I’ve penned a short blog piece that I thought I’d share here should for all artists, aspiring artists, friends of artists, or parents of artists or wannabe artists.
What does it mean to be an ‘artist’?
The Western or capitalist world embeds in its logic the bizarre idea that to earn whatever label you would like to use to describe yourself — artist, photographer, painter, carpenter, designer or whatever — it must provide you with a full-time income. Like making something commercially viable is the only measure of its worth. You hear this a lot from people who are wedded to this model — it’s often their first question — is it a hobby, or your main vocation? Making artwork is tough enough, without feeling like your work has no value because it’s not paying all of your bills. To be candid about my own position, my career thus far has included both ‘full-time’ periods with a good level of income to do what I wish to do in terms of making work, and very lean times where I’ve had to pick up a spade and live on baked beans. And I expect this to continue.
So I just want to say on this point that chances are that if your artwork is paying all of your bills all of the time, it’s likely not very thoughtful (read twee / commercial / naff etc), or you’re late on in your career and have had a lot of luck and are a good self-publicist. History as you know is littered with now-famous, once-penniless artists. And many, many more millionaires have been made from bad taste than good. I’m sure you can list a whole host of wealthy, full-time blue-chip artists out there with a little bit of talent strung out a long, long way. But the solution is not to get angry, and not to get envious. Just don’t play that game. The key is to separate the work entirely from the publicity or the income it generates — because there is absolutely no relation between how good your work is and those things— and if there is any relation, as I mentioned, it works the opposite way that most people assume. The most liked artwork in the UK is that Banksy picture of a little girl holding a fucking balloon.
I think the label artist is more an accurate description of a lifestyle choice. It really describes people who have a compulsion to create that is inherently tied to their mental health and sense of well-being. It’s not necessarily a personality style that you’d want to wish on your children; it’s grindingly tough to have that compulsion and incredibly destructive if you’re not able to exercise it. What tends to separate artists from the more applied creative arts like design is the dislike of compromise. I’d rather not work at all than work to a brief. And I think that’s the same of most artists. We tend to be tunnelled-visioned, compulsive people with little serious desire to compromise or collaborate. Not the best recipe for surviving financially – and therein lies the conundrum.
So assuming that you want or need to use that label to describe yourself — it’s not a necessity… I have a friend who says ‘I’m just me’ when people ask what he does — don’t feel embarrassed to use it or feel like you can’t because you’re not having solo exhibitions in the heart of some major city. I think as a label it’s more useful to yourself than others to recognise a compulsion inside yourself to create that needs to be given all the time that you can spare. Ignore it at your peril; embrace it for a fuller life.