Sunday, December 21, 2008

Unemployed: Artist

I went to the bank the other day to open a savings account, a few decades too late. I’ve always joked that we would have enough when we retired to have lunch and then commit suicide, but it’s not so funny anymore. I mean, we might be able to have lunch, but we won’t be able to have dessert, much less afford to kill ourselves. There used to be the “put the old folks on an ice floe and let them float off to die” alternative, but with global warming, that’s out.
But – getting back to the bank.
The efficient young woman filling out the paperwork asked me what my occupation is, and I told her I didn’t have a job, and that I’m a singer, songwriter, and writer. She wrote in the blank: “Unemployed: artist.”
Ouch. I’ve spent a lot of my life trying to justify my existence to myself, and in two words the edifice of my self-worth trembled, and all the dark fears that my parents were right billowed around me. Remember, I grew up on a farm, and came from conservative hard-working people. I remember well their attitude toward artists.
Artists, actors, musicians, dancers, writers, god help us poets and their ilk did not really work. They had fun during the day and stayed out late having fun at night – not like the workers of the world who were early to bed, early to rise, and none of that damned arts nonsense. All musicians were hopheads. All dancers were queer. All painters were dreamy lay-abouts who couldn’t even make a picture that looked like anything. All artists were parasites living off the pissed-off people who had to get up and go to a job every day.
If that is what you believe, there is nothing I could tell you that would teach you what hard work it takes to create art. To create something wonderful out of what you can do with your body, your mind, and your willingness to be a channel for something greater than yourself is something you achieve by years of hard work and practice, all of which you do for no money. In fact, you might have to pay people to teach you technique – voice lessons, drawing lessons, acting lessons, dancing lessons, instrument lessons. Talent is also helpful.
Meanwhile, while studying and practicing, you wait tables, you type, you clean houses or paint houses or build houses, you do something to support your art habit, and you take a lot of criticism, both artistic and personal.
You will be told more than once not to quit your day job, because you just don’t have what it takes.
When you fill out forms that say, “Occupation – check one,” they will never have a box for what you do.
Artistic success tends to be temporary – a painting sold, a few paying gigs. If you get to be the member of a dance or opera company – well, do you realize how many people are competing for those spots, and how good they are? Do you have any idea how many failed auditions every single dancer, actor, and musician lives through?
Oh yeah, it’s a real walk in the park, the life artistic. That’s why most people do it as a hobby. Going to a job is much easier than being an artist. So why do people do it? They have to. It’s who they are.
That’s why it says on my savings account form, “Unemployed: artist.” I’ll go on struggling with the self-worth thing. Why stop now?
You could help by buying one or two CDs. Why didn’t I think of saying that ‘way before Christmas? Oh well. The music’s been good for over 20 years, and it will still be good in January. Email me at:, and we’ll talk.


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