Hello virtual brain trust! I need your opinion. I need to give an artist’s statement and in the state I’m in I don’t really want to talk about my own work. I don’t want to make it personal until I rediscover why I’m making pots. Which doesn’t mean that all my pots are bad pots, just that the reasons I had for making them elude me at the moment. Everything I’ve said in the past sounds hollow and trite. It seems false to my current state of mind. And I’d like to be honest, at least in demonstrating why being an artist is not all champagne and roses.
So give a brother a hand, will you? Is this worth sending to AKAR?
One of the important questions artists ask themselves is “Where do I find wonder? By what am I amazed?” Artists who are serious about doing what they do are usually engaged in research exploring those things. We have questions about the world. Not merely what it is, but what it could be. We seek to add more of the wonder, more of the amazing, and make our world better as a result. Because we believe that doing this is the right thing. Because it is our moral obligation, our responsibility to remake the world, that we see important differences and are compelled to act on them. Artists are not merely driven by what the world already contains, but by what it should contain. And we make.
So being an artist is not like other jobs, and its not always about becoming well off or even always earning a living. That is not usually the point. Sure, we have to eat and pay bills, but there are many means to those ends. And making our art specifically as a means to earn a living confuses getting paid with making art. It can’t just be about the money. Artists are motivated in other ways, and the living we earn is sometimes secondary to our ability to get the right things done. The more we are making a product for the market the less we are engaged in pure research. The more that gets tied up in communicating with an audience the less purely we are expressing our own amazement. The more focused we are on the bottom line the less attention we have for the wonder. Simply put, things other than our curiosity typically pay much better.
Making a living as an artist is essentially a conflict of interest, and rather than reducing the extremes to find a safe middle ground we often simply reconcile ourselves to an implicit schizophrenia. Professional artists have both a calling and a job. What we think important may not be what others even find interesting. That is a hazard. We can’t just make what the public will buy, but we can’t often only make what our own instincts tell us. In an important sense artists are there to serve their art, and not the art being there to serve the artist. And yet it somehow must…..
From the outside the starving artist makes no sense. From the inside it can make perfect sense. Starving artists are admonished to simply “be better business people”, as if that would solve all problems. But the issue is deeper than simply being good at business. Almost anything can be bought and sold, but does that mean it should? Does having a skill, a good, or service automatically mean its for sale? That is a big question, and mostly we don’t know how to answer it.
For instance, the sex industry is enormous, and it just so happens that most of us enjoy lovemaking in our free time. Are we supposed to be getting paid for it? The issue is whether something we do for its own sake, for our own sake, should also be thought of as something we do for marketplace reasons. Does confusing the two cause us problems, or are we just happy to get paid? Every person denying the reality of the starving artist thinks it is enough just to get paid. They do not understand the conflict.
So here is an experiment. If you have a lover, the next time you make love make it a transaction. Puts some cash on the table and let them know how much you enjoyed their services rendered. Who knows, maybe they should be getting paid! But my best guess is that you will be slapped for insulting them. Something we do for love’s sake is not supposed to get measured by the cash we can get for it. Just because it LOOKS like a marketplace good or service does not mean that we are always supposed to treat it that way. Remember, the sex trade is HUGE. Why shouldn’t we get paid or have to pay?
There is another danger in looking at our intrinsically motivated activities as extrinsic: We can lose sight of our original motivation by getting paid. This is a real threat for artists. Another experiment: If you have kids, try paying them every time they did something right. Studied homework? $5! Took out the trash? $10! Nice to your sister? $15!
If you are hoping they will learn to value doing homework and other ‘chores’ unfortunately the last thing you should do is pay them for it. This substitutes one form of value for another. The idea that they are a chore implies something onerous rather than simply good to do on its own. They will start to learn that the reason they are doing things is no longer because they are the right things to do, that they should be doing them, but instead that they will get rewarded for doing them. And eventually they will learn that without getting paid they no longer really have a reason for doing those things. This is a tragic consequence of trading value for worth. Artists getting paid are in EXACTLY this position.
So pity the artist. I write this as my own artist’s statement, but it is meant to frame the difficulty that almost all artists are challenged by. If you read this and understand the dilemma you will have insight into nearly every artist’s practice. Consider it a possible Universal Artist’s Statement. Then look closely at what artists are expressing. If they are communicating well, chances are they are trying to. Not always, of course. But when we don’t get what an artist is saying its not always a failure to communicate but sometimes rather a different and unfamiliar agenda. And that too can be respected. That too may be important to understand. What is that artist’s joy?