In James Joyce‘s Ulysses it’s written that literature is a fine tonic for the mind, but I’m wondering now if Joyce’s other masterpiece A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man should be considered a tonic or a poison. The artist of the title is Stephen Dedalus, a young man who aspires to become an artist in spite of what everyone else wants for him. As a character, he’s often priggish, cold and distant, and yet he’s the hero of the story, and the reader can’t help but cheer for him, and in some ways want to be him. Let me pose this question though: is the life of an artist really so grand? It’s like when you witness a drunkard laughing hysterically. In part of your mind, you’ll think something along the lines of “he’s damaging his health, making a fool of himself…” and so on, and yet in another part of your mind you’ll wish you could experience what he’s going through for yourself. I think some of us are predisposed to think that a little suffering is okay if it brings us a moment of great elation, and that’s what draws some of us to the arts.
The problem is, with art, there’s more than a little suffering. Out of all of the career choices you can make in America, artist is among the worst. Kurt Vonnegut Jr. advised his students that if there was any interest they could pursue except art, they should do that instead. There’s wisdom in that advice, and I’d say that it’s even more true today.
To be an artist is to be misunderstood. First, your friends and family won’t understand why you’re not more like them, why you won’t pursue easier routes of success, why you push yourself so far when there’s very little reward. Then, your audience (if you have any, that is) are just as likely going to misunderstand what the point of your work is, or they’ll completely overlook your work’s importance. The meaning of your work is known to you alone and even that knowledge is dim.
A lot of artists start out with the misapprehension that they will be appreciated in society for what they devote their lives to. For the most part, that’s wrong. Here’s what Sarah Palin has to say about the National Endowment for the Arts “NPR, National Endowment for the Arts, National Endowment for the Humanities, all those kind of frivolous things that government shouldn’t be in the business of funding with tax dollars — those should all be on the chopping block as we talk about the $14-trillion debt that we’re going to hand to our kids and our grandkids…” Then goes on to say, “Yes, those are the type of things that for more than one reason need to be cut.”
Is Sarah Palin “going rogue” by saying this? No. For once, Palin’s statement reflects what many Americans are thinking. Notice that she says there’s “more than one reason” for programs like the NEA to be cut? What could those other reasons be besides money? Maybe the general thought people have that art is inextricably linked to hard drug use, extreme left political views, amorality, and immorality. If you’re an artist, a lot of people are going to be wary of you. It’d be nice if there were a community of artists out there to support each other, but so many artists are locked in constant competition with their peers that there’s not much chance for brotherhood or other happy associations.
You’d think at least as an artist you’ll have freedom, which is true, but freedom doesn’t come coupled with success too often. Sooner or later, you have to coddle corporations if you want the right kind of exposure and marketing. Otherwise, you can take the indie/ self-employed route but by doing so you’re consigning yourself to months or even years of relative obscurity.
Maybe you think that being an artist will bring you prestige and a sense of accomplishment. It’s entirely possible that you will be the only one that sees your work’s merit. To give you an example of this, let me go into my own life and say that I’ve had more than a dozen job interviews in the past few months, and out of all of them, only one asked me about the part on my resume that says I’ve self published two books and that I write for magazines and websites. And I didn’t get that job anyways. Every other interview I had involved the hiring personnel completely breezing over a large portion of my resume, then asking me about the time I worked for Subway. Apparently, making sandwiches has more real world importance than writing novels. That sounds like something Tolstoy might have said during his late-in-life depression.
Some artists are successful. Some don’t have to toil invisibly until gaining a sliver of recognition. As is far too often the case though, artists can only surge up from being unknown by doing something that’s already popular, such as writing paranormal romance, or by starring in a movie featuring robots. People sometimes enjoy art that’s different, but not too different.
In the past, I think America had thriving subcultures where artists from the fringes could assert themselves and win at least some success, but as time went on, subcultures started being subsumed into the main culture quickly. When grunge became popular, malls started selling pants where the jeans were already ripped at the knee. To accomodate the hipster scene, shampoo companies are selling hair gel called “Bed head.”
If you’re stubborn and think you have to be an artist no matter what, do yourself a favor by going into visual or musical arts. Reading has gone way down over the years. I’ve heard that the average American reads 1 book a year. I think youtube has conditioned a lot of people to be impatient. Why watch an entire movie when the best parts have been excerpted online? Maybe I’m generalizing too much, but people seem to like their gratification to be instant.
Thanks in part to movies like Lust for Life or Finding Forrester or Walk The Line, people have concieved of the lives of artists as lushly romantic and exciting. In reality, so much of being an artist means putting up with every banal thing life has to offer. Sending in a manuscript to a publisher is a lot like turning in a job application: you have to fill out paperwork for an hour then wait weeks or months (or years) for a response, and much of the time, the response is negative. It’s entirely possible you’ll have to spend years courting failure before getting to hold hands with success. Meanwhile, your friends and family and lover and everyone else will be waiting for you to become the artist you’ve made yourself out to be…
When I was in college a few years ago, there was a civil rights activist from Hawaii visiting Washington to give a lecture about Hawaiian sovereignty. She went on about how natives and citizens were being mistreated by outsiders (which is very true–I’ve been there). At the end of her lecture, during a Q & A session, one student had the nerve to ask her “What would you say to someone who was considering going to Hawaii to visit?” Bluntly, without hesitation, the lecturer replied “Don’t.” I would give similar advice to someone who was curious about what it’d be like to try and make a living as an artist. It might look nice from a distance, but don’t go there.
Despite my sour mood, I should go ahead and plug my two books here. I have self-published two books last year. One is titled The Madness of Art: Short Stories, and the other is A Rapturous Occasion. Both are available on Amazon in paperback and as ebooks. To find out more, please check out my Amazon author page.
Afterword: Normally I don’t rant like this on my blog, but I guess you could say I’ve got a case of ‘winter blues.’ If I believed this article would really stop people from pursuing careers in art, I wouldn’t have written it. I think some of us should be artists just to spite Sarah Palin and people of her ilk. Artists make life interesting. Without them, there’d only be the monotony of work. Still, you’d think society would thank artists more for adding color to life.