January 25, 2013 by bradcharlesbeals
In times of doubt, the starving artist may turn to this comforting refrain:
I suffer in my art; therefore I am talented.
or to one of its other forms:
- Good artists should suffer for their art.
- You find your art in your suffering.
- Poverty validates me as an artist.
or to its expression in the obverse:
- I’m paid well for my art, so it’s no longer art but a job.
- If I treat art like a business, it’s something less than art.
- The more I’m paid, the less valuable the art is.
I see a problem in this thinking that I want to set straight. Now, it may be true that the artist suffers, and it may be true that said artist is good. But neither proposition is a function of the other. Like thumb tacks and rubber bands, such things are not mutually dependent, just often in close proximity of one another. Artists take their materials from the things around them. When an artist holds up her impoverished childhood as her inspiration, she’s only doing what every artist does–she’s pointing to her materials. But it’s a fallacy of presumption to say that the first caused the second. Post hoc ergo propter hoc, to be precise. Art happens after poverty; therefore art happens because of poverty. Many artists come from poverty not because poverty is such fertile ground for art but because so many people are poor.
Still, the notion that art should be divested from money resonates with me. It’s a modern meme, the same notion that leads us to decry as a sell-out the indie act or author who signs the big contract. Money taints the work, we think. But it’s an unfair perception, and it hasn’t always been that way. There was a time when the very best artists knew they were the best because they got paid for it. Back in the Renaissance you didn’t get a patron to back you unless you had the talent. Their money was a vote of confidence, an investment.
So what makes the starving artist of today think he has a cornered market on conscientious work? What makes him think that art done in poverty is its purer form? Is the stone mason–paid well, let’s say–necessarily less thoughtful or particular? less professional or skilled? Is he less artistic than the painter? Of course not. Can a butcher strive to be the best at his craft even though he’s being paid? Of course.
Still, it’s hard to shake the idea that there’s a difference between usual toil and work that is creative for creativity’s sake. Most writers don’t make any money as writers. Same for most painters, sculptors, musicians. Yet they keep doing it. So do they work for free? Are the doing pro-bono art for conscience’s sake? No, they do work for something, and the currency they transact in is every bit as valuable as cash. It’s just different.
I see it at work in two places: First, there’s a satisfaction that comes from the activity itself. The smell of paint, the dust of the sanded wood, the balanced sentence, or well-struck chord. And second (this what touches our topic) there’s the work reflected back through the appreciation of an audience. The whole work is a double satisfaction for the artist: creativity going out, its reflection coming back. Act and applause.
So where does money fit in?
Money is the voice of our audience. Money is hands clapping. I rarely hear from someone who downloads one of my books, but his money–earned at a cost of time and labor and spent at a cost of lost opportunity–his money speaks loud. It says “you’re worth it.” Or it at least says, “You’re worth the risk.”
But suppose I dream of striking it rich. Have I then compromised my artist self by tainting my motives with money? I don’t think so. For one, “rich” for most writers is just that level of income that lets him quit his day job. And what will he quit his day job to do? If he’s like the writers I know, he’ll spend his time writing. It’s not riches that writers are after, it’s more time to write. To whatever degree we do this work “for the money” there’s no compromise as long as the money supports the work.
Let me propose a new refrain for the suffering artist…
Money is no vice, and poverty is no virtue.
It’s comforting, but in a wake-me-up, realistic sort of way.