So, you are NOT an Art World *Rock Star*, but…….

I live in Athens Georgia, which is home to a number of famous musicians, musicians who ‘made it’ in the industry. Big time. There are the guys from REM, some of whom have houses in my neighborhood. The folks from the B 52s all started here and still have family and friends scattered about. My next door neighbor is the former drummer from the Counting Crows…..

It may still be the case (and it certainly was back when I moved here in 1989) that if you are an aspiring musician you make your pilgrimage to Athens, hoping to be ‘the next big thing’. In the 90s at least it was almost like the California Gold Rush of the 1800s, but for music. It was as if the proximity to the golden goose would rub off all that glorious fame and fortune. Well, in the 24 or so years I’ve lived here a few have made the spotlight in significant ways. There are a handful for whom the dream came true. But the reality is that the lucky break came to only a handful of the multitude who practice their music here. For the few who struck gold there are countless times as many who found a nugget or two, or nothing at all, and had to get on with their lives.

I have friends who have had moderate success, who do regional concerts, who strike out on the road for tours, who have (or have had) deals with small record labels, who produce albums every so often, whose music gets played on the radio. Occasionally. But when they are not on the road with their band, when they are not in the studio, when they are not playing gigs, well, most of them are working like normal people, waitering or waitressing in local restaurants, doing shifts at the local health food store, or teaching kids in elementary schools…. Being even a ‘successful’ musician doesn’t mean you don’t also have a ‘real’ job besides making your music….

And this seems true for almost all the musicians I know, for most potters I know, for the poets I know, for the theatre workers I know, for the painters I know, for the sculptors I know…… Pretty much every artist I know also has an outside job that allows them to still make their art when they can. And yet, there is this dream we are all drawn to of ‘making it big’ with our art. I’ve rubbed shoulders with a few of these folks whose dreams have come true, stood in line ordering burritos with them, had a beer and played Exquisite Corpse with them, had them jog down the street past me….. They are regular people too. But with their art they seem to have transcended the mere mortal world of the rest of us.

And so we dream.

A 15 year old Jimi Hendrix's drawing of Elvis

A 15 year old Jimi Hendrix’s drawing of Elvis

Our culture has promoted a near ubiquitous story of the ambitious hardworking grunt who starts at the bottom and through perseverance, timing, and maybe a little luck, works his or her way to the top. He or she eventually gets to run the show, lead the industry, be celebrated in the field, or whatever. This survivor of all the hardships we seemingly must go through is our object lesson in ‘making it’, that hard work pays off, and that the pot of gold is really there at the end for those willing to take “these 5 simple steps that guarantee success and financial security”….

So we often look to all the folks that have risen to the top, who get to do what we think we should be doing, and try to base our goals and ambitions on theirs. These are the survivors. We don’t want to emulate the failures, the ones who couldn’t make it, couldn’t hack it, were not ruthless enough to do what it takes, whatever the consequences. Most of us know better, that simple perseverance isn’t enough. There’s luck. There’s timing. There’s dirty work involved. Better to sell out than fall on your face. We know that the ‘purity’ of the mighty is an illusion. Propaganda to keep us from the necessary tasks. There’s always some dirt under their fingernails, some blood stains on their jackets, some skeletons in their closets, some power brokering patron they had to ‘make nice’ to…..

But those things don’t always make it to the storybook ending we dream about. The mythology of ‘success’ is usually something you’d hear from your kindly grandparents, something you’d tell your children at bedtime, something you’d be proud of…… Dreams and myths are usually black and white for a reason. The gray areas, the parts that get left out, are often the ones we don’t wish to hear.

And so the story we tell is often simply a declaration of our bias towards survivorship: “Start out small, end up big”. The struggles we go through to get there are simply a rite of passage, a way-point on our road to ‘success’. Stepping stones. No one ever becomes an artist preformed, full-time, straight out of the box. But the story has it that that’s where we are aiming. “Keep your eyes on the prize” we are told…..

But that puts the majority of even ‘successful’ artists I know as ‘failures’. Our survivorship bias is simply misleading us from the value and worth of doing it some other way. Its a dangerous inspiration, if it hides the reality that only a handful of the select few will ever make it big. Its not wrong to dream, but don’t sell the real world short. Real artists are making real art without living the dream of rock star status. Important art. Good art. Its the art you should probably be aiming for as well….

What I’d say different from the survivorship bias is that despite all the ‘struggles’ we face we are often doing enough. Just to be doing it. Just to still be practicing our art. That these part-time gigs can be havens of artistic opportunity rather than mere career steppingstones. The only value isn’t being able to someday translate what you love into a full-time money making occupation. That CAN”T be the only thing that keeps us going. It can’t be the only thing we aspire to. It can’t be the only thing worth doing.

