It started appearing on my feeds a while back, and much like a word that once newly learned seems to pop up all over the place, the concept of the middle-class artist began to materialize everywhere I looked. Articles calling for guaranteed income for artists, artist unionization, and facilitations for artists to trade art for services and labor, challenged to the powers-that-be to monetarily incentivize artists.
I bristled at these suggestions, but wondered why. I’m an artist, wouldn’t I like more financial security? Wouldn’t I like a guaranteed income? I asked myself these questions, and was surprised to learn that the answer was no. Art is not a profession, it doesn’t owe us a living.
There’s an historical trope of the starving artist, the insane artist, malnourished, impoverished, and brilliant. In retrospect, of course, it’s romantic, the image of the warrior artist, fighting against society’s accepted norms, creating art at all costs. In practice, however, no one sets out to be broke. But make no mistake, making art is a risk.
Artists create for many reasons, but central among them is a need to communicate. Art cannot communicate if it is not being consumed. This leads to the assumption that to be good art, the art must be consumed, and the gauge typically used is monetary. This gives artists the impression that good artists are probably getting paid for it, regardless of the brilliant artists who did not make a killing in their lifetimes.
What do you do if you think you’re a good artist but you’re not consistently getting paid for it? Do you demand income? Do you demand that those who do pay you pay you more? Do you insist that the government provide a living stipend in order to keep your standard of living at the level to which you’ve grown accustomed?
These are the kinds of complaints and demands I’ve been hearing, that rather than force the underpaid artist to create work in economically impoverished circumstances, society should step up and fund it. At first I thought it was just whining from grad school regreters, but as the concept has picked up steam, I worry that this is actually something career artists are considering as a valid alternative.
Perhaps today’s artists are not comfortable with the idea of risk. There’s a feeling that if they go out there, and study hard, and really apply themselves, and do their best, they should be rewarded, or at least provided with some kind of relative job security. Job security, benefits, a living wage, regular meals, these are not the purview of art. These are the comforts that come with a life in the middle-class.
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. I realized that there was a different breed: people who did not plot careers by salary increases and benefits acquisition, who didn’t save their passions for weekends, people who created, and wrote, and performed, and made these their primary concerns. These people were artists, with the freedom to break out of ideologies, to live independently, to live with the primary purpose of experiencing and expressing life. By the time I was seventeen, I knew what I wanted to do.
I searched out my idols on bookshelves, looking to the stacks for a reflection of my own emotional experience. I found Kerouac taking to the American roads, when money failed, working to earn enough to embark again; Baldwin remaking New York City in his own image, refusing to be cataloged and commodified; and Sexton being institutionalized because couldn’t force herself into the mold of the American female.
These are the artists I admired, not just for their work, but for their lifestyle, their refusal to adhere to the expectations of society, family, or friends. They broke out. They lost their sanity, their sobriety, their families. But they created, and their need to create was more essential to their survival than anything else.
What do we want from our artists? What do we want from our art? It’s a mistake to think that the two are not related. My idols created beautiful, brutal, gut-wrenching art, and they were substance abusers, social deviants, and lunatics. The cost of creation is irrelevant, only that which is created has matter. These are not the priorities of the middle-class, who complain about their commute and worry about health insurance. They are, in fact, the opposite.
To be middle class, to maintain that lifestyle, or to attain it, is an effort in itself. This idea that any chosen career, specifically the chosen career of the artist, should lead to a middle-class lifestyle is absurd. It’s part of this whole fallacy that a person can have it all. “You can be an artist! And have a family! And be middle-class with all the rights and benefits thereto! All you need to do is wish it, and it shall be yours.”
There’s also the problem of trying to create work that breaks us out of our commonly held, secure beliefs. How can that be done while living within those confines? Artists used the eschew the bourgeois lifestyle, not demand access to it. There is an opportunity cost: to make one choice often necessitates declining another. The pursuit of art will require that you not pursue other opportunities that would have paid better, steadier, or offered more security.
There is a difference between creating art and having a job. Employees are required to do as they’re told, to do the work the boss wants to have done. Copywriters, staff writers, illustrators, and other staffed artists have to make the art that their employers want made. There can be glimpses of freedom within that realm, but there is not true autonomy. If artists are guaranteed a wage by the government, then doesn’t that make the government their employer? To be paid means to be controlled. If you want to give control over your art to the person who signs your checks, you will not have artistic freedom. Being an artist is anathema to everything that is middle class.
So why would an artist aspire to be middle class? The middle-class lifestyle is not a default, it requires an enormous amount of hard work and determination to achieve, all by itself. The achievement of this social class needs be the priority, it is not a side-effect.
If you want the trappings of middle class life, you have to make those things a the top priority. 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 aspire to both. Not simultaneously. Every day I’m confronted with this. I have a son who means the world to me. I have a husband who is also 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.
But that’s actually plenty, because making art is so good that everything else is just bland by comparison. As an artist, sometimes you’ll make a living, sometimes you won’t. Do you want to cling to the living or the art? Is it worth is to push yourself to the brink of self-destruction? To leave your country? To disappoint your parents? Do we need acceptance from those people or is it enough to find fellow travelers, and make a path with them? Open your heart to the world of experience and understanding, go beyond that which is learned in lecture halls and peer study groups.
Art is a career of passion. We’ve lost touch with the idea that sacrifice may be necessary to get what we want, that to open some doors we must necessarily close others. We cannot have it all, and to strive to have the best in all areas of life means that no one thing will have our full attention. How can we expect to succeed at something if we don’t give it full focus? Do you want to be an artist or do you want to be middle-class? Do you want to be an artist if it means you’ll be broke? Do you want to be middle-class if that means you have to focus on income generation to the exclusion of artistic output?
We are living. We are making art. The two are the same, and they owe you nothing but what you can create, forage, and manufacture for yourself. If the security that money brings is more important than the creation, then go do something else. There are lots of cool gigs that come with the added potential benefit of middle-class comforts; art isn’t one of them.
If your plan is to make it big as an artist, and you imagine that you will get to some point in your career where funds flow like wine at the wedding of Canna, know that every artist, no matter what you perceive their income level to be, is hustling to make the work that matters most to them. Artists need to make their own careers, do their own work.
Don’t wait for permission, or funding, or approval. Don’t wait until you’re not afraid, or until your rent is paid. You have to make your art happen because you believe in it, even if everyone else thinks you’re crazy. 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, maybe it will fluctuate. The only deal is there is no deal. Just do your work. You’re an artist. That’s your only consolation.