A Career in Art – The Flinty-Hard Road

Shortcuts to Heaven?

Serious endeavors require serious dedication. Everybody knows that. Why is it then that so many would-be career artists think they can cheat fate by dividing their time and effort between art and teaching, or between art and design work, or between art and anything else? And, while we’re at it, what misguided optimism makes people think they can pursue a successful career in advertising, engineering or dentistry, and then switch over to art once they’ve laid aside a comfortable nest egg?

What does it mean to make a serious choice of a career in art, whether printmaking, painting, poetry or the novel? First of all it means just that: seriousness. A passing snatch at the brass ring will not get it. Nor will mere genius nor sheer luck. Though all of these are important factors, without massive doses of commitment, perseverance and constant personal and artistic development, they are of no use.

Alternate Routes

Art graduates, in their first year out of art school, typically publish their websites, visit a few art galleries, maybe get a couple of shows, don’t sell anything, decide their work is “too advanced” for mass consumption and feel that the system has let them down. Then they go looking for a job in business or the bureaucracy. (I’m overgeneralizing, of course, but you get the point.) The other frequent scenario is the person with artistic inclinations who puts them on the shelf for 25 years while he or she pursues a lucrative career in groumets or publicity, achieves a comfortable lifestyle and an enviable retirement plan, then wants to return to art as a profession.

This is akin to raising a lion cub in captivity then taking it out to the savanna and expecting it to hunt. It won’t hunt. Its faculties are blunted after years of a comfortable bourgeois lifestyle. Substitute “young artist” for “lion” and “ad agency” for “captivity” and the equation remains equally valid, I think. Not that there is any inherent shame in being a commercial artist, or a house cat, for that matter.

Both the younger and older artists in these examples make the same mistake, I think. They’re both guilty of not taking art seriously enough. If it requires 20 years of hard trudging to form an architect or a neurosurgeon, what makes people think a complete professional artist can be put together in a fifth of that time? Excepting a miracle (do you believe in miracles?) it just isn’t going to happen. Art is a serious affair which requires careful, time consuming preparation and execution just as any other profession. More so, in fact. While the dentists, accountants and engineers have reliable business models to follow, artists must discover, test and apply their own models, forging them out of their own characters and creativity.

The Most Ruthless Taskmaster

Art is the most ruthless taskmaster, because the standards and demands come not from the boss or the organization, but from within the artist. You can tell always the boss or the organization to go fly a kite, but what do you tell the artist within?

Necessary qualities? Commitment, dedication, a certain capacity for suffering over the long term, and a massive willingness to assume risk. The key phrases here are “long term” and “risk.” Most of us live in such an instant-gratification, have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too environment that we have forgotten some important truths:

o That a meaningful contribution in any field requires massive doses of work and self abnegation.
o That you’re probably not going to get there quickly.
o That there are hard choices to make, hard priorities to establish and they may very well entail foregoing a comfortable, conventional lifestyle.
o That there isn’t necessarily any gold at the end of your particular rainbow.

Fabulously Successful, Penniless and Deranged

The history of art is full of clamorous examples. Van Gogh is probably the most glaring case. Though his works sell today at auction at astronomical prices and line the most secure bank vaults in Zurich, during his lifetime he never sold a single painting. And he died a penniless, deranged man. Does one have to be a certified crazy like Van Gogh in order to make one’s mark in the history of art? Maybe not, but a touch of fanaticism will certainly help you endure.

Art Avery, American photo artist, replies to this: “It is not reasonable to expect to be a Van Gogh or a Rothko or a Picasso. Many of the famous modern artists were at the right place at the right time, or got into the right gallery when it was hot, or got picked up by the right critic.

Avery adds: “Most current artists, print and digital, have much more modest hopes. It would be nice just to make a living from your art without having to go to shows and sit on a chair in the corner for endless hours plus endless schlepping of your art and booth.”

Does a career in art demand the kind of vocation we used to associate with missionary priests and nuns bound for darkest Africa? The absolute capacity for self abnegation in favor of the cause, the willingness to forego all else? Yes, it seems that is just what it requires.

Given this somewhat-less-than-rosy panorama, do you still want to have a go? You’re very brave, arent’ you! Now we can look at the bright side. You’ll be one of the .01% of the people in this regimented world who can permit themselves the luxury of being themselves. You can live where you please, dress as you please, speak your mind. You’ll never have to study accounting or statistics. You’ll be able to dedicate your mornings, afternoons and nights to making prints. Beautiful and fascinating girls/boys will be attracted to your studio. You’ll never be obliged to punch a time clock or have some organization drone tell you what to do.

Work More for Less!

Mind you, if you’re going to make it you’ll have to be cleverer than all those organization types, and you’ll have to work harder for less material return, but you’ll be doing your own thing on your own terms. How many people can make that boast?

You’ll have to embark on a lifetime of learning, travel, mind stretching, participation. You’ll have to diversify, try clay modeling, painting, creative writing, gourmet cooking. You’ll have to vary your point of view, and not only on paper. You’ll have to hone your critical (and self-critical!) sense as an Eskimo hunter hones his knife. You’ll have to meet as many real artists as you can and observe, observe, observe.

What are you waiting for then? Get started! What’s the worst that can happen? You fail as an artist? You’ll just have to go back three spaces, get a job and join the rest of us. But what if you were to succeed?