January 25, 2012

Diary of a Crazy Artist

“Scribble on grid,” an expression of existential anxiety.

Once upon a time artists mostly produced art. These days, however, artists are supposed to put on shows; curate shows; deal with media, with marketing, with galleries (and with gallerists!), with designing their own websites, with photographing their work, with not dressing like a slob, with paying rent for both their apartment and their studio; buy supplies for their art; do their own carpentry; know their own cultural context; understand art history; be hip to whatever current famous European philosopher is popular (was Derrida, now it’s Slavoj Žižek); be aware of what’s going on in the art scene (extra points for knowing what’s going on in the literary scene, too); maybe speak at least one other language (two is better — and having basic working knowledge of a guitar or piano is another plus); be able to outdrink other artists and, if need be, have enough stamina to stay up all night at parties. Oh, and to be really popular, an artist should be a good cook and throw fun dinner parties (hint: chicken is universally liked, as well as homemade bread, and lots of booze, if possible).

As you get older, throw in the need for a decent job to pay the bills so you can make your art, learn to jog or get into that weird fake rock climbing stuff they do at some gyms, get a dog or a cat, be able to discuss important books like Moby Dick, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, Love in the Time of Cholera, Infinite Jest, and Being and Time. It’s enough to drive you crazy.

If you get your MFA and then are lucky enough to get a teaching job, well then, get ready — not only is there almost no job security, but most art schools don’t pay that well for part-time teachers. Expect to run around and maybe teach at two or three schools at a time as you build up your teaching résumé. Of course, for that you’ll need a car. And the car will need gas. But if you don’t get your teaching experience you will probably never get a solid & regular teaching job. Based on my personal experience, many schools pay from $35 to $55 an hour for part-time teachers. Unfortunately, if one class is, say, three hours long and you teach three classes a week, that means you are only working nine hours a week & making between $315 and $495. That’s $1,260 to $1,980 a month — before taxes. That sucks. You can’t live on that! It’s enough to drive you crazy.

Worst of all, you could do all of the above and not be making the kind of work that sells. You might feel your art is really amazing but then not have a gallery. Or you could be doing work that sells but not have a gallery that sells very much art. Or you could have a good gallery representing you but are too busy running around teaching to produce enough work to make a living. At this point in their careers, inexplicably, some artists I’ve known have decided to have children. Or they had children right in the middle of their MFA program. Then they juggle having a child while they hunt for a job or try to finish school. It’s not wrong to want a family, but it is enough to drive you crazy.

So where is the work/life balance for artists in this country? No artist health care, no artist unions, no artist retirement pensions. Very few stable art jobs. So what happens when we get old? If we don’t get famous will we be forced to eat cat food while we live in low-income hotels on Broadway and the Tenderloin until we die? When is all this supposed to get better? If anyone finds out, let me know.


Comments (13)

  • Chris,
    Great piece that brings to light what seems to be a dirty word in art institutions and the art world at large (as well as all kinds of “business”- labor. Recently reading and hearing many artists praise the fact that “artists have become so diversified now and can wear so many hats”, I replied to a friend “I may be capable of doing many of those things BUT I don’t want to hold 5 jobs. As an artist I already make my work and work a second job that pays the bills.” It’s not about whining or not loving one’s work, but rather pointing to issues of exploitation in the workforce, whatever the work context may be. In a climate where artists are expected to do all of the things you’ve mentioned in order to be “active” members of their community- with little or no pay, and art schools are being run as corporate entities that fire tenured/unionized faculty, how can one look at the structures-that-be and not think about issues of labor, exchange value and sustainability. A very old story becoming more and more accepted in our culture – and one that will not change unless artists actively change it. Thanks for writing about it!

  • Omar Trench says:

    Very nicely written and incisive, but we’re living in a philistine, materialistic, consumer culture that is antagonistic to art, to the idea of art, to beauty, to style. Art has always existed somewhere out in the margins – that’s nothing new. But what’s happening now, with the cannibalization of American resources (human resources, intellectual resources, financial resources, natural resources, educational resources, emotional resources) is something quite unique and amazing if you’re awake. You have a devolving culture where the guy out on the street can’t survive, feed his family, stay in his house, go to the doctor, much less retire. He can’t figure it out. He never heard of art and has no use for it.

    Forty years ago, I saw a conceptual art piece in the Whitney done by Robert Morris. It was a piece of note paper, typed, framed in a cheap black frame from Woolworth, proposing that the Whitney Museum mortgage their collection for $6,000,000, invest the money at 6% (which was possible then), give half of the proceeds to Robert Morris, and the other half to subsidizing emerging artists.

    That was a turning point in my career as an artist. I didn’t immediately stop painting, teaching college, hustling dealers, rich people, grants, or selling work. But I methodically, systematically organized capital and learned how to trade, back when you could still make money in the market. That was my conceptual art, my choice, and I think it was an authentic choice.

    Ten years later I dropped out, and I never looked back. Now I’m an old man who can still paint, write, think, love, cook, live in Montevideo, or Meknes, or Paris if I feel like it, and not give a fuck about the vicissitudes of surviving as an artist.