Thinking that the lure of professional ambition is the only worthy motivation is putting the cart before the horse. Its like saying that kids only play football to make it in the NFL one day. Its saying that if you love to cook you should be working in a restaurant. Its saying that your passion is only good enough if it pays for itself…. But isn’t that backwards? That the rest of our lives, in fact, pay for our passions? Its not that passion has to justify itself with a career doing it. Rather, I’d say find some way to fit it in your lives, no matter if it takes working another job, only doing it part time, only doing it on the weekends. Find some way to keep doing it. Keep the love burning. Keep the passion stoked.

The only measure of that passion is whether you still enjoy doing it, not that you get to do it for a living.

Doing it for a living almost inevitably has trade offs and compromises that threaten the very fact of that enjoyment. The idea that it needs to be an exclusive occupation is the illusion of a stick dressed up as a carrot: Once we find that pot of gold, it turns out that instead of still following our desire we are often being driven mercilessly by an uncaring and callously perverting marketplace. The full-time art job we now have is usually not the thing we thought it’d be when we signed on……

So embrace what you do, but don’t turn it into a job! Make money at it, sure, but don’t feel you need to depend on it for a living. Don’t put yourself in a position where its all or nothing, sink or swim. Swim, but also get out of the water and walk. We are not sharks that we need to keep swimming or we die. I have pity on the sharks. And isn’t it strange that the sharks are our inspirational totems? The survivors who chewed up all competition to sit at the top of the food chain? I’d rather be that tiny monkey that learned to climb down out of the trees and wander the savanna. I’d rather be that foraging adaptable ape that finds many ways to survive……

About Carter Gillies

I am an active potter and sometime pottery instructor who is fascinated by the philosophical side of making pots, teaching these skills, and issues of the artistic life in general. I seem to have a lot to say on this blog, but I don't insist that I'm right. I'm always trying to figure stuff out, and part of that involves admitting that I am almost always wrong in important ways. If you are up for it, please help me out by steering my thoughts in new and interesting directions. I always appreciate the challenge of learning what other people think.
This entry was posted in Art, Arts advocacy, Arts education, Ceramics, Creative industry, Creativity, metacognition, Pottery, Teaching. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to So, you are NOT an Art World *Rock Star*, but…….

  1. In her book “How to Make a Living Doing What you Love – The Artists Guide” Jackie Battenfield says essentially the same thing. Multiple streams of income not only make it more possible to survive as an artist but give us more stability. Whether we get a part time job at a local coffee shop, art gallery, or restaurant, create, teach, get pay per click advertising on a blog, every penny counts. The more able we are to live, the more able we are to create.

    • I’ll have to check it out! Thanks for the suggestion! These ideas need to be more in the public than I’ve encountered so far. (Or maybe I’m just sheltered and find the need to reinvent the wheel at every turn!)

  2. mendel says:

    Maybe for people who are extremely driven to do just one thing, like make art – it makes sense to go for that all-consuming career. But let’s not fool ourselves that being “successful” or “celebrated” or even rich and famous equates to being happy. All you have to do is glance at the “celebrity news” to know that’s not true. The thrill wears off and one still has to figure out how to deal with suffering and how to be happy.
    I also wonder if opportunities for making even a meager living as an artist are waning. Seems especially for musicians it’s become harder and harder to take the gamble that they can support themselves with music.
    And for me, at least, it goes without saying that extremely talented artists of all kinds practice their art with little recognition. It seems like the high-profile kind of success that most people envy is the result of a combination of ambition, perseverance, timing and blind luck – oh, and skill. There are so many stories of “almost made it”, like in that movie “Searching for Sugar Man.” Or how J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter” was rejected by 12 publishers before it was accepted by Bloomsbury, where the publisher told her to keep her day job because he didn’t think it would make much money. Or Kathryn Stockett, writer of “The Help”, which was rejected 60 times over a period of 3 years. There is no doubt in my mind that we have world-class, amazingly skilled, writers, potters, painters and musicians right here in Athens who will never get more than local acclaim. And there are countless great books sitting unpublished in drawers. Oh well… Are these people happy? Are they kind? Are they making the world a more beautiful, whole, connected place?

    • Spot on, Marcie!

      I did leave out ambition, but not on purpose. That issue just seems a little complicated. But you are right that a certain sort of ambition seems necessary for a certain kind of ‘success’…..

      Thanks for chiming in!

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