I’m writing this after a long weekend at an art festival in Chicago. It’s the only one I participate in, because it’s one of the few festivals that still focuses on art and community, not beer and cover bands. The organizers keep it artist-centered, including things like the very affordable entry fee and helpful roaming festival staff who have come to my rescue more than once over the three years I have participated.
Before I go on I want to clarify that this entry is not meant as a complaint. I really love doing this festival, I am grateful for all of my opportunities, and I also love doing the “live art” thing that I’m going to talk about later. I am more putting this experience into context with the working reality that artists (and people in general) face.
For months now, I have been able to focus mainly on my art because of an outside circumstance that I had nothing to do with creating. Let’s call it Providence. I won’t go into details because I don’t want to, but I feel it is necessary to mention it because that is the first thing I would want to know if I were viewing my recent productivity level from the outside. “What the HELL? Does she have a JOB?” Good question. Yes and no. Right now my ability to focus on art is amazing, but like everything, that will change. So I am doing all that I can to take advantage of my current situation while it lasts.
That’s a long preamble to my point, which is that it remains incredibly difficult to make a living as an artist. I sure as hell am not doing it. Right now I am engaged in “building my brand,” I guess. Pretty much every art show and project I have done for the last several years has been, in economic terms anyway, more about marketing than about actually making a living.
You could argue that I am just a bad businessperson. And you would be right. But there is more than that involved here.
About a week ago, I went to a local bar after stretching three six foot square canvases for a new project (actually my friend stretched them, but even just watching her was exhausting). I was into my second mimosa when I started chatting with a guy who wanted to see my art and said he was a recruiter. I guess I should have stopped right there. But he reeled me in by saying that my website and work was a lot better than he had expected (I know what he means) and feigning interest in how I make a living.
I really didn’t have an answer for him except that “I don’t make a living as an artist, yet anyway.” Then he launched into recruiter mode. He kept saying, “I’m not an artist, but…” which I guess he thought excused all his lame clueless ideas. In artistic terms, anyway. The “best” example of this is when he suggested that I make prints of the collages that I construct out of old drawings, paintings and trash. Prints. Which cost money to make, when part of the point of those collages is that they are essentially free material for me. Flat prints, when another main point of my collage work is that it is a physical, textural object in this flat digital world.
Reader, I came closer to instigating a bar brawl than I ever have before. Especially as he accused me of being a “snob” when I suggested that making prints of that work was wayyyy beside the point. “Don’t you want to share your work with more people?” I just – I really can’t even begin with this line of reasoning. Also, like all recruiters, he was one of those people who don’t have a conversation so much as wait for you to catch your breath, so they can continue making a preconceived point that completely disregards your input. So I had two more mimosas and listened politely as he rambled on with his business ideas. I probably could have easily pushed him off his chair, but I restrained myself.
Anyway, yeah I’m being a hater. And we were at a bar, not a business meeting. He does have a point though, in that I have pretty much zero business plan for my work, for the comic, for anything. I am not being realistic.
So another buried point that I would like to make, is that of what activities human beings choose to do, and why, and what circumstances influence those choices. The great majority of us, Providence notwithstanding, have to work to make money to support ourselves. When you’re talking about something like art, personal vision and choice is the product that is being sold. The “work” part of it becomes romanticized and mythologized. I was talking at my festival booth this weekend to some amazing young gallerists I know. “Yeah,” I said, “I’ll see you later – I’m gonna go do this live art thing from 4 to 7.” They laughed. “Live art – you mean, working?”
So yeah, those gallerists GET IT. The “Live Art” phenomenon I guess is a way to make static art into something fun you can do at events. And honestly, I like it because many times I get antsy hanging around at parties or whatever when I could be working on my art. Best of both worlds! At this event, I was painting on one of those recently-stretched large canvases next to my friend Juan-Carlos, who quietly and methodically set up a table. Then he drew squares on it with charcoal. He mixed up some brown-black dirt stuff and silently began making small bricks out of it, and placed them within the squares. He did this the whole time I was there painting, and he drew quite a crowd.
Apparently someone asked him what he was making. Juan-Carlos shrugged and said, “it’s not about the product, it’s about the work.” I guess the guy muttered something under his breath about “communists!” and slunk away.
I love Juan-Carlos.
In conclusion, because I have to conclude sometime before I go off and work on another awesome project I am not making any money from: I have always been amazed at people’s ability to create and discover, and dismayed at how those abilities are corralled and sometimes killed by the necessity of making a living. Some of us have been able to thwart that system, at least for a time. I do think that economic necessity has helped to spur some great innovation, but I also think that people in general deserve the time and space to make choices based on other parameters. Without people thinking we are stupid.
I think survival mode may be killing us.