  • Brandon Drew Holmes says:

    You present the current persona of a artist as a businessman, which there is nothing wrong with that, but within this is the reality that not all artist want to be in this position. This art world which you speak of is basically a business and if you want to be a part of this world/business then you need to do these things. Someone who wants to be an architect, chef, dancer, fashion designer, whatever needs to adhere to these demands. It’s the reality of it, but their is also the reality of it that you can still go into the world and do these things and not do it this way. If artists want to be positioned in this environment and climb financially and fame wise, then this is a part of of it and you need to get use to it. As Heather says “You want to fuck with the eagles, you have to learn to fly.”

  • Brandon Drew Holmes says:

    I personally believe that an artist only has to deal with what they put on their plate. I would hope that anyone who positions themselves in a creative atmosphere is interested in attaining all that they could, interact with all that they could and do what it is they strive to do to the best of their capabilities. The level of awareness one must maintain to be a part of the art world, or better art economy, involves a number of things, but this is not a basis for being a artist. You speak of being an artist as if it’s a real job. As if it’s something that has ever presented and positioned itself as a paying gig. Healthcare because you are an artist? Fuck that. Healthcare because you are a human being on this planet. But this is another topic. When one decides that they want to focus their life on creativity and production, they need to acknowledge that this is for them and them alone. This is not some task that the world is starving and hoping to continuously fill. This is a personal choice that is made by many, that becomes the responsibility of the world to acknowledge and support. I do think it’s interesting how many artist you “aspire” to teach don’t give a rat ass about teaching outside of some university. all the things you mention above are things one should probably take into consideration if they are hoping to build a successful career in the art economy, but these are not things that are key to producing work. Move to Wyoming and get a cottage and fucking make art. Being an artist isn’t work, as hard as it is, but life. As the world changes, so does the art world structures. What we have to do as creative individuals is be honest with where we want to be within this structure.

  • Hey Chris, you forgot to mention finding creative ways to pay back 100k in student loans before you die!!

    All sarcasm aside, you did leave out something important—the upside, which is: all the amazing people/voices/ideas/events artists are, create, manifest and share with not only themselves, but the world, and often for free.

    Being an artist is actually a very giving, humanitarian life endeavor….I suggest adding—and reading—Lewis Hyde’s The Gift to your list of important literary works.


  • Chris,

    You may be Andy Rooney’s replacement. I’ve thought of these things you mention many times. You really have to be a dreamer or stubborn to continue making art through the whole of life. It doesn’t get easier. We begin to question ourselves when we continue to make things whose value is never picked up on by society. The reception of one’s art can seem hopeless and meager. Hopefully the process continues to be rewarding.

    I consider myself among the lucky with some means of income, but it is a still a life of conviction and increasing doubt. Not an easy thing to maintain. Hopefully we find some fellow sufferers along the way. Great post.

  • Well, you made me laugh despite the grim truth of it all (which you’re obviously working to relieve via activism). I laughed from the gestalt of your rhythm and the punch of your trope when it comes here, “It’s not wrong to want a family, but it is enough to drive you crazy.” looking forward to more of your writing!

  • I was an itinerant art teacher. At one point I was teaching at 4 schools at the same time. Then I got a break and got a sabbatical replacement job out of town. That turned into a 1 1/2 trek across the country where I lived in 4 cities all because I got another temp job. Luckily, I grew out of the need to be rich and famous. Look how hollow fame turned out to be. And, I decided to stop moving around so much. I didn’t want to end up 65 still looking for that full time teaching job. I’ve got a decent job now in new media at an art museum; I’m making some art that makes me happy; and I’m even a Dad.

    Yep, getting older has its perks.

    You might be interested in an article I penned in the mid 90s on “New Roles for Artists in the Information Age.” It’s not a panacea but it simply means we’ve got to find a different way of living.

  • like my good friend Paul Riccobono once told me, “you cant eat art”…good post, the truth hurts but also inspires…

  • Oh, I just looked at the post above mine and realized I’m with stupid. No, wait. Not stupid. Smug and privileged aren’t the same as stupid, even though the family resemblance is strong.

  • Oh, Chris. You just described my entire life. And not just mine, but that of all my artist friends.

    The irony of art has always killed me. You know, how it’s basically baseball cards for rich people. They collect and trade and pay outlandish sums of money, but only for artists who are well connected socially or dead or both.

    So much money floating around in their world, while we still do the 21st century equivalent of starving in garrets.

    Seems to me revolution is the only cure.

  • h.l. mencken says:

    Hey you’re forgeting the main thing artists do these days: whine about their lives and blame society for their own bad decisions.

  • Vance Maverick says:

    I’m not sure it would help you feel less crazy, but if you read up on what being an artist entailed before say 1800, you’ll see it was a complex vocation for quite a long time, consisting of much more than putting pictures on the market. Even well into the 19th century, artists had to do a lot of what you describe here (to say nothing of designing military fortifications, writing math textbooks, and learning classical Greek).

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