Real Artists

February 24, 2011
by Deborah Atherton
If I were a real artist. . .
  • I wouldn’t have to sit behind this desk and stare at spreadsheets all day.
  • I wouldn’t have to stand behind the information counter at the bookstore and direct mothers with screaming toddlers to the ladies room.
  • I wouldn’t have to go over the wine list with this idiot ordering roast beef who doesn’t know a burgundy from a bordeaux, anyway.
  • I wouldn’t have to stand up in front of this blackboard and forget what I was going to write next, because Joe in the second row just jammed his Transformer into Jill’s ear.
I wouldn’t have to. . .
Well, that’s the fantasy anyway.
But most of us do have to add up numbers, or hand out information, or serve customers who don’t know one red from another but pretend they do, or teach students who would much rather be playing Mario Conquers the Universe.  A few of us manage to be full-time artists all the time; some of us manage it for years at a time, then have to go back and pick up a day gig.  Most of us are full-time artists in our heart, but by day (or night) spend 6 or 7 or 8 or more hours doing something else for somebody else.  And even if we’ve managed to find jobs that engage (or semi-engage) us, in our hearts we are somewhere else.  In our hearts, we are sitting in our studios painting or performing, or with our laptop in Starbucks, or on the streets shooting a film.
So are we still real artists, even though we can’t do our art all the time?
Who decides? Who determines? Who rules on who is “real” or not?
Well, you’ve got two options here.  You can ask everyone you know – or who knows your work – what they think.  You could include former teachers and mentors, relatives, critics, neighbors, friends, colleagues, and random people at parties. This could be quite a substantial survey group, although probably not statistically viable.
Or you could just decide yourself.
Personally, I have to revisit this decision on a regular basis, because I am always trying to talk myself out of it.  And it’s not only because I have a day job. “If you were a real artist,” I tell myself, “you wouldn’t have to do the laundry.”
I am not sure who does the laundry of real artists, in my mind.  Apparently, in my idealized version, real artists do nothing at all but their art.  Presumably they have legions of servants who make their beds, and go to the dry cleaners, and serve them fabulous organic dinners every night.  It sounds like a nice gig, being a real artist. Kind of like being a movie star. Or one of those guys at Goldman Sachs who get the 50 million dollar bonuses.

Of course, I know many full-time artists: writers, composers, actors, painters, musicians, ballet dancers, and the odd video artist. Most of them have to go pick up their own dry cleaning, and not one of them has a personal chef.  So my picture of the burden-free life is completely made up by me (although I’m hoping a few of you out there share this fantasy, because it would be very sad if it really were just me).  But wouldn’t it be nice? Kind of like living forever in an arts colony, always supported, and with someone else serving you dinner every night.

However out of touch with the real world it may be, I think we have to honor this little screaming artist’s ego inside us that doesn’t want to be bothered with anything WHATSOEVER except our art.  It doesn’t want to pick up the children, it doesn’t want to cook dinner, it doesn’t want to pay the bills or kowtow to the boss or paying customers.  It just wants to paint or write or draw or dance or direct. We can’t let it rule our lives, because as human beings, we have to eat and buy clothes and live under a roof, and most importantly of all, perhaps, live with other human beings.  But however much it may frustrate us, and make us doubt our own commitment and reality, it does prod us to hang in there and keep our eye on the prize.
Because what creative people really live for is the opportunity to create, and next to the joy of pursuing our work, doing the laundry is bound to be a bit of a come down.