Real Artists

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.
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9 Responses to Real Artists

  1. A few thoughts in no particular order…
    Without having to engage in the “real world”, what would the art be about?
    As I age I realize that I’m very good at some things and no good at all at others. Doesn’t it make sense to budget time and energy to those activities with the best likelihood of success? But is it a coincidence or just self-fulfilling manipulation that the things I think I’m good at are the fun, creative ones and the things I’m no good at are dreary tasks like organizing, keeping records, and the worst of all, self-marketing?
    What do you do when creativity hits a brick wall? Writer’s/painter’s/musician’s/dancer’s block?
    Every job needs to get done and somebody has to do it. Is it fair, responsible, etc. to always pass it off on someone else? Might be fun, until the guilt kicks in.
    Life’s too complex to do only one thing.
    Well, thanks for making me think about this, but I’ve got to run to finish the dishes!

    • deborahatherton says:

      Well, there are some people who are good at and enjoy organizing, keeping records, and even self-marketing – although I’m not sure the first two qualities often mesh naturally with the third. Things are often dreary for us, I think, because they are neither interesting nor easy. But I do agree the real world helps keeps us honest as artists– although I still feel I could use a little less real world and a little more Rosie the Robot to clean my apartment!

      • As we (used to?) say, reality is for people who can’t handle drugs!
        Anyhow, please send Rosie over when she’s done with your place.

      • deborahatherton says:

        Ah, Rosie! She’s the one science fiction promise I was really counting on by now!

        Almost every lawyer I know dreams of doing something else–they may not need a day job to support their careers, but they sure need their careers to support their daydreams.

  2. If I were a “real” writer…I’d be off in a cozy mountain cabin with a big hearth and fire place. It’d be snowing as I gaze outside my picture windows and the wind would be howling. I’d sip on warm tea during the day and the fullest, yummiest red wine at night. I had visitors only when it fancied me and I’d take long walks with my dogs in the woods. I would be content and when I sat down to write the words would just flow…Ah, the life a “real” writer.

    Thank you for calling out the real writer in me – That’s me on my laptop in my jammies (sink full of dishes, laundry to do and a whole host of other things not getting done) on the days when the words flow.

    • deborahatherton says:

      That cabin sounds just lovely with its big fireplace and select visitors. But until the cabin comes, I say ignore the dishes and the laundry and write, write, write! (Although since I like reading what you write, perhaps my motivation is selfish!)

  3. If you say, I am … poet, librettist, composer, artist, whatever. You are. One hope for one that produces something tangible. Your rant about only wanting to do your art comes with the territory. It’s part of the process of clearing room to work.

    For me, sometimes my process of clearing room to work might be doing the laundry because deep down I am working in a different way and I’m freed from my desk.

    I always thought, particularly after I read The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, what I really needed was a wife. A wife who would pick up the laundry, get dinner started, dust, vacuum, fend off marketing phone calls, be my gargoyle at the gate.

    I agree that whatever you can do to not to have to kowtow to a boss is good. I agree that screaming artist ego can be a good thing.

  4. Another thought…. Does one expect an investment banker or a lawyer to have a day gig to support those careers?

  5. Richard says:

    Maybe you should travel back in time and ask Van Gogh about the reality of being a ‘real’ artist. We all have these comforting fantasies of the genuine artist, with the perfectly Bohemian lifestyle, but the truth is few artists achieve that level of financial independence. And the ones who have it, who have never faced the struggles of everyday life, are usually crap anyway. Sometimes the horrors of the ‘day job’ refine us as human beings and make us better artists.

    Most artists have to kowtow to someone. Writers to publishers, designers to clients, directors to producers. There’s always some form of ‘customer’ to make happy. Few of us are able to exercise our craft without constraint.

    Sure, doing the laundry is a drag. But the day I’m comfortable with someone else washing my underwear is the day I lose something of myself.

    Interesting post, Deborah. 🙂

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