A letter to the Editor – or – To My Mother

Dear Mom,

I read “The Real Humanities Crisis” by Gary Gutting which you kindly sent me this morning. Well, I skimmed it. I appreciated the sentiment, which I interpreted as a show of support and sympathy for the path that I have chosen, the life of an artist. I write this response sipping coffee and wearing a black turtleneck, but I assure you that is mere coincidence. The article itself, well, it’s almost as hard to swallow as my coffee.

This is the kind of article that gets stuffed into papers to remind us, lest we have forgotten, that the arts are important and the economic system we live in does not support that. Well, eh… that’s kind of baloney. Honestly, things are much better for artists now than they have ever been. The image of a wan, tortured soul suffering from syphilis in the cold corner of his apartment in Paris has been replaced by a gal with big glasses clutching some sort of analog recording device and sipping expensive coffee she traded with some guy at the farmers market she works at. Really, there hasn’t been a better time for us creative kids to support ourselves because we live in a service economy. I overheard a guy at Home Depot who worked at the paint station giving a woman excellent advice on complimentary colors. Turns out he’s an illustrator. My colleague at the bookstore is an animator. I have friends who are musicians and support themselves by tutoring kids. And me, well I’m using my car as a taxi, stuffing envelopes, hustling for film gigs and writing to you. Yes, I tape my shoes together, but I do it from my two bedroom flat before walking out to my new car. I sometimes work till 1am, but it’s Monday morning and I have the luxury of enjoying the cold winter light cascading over my down-stuffed l-shaped sofa.

I’m getting distracted from my point, which is that article is written by someone who is seeing the world as it was, not as it is. The job market is totally different now. The idea of employer and employee has been turned on its head by websites and apps that connect people that need things with people who can do things. So yes, I may pick up someone in my car and drive them to a bar, but they’re the person who fills my order out when I shop for dresses online. I work for dozens of people in a year, but they aren’t the ones who set my schedule. And what’s more, writing and illustrating and making videos or music is the kind of stuff a lot of companies want to pay for when they’re building a brand. And that’s great, because one week of work matching grain on photographs is two months rent and expenses for some of us. So even if I don’t make $75,000 a year, or even a quarter of that, I have the freedom to pursue what I love, sleep in late if I need to, live comfortably, and try something new every day. If I want to make more money, I just have to work more, but it’s a choice. And, I get to do that because I live in an economy that supports it.

There isn’t a crisis. Few artists have ever been able to support themselves by their craft alone. And, who is to say that it’s best to spent 12 hours a day every day staring at a blank sheet of paper waiting for inspiration. I’d be just as miserable doing that as I would staring at a computer screen in a fancy office. It’s all about finding balance between your material needs and your need to express yourself. As an artist yourself, I know you understand.

I’m going to go pay some bills and build boxes for my cool new prop closet.

Love Lili

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2 thoughts on “A letter to the Editor – or – To My Mother

  1. How do you afford a two bedroom apartment and a new car on a quarter of $75k? I appreciate the sentiment- namely that nobody expects art to pay and it should be done for it’s own value, and if you are lucky enough to make some or all of your income from what you love that’s a bonus. To be an “artist”, ie someone being creative, is to be self-employed. Being self-employed is tough because all that’s between you and the bread line is your own talent and a healthy dollop of luck (unless you’re privileged enough to have family to help you along anyway). I know a lot of authors who spent six or seven years writing before someone picked up a manuscript and ran with it. That’s a lot of failure before you get somewhere, and like you say you need to make money somehow whilst you’re doing it. Teaching is the popular option for authors apparently, but desk jobs are also quite common.

    I think the real poverty most artists experience, without being too trite, is an emotional poverty. You have all these long periods of non-recognition the constant mundanity of an existence you don’t really enjoy. You get, as you say, people questioning why you work a job that is below what they’d expect of someone with your intelligence/beauty/wit/charm (delete where appropriate). In the case of most people, you struggle from one grungy place to the next, driving second hand cars (if any), whilst your friends who just went to university to study IT or management or just decided to be plasterers own their own house, have a nice new car and increasingly wives and kids coming along.

    That can make you re-assess the decisions you made. It’s never too late to toss in the towel and reapply yourself to a different path, and a lot of people do that- especially faced with the poverty which sadly enough is still pretty pervasive through society. I don’t know your mother of course, but I think rather than suggest you were sucking water out of moss or eating beans out of industrial cans she was probably trying to give you subtle encouragement in the form of the old “life might be out to get you but here I am” line. Or maybe she just wanted you to apply for manager, I don’t know.

    Iain

    Ps. how is I feel more awkward commenting on the blog of someone I met once than I would commenting on the blog of a total stranger?

  2. Oh Ian, it’s that cloak of anonymity that makes commenting so much easier. We’re real people to each other, despite how superficial our ties are. I appreciate that you do make the same honest and thoughtful comments here that you would where there were no ties at all.

    I know that my mother was giving me encouragement through sending me that article. She’s a very supportive person. My response was more directed at the author of the article than at her. This idea that to be creative is to struggle is tired. We all struggle, regardless of our field of choice. It just so happens that my Mom knows I’ve been toying with the idea of going corporate, and that has been incredibly difficult for me.

    Yes, there is an emotional poverty that comes from not being recognized for your art, but that is just when your goal is recognition. Mine was initially, but now I’ve warmed to the idea of just working for the enjoyment of learning and socializing. A lot of it comes from being somewhere new and exciting, of learning how an industry or a company works, and then moving on when you’ve seen enough. There’s also just pure and unmitigated joy of being able to say “no” to working for a day or two. It’s the freedom of making your time your own. And, while teetering on the bread line is difficult, it’s not a harder life than the daily grind of an office, just a different battle. For me, monotony, and in many ways security, is a death sentence. Creativity comes in many forms. If I have the added bonus of being able to create something all from my own brain and then get recognized for it, well that would be beyond amazing. But, if I just get to have fun and get the satisfaction of knowing I am supporting myself, well, that makes me a really lucky lady.

    And, to answer your question of how I afford this life. Well, I work hard when I need to. I live in a less expensive area (Oakland) rent out the second bedroom in the flat to help with the rent. I bought a car I could afford, and I pay for it as well as make extra income by working as part of a taxi service. I furnished the house with furniture that was used or free. I only spend my money on rent, bills, gas, and food, and I’m an excellent craigslist scavenger. Money is tight, but when I need to make more I do. It all mind of balances out.

    The point of the response was to be reassuring, but also positive. This is a great time for a lot of us to find ways to work that is different from how it is traditionally seen. This is especially the case in the Bay Area in California. It’s exciting and liberating, a little scary too, but not the doom and gloom of the article I read. I felt like I should respond as one of the privileged people who gets to participate in this new economy.

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