Upon entering my morning commute (much earlier than I used to do: 8 am v. 10 am, as part of my whole be-better-at-my-job-type-job initiative), I’m recalling an article I read a while back about a performance artist in LA.
This performance artist in LA had turned down a project with Marina Abramovic at LACMA or someplace, because she didn’t like the conditions under which she’d have to perform. If memory serves, the gig would have been to lay naked on a lazy-susan style table surrounded by hors d’oeuvres, while gala guests nibbled and schmoozed and perchance ogled or prodded her naked self. Putting aside for the moment that a presentation such as this at a rich man’s gala is just designed to make rich men feel edgy while they snack, the thrust of the article was that the artist thought the pay provided by Marina and LACMA (or wherever) was not adequate for the work she’d have to do, namely the eight hours naked on the table and probably some rehearsal leading up to the gig.
The writer complained that, as she was just trying to make a middle class living as an artist in LA, she could not be expected to provide her artistic product for the paltry sum she was offered. At this point, the only thing that stuck with me, is: she’s trying to make a middle class living as an artist.
Is that really what artists are trying to do these days? Do we come out of school and think to ourselves, “you know what I want to do, I want to create middle class art for middle class people for a middle class wage?” I spent a great portion of my youth making the conscious determination to eschew that which was middle class, from homes and proper careers to ideologies. Maybe it’s just that I’d seen it in action and it didn’t look as good as the ad campaign promised it’d be. But by the time I was seventeen, I was pretty clear that I wanted to be an artist, and my idols were not your basic American wage earners who complained about their commute and worried about health insurance. They were Henry Miller, Anais Nin, Ntosake Shange, Sam Beckett, Steinbeck and LeRoi Jones (who I didn’t realize had long since changed his name to Amiri Baraka); there were the women from Sisterhood is Powerful, Pollack, Johns, and Sexton. They were the people who put their work ahead of their comfort. They were not healthy, they were not well-behaved, they were not looking for acceptance from their peers or from established artists or arts administrators, or for anyone who had come before to hold the doors to success open to them. As naive as I was at seventeen, this expression of passion in art and lifestyle rang true for me.
Why would an artist aspire to be middle class? Isn’t being an artist anathema to everything that is middle class? If you want the trappings of middle class life, you have to make those things a priority. A person can’t make the creation of art a top priority and expect to end up middle class. It’s not easy to be middle class, to make car payments, and go to your job, and own a house, and send your kids to proper schools. It’s not easy to make sure there are Christmas presents and birthday parties and trips to the beach. Keeping a nice lawn requires work. Keeping a steady job is no picnic. Raising your kids not to be pick-pockets and rapists is a real thing requiring real effort that can’t be done in those off moments when you’re not breathing in resin fumes in your poorly ventilated studio.
What is the deal where artists think that they can successfully follow their bliss while simultaneously making all the ends meet to create a successful middle class lifestyle? It’s a choice. You can’t really have both. At the very least, you can’t aspire to both. Not simultaneously. Every day I’m confronted with this. I have a son who means the world to me; my husband is a frequent artistic collaborator. We have a home but we don’t own it. We have jobs but they don’t own us. We have art, and each other.
Artists of America: art is not a profession, regardless of your terminal degree and its price tag. Art is what you do because you must. Deep down you know this. Maybe there’ll be a pay off, maybe there won’t, more likely sometimes you’ll eat lobster and sometimes you’ll eat ramen. The only deal is there is no deal. Just do your work. You’re an artist. That’s your only consolation. And by ‘you’ I mean ‘me.’
(These things felt very powerful to me. So I’m posting.)