


The fantasy is the possibility of inconceivable success. J.K. Rowling now has more money than the queen of England. But while she was writing the first Harry Potter book, she was on the dole. The nightmare is the possibility of horrific failure. Van Gogh, for example, never sold a painting in his lifetime.


Artists begin life differently. Other kids don’t get why you would want to play scales on your violin every day after school. They think you’re maybe a little weird. The kid who draws pictures instead of listening in class gets labeled with some diagnosis from the DSM. The kids that want to read all the time, absorbing the power and application of words, are also candidates for diagnosis.


Such children grow up into adults who are deeply interested in making, writing, painting, and playing things. The doing of that art is what they live for. They are working all the time; inspiration does not come 9 to 5, and it often comes at inconvenient moments. That person one sees staring into space might be feeling a future painting coming on or watching images translate into words that move a plot along. They probably don’t care what celebrities are doing or what’s cool at the moment. They are in other worlds entirely. Proust said it most perfectly: “Every artist is the citizen of an unknown country, which he himself has forgotten.”


Engrossed as they are in personal visions, artists rarely have much expendable income. A violinist who wants to audition for an orchestra job needs an instrument worth more than a new car, or sometimes more than a house, to manifest perfect sound. An artist needs thousands of dollars of canvases, paints, brushes, and so on, before they can ever turn out a series of paintings worthy of a show. Before they’re successful, artists are often financially challenged, and they don’t care, because having all the things deemed important, like fashion, hot cars, and the latest trending object is of no interest to them. However, they also don’t live in San Francisco, unless they’re clinging to a crumbling rent-controlled apartment.


Artists also face the challenge of producing something different in a world strangled by alienation and the desperate need to fit in. If they’re great, they’re not trendy. If they’re not trendy, they might appeal to a very small percentage of the population, the people who set trends, not follow them. The unspoken collusion between trend-setters of the art world, art critics, and other insiders determines what the world should like next. Marketers of the art world inform status-seekers of what they need to possess, and people spend fortunes on things like sliced cows in formaldehyde, to demonstrate their exceptionally good taste.


The people who give us those things we love—books, music, paintings, photographs, performances, sculpture, poetry—endure great difficulties for our sakes. Rejection, rejection, rejection, the need to be original in a largely conformist society, competition for attention, the price of tools, working the second shift, and starting out life with a different mindset than the ones kids are supposed to have are just a few of the costs artists pay to give us what we love. The thanks they get is banishment.





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