Monetising creativity is one of the most difficult of tasks on the planet. ‘Monetising creativity’; what a horrible marketing-bullshit phrase that seems so irreconcilable with the path of authenticity and wonderment chosen by the artist. Yet unless you’re lucky enough to be born to exceptionally affluent parents (and over-privilege rarely makes for good art anyway), there is rent to be paid, and bread to be bought.
The sensible path is that creatives take a full-time job, and pursue their creative endeavours as a hobby, as so few of us will ever make the cut. I don’t agree that you should do this without having a long-term goal of turning your hobby into a living, but in the short-term this might be right, and this leaves you with two obvious paths (in my humble opinion!). A career-type, salaried job that will preserve physical energy and provide enough money to invest in making artwork but likely leave you mentally drained. Or, a low-wage, bar or café type job that’s physically demanding but leaves you with a little more buzz left in your brain (but perhaps not enough to cash to fund your personal projects).
This is something of a conundrum. The first might also suck you further into the career-vortex and into considering such inane things as promotions (no judgement, I’m an anarchist at heart) and making investments in things like mortgages, which suddenly leave you without an escape route. And the precarious nature of the second can make day-to-day life so difficult as to make long-term planning (and you need a game plan as an artist) a little harder to get your head around.
I tried the career route for a year, training and working as a magazine journalist, but (as an anarchist at heart) struggled with having a boss, getting in at a set time, wearing clothes I didn’t want to wear, and being forced to stay till 5 and pretend to work even though I’d done what was needed for the day. Not to mention having to listen to the drivel of the sales team talking about the next car they were going to buy (every fucking day). The middle ground I found was to retire from a career job age 23, and write freelance for magazines, which I did until my mid-30s. It was hand to mouth and not an easy existence, but left me with enough time and mental energy to build up my portfolio.
And I wasn’t shy of taking housing benefit in the lean times, something I recommend to all artists. If you’re busy and focused, there’s nothing to be ashamed about here. The good thing about the freelance work was that it paid a lot more than café jobs hour-to-hour, leaving me with more time, but didn’t provide enough security to tie me into anything that would compromise my long-term goals. These sorts of gigs aren’t easy to find, so I was lucky in that respect. My advice if they’re not forthcoming is to work part-time and take all the government assistance you can get, and live on an absolute shoestring. At least you’ll have time and energy to make work.
At what point do you give up the dream? I say NEVER. There’s a great quote somewhere that I can’t find by a person whose name I can’t remember that basically says the successful artist is the last person clinging on. Perhaps it’s wrong to give hope to those lacking the right talents (I shall never be a professional long distance runner, no matter how hard I train) but perhaps better to die still pursuing the dream than end up in a windowless office somewhere committing slow suicide by boredom and disappointment. I was so stubborn as to refuse even the contemplation of this, which has proved a very useful trait indeed (see the metaphor about clinging on). And anyway, art as a lifestyle choice and all that.
So I’ve been lucky enough these recent years to make a full-time living from the sales of my artwork, which means my day to day job is effectively dreaming up new ideas and then executing them. It’s a pretty great life, though there’s still the worry that it might all go tits up and I’ll be back to writing regurgitated articles for magazines (something I’d really grown to hate). There’s one more real bugbear of doing this full-time that I’m going to share, but only because it would have been useful and relevant to me in my earlier years (without this qualification it does sound a bit like awful, privileged whinging). And that’s that your work suddenly becomes tied to the market and the gallery world in general.
So, there’s this real danger that you suddenly lose self-belief if times are lean (there still ain’t no salary bubbs). These pay slips now seem like a direct reflection on your work and will now determine whether you get to keep doing what you’ve come to really love. You’re not playing for fun anymore. And my particular brand of work is very expensive to make (set-builds, travel to USA, paying actors etc etc). The idea of changing artistic direction to pursue better returns is a fool’s errand, and something I’d personally be far too stubborn and idealistic to entertain. So you’re just left with this nagging feeling that your work’s not up to scratch and your future’s in the balance when you’ve spent everything on a big production and the returns aren’t coming in. Or feeling totally secure and loved when your belly’s fat with sales.
And the money aspect is just one part. There are the responses (or lack of) from journalists and critics to a new project, the lack of an email reply from a previously interested gallery in a geographical zone in which you’re not yet represented (despite having flown out to meet them), or a curator that isn’t interested in your work for a show you’d really like to be a part of. Having a number of setbacks land on your lap when your bank balance is nearing crisis point can be tough. You don’t really deserve to be here, they’re all a bunch of c***s, and you’re going to take your ball home and not play anymore or ever again. At least when you were invisible you could just think of the potential.
These thoughts are perhaps the product of me settling into this role as an emerging artist, or the product of way too much coffee, or maybe a natural tendency to paranoia or neurosis. Either way, in times of balance and clarity, the obvious answer is that none of it has ANY bearing WHATSOEVER on the quality or import of your work. Good artists knew they were good before everybody else did, said a wiser man than me. You should know after years of honing your practise whether a particular project has merit, and hopefully you’re on your way to finding an audience who appreciates and responds to what you do (making art for yourself isn’t so much fun.)
The other slightly more cynical thing to remember when doubt kicks in is that having a glimpse into this world gives you enough sense to realise that some extraordinarily bad art sells for an extraordinary amount of money. And that a stunning number of critics and journalists have little eye or imagination. Many are far too left-brain heavy and get totally hooked on the news cycle zeitgeist (selfies, google images, or female self-empowerment anyone?) and the idea that photography must be ‘worthy’ or heavily conceptual to have any merit. That need to separate art from craft with hyperbole is a bottomless pit of tedium into which installation art has disappeared. Let’s hope that photography doesn’t go the same way.
So this is a call to arms really. All those folks out there that you feel are integral to the progression of your career are really winging it if the truth be known, and are just as susceptible to the Emperor’s new clothes as everybody else (they’ll be talking about how much they’ve always liked your work when you’re in your glorious naked threads don’t you worry.) Far better to spend your time honing your craft and enjoying the process than entering awards, wasting time networking (I never did either), worrying about getting press and fretting about when it’s all going to happen.
And this is also a personal reminder to myself that as long as I am able to continue to do this full time, nothing else really matters. Not a review, not an opinion, not the success of a fellow artist, nor a snub for a show. If I can live sensibly enough to keep going full time, this is the dream. And if you’re not a full-time artist yet but you’ve found a base income that’s pleasant enough, and leaves you with enough time to make work, you’re doing alright too. Just be sure to be stubborn enough to keep clinging on.< Back