Within the province of our ephemeral flesh all of God is imperiled. He cannot be saved unless we save him with our own struggles; nor can we be saved unless he is saved.
The Saviors of God: Spiritual Exercises, by Nikos Kazantzakis, Translated by Kimon Friar
In a recent conversation I had with an artist friend, we were talking about the difficulty of making any money as artists and agreeing on how frustrating it is to be around the age of 40 and still unable to achieve any kind of financial stability or independence. My friend expressed his frustration and regret that we, as artists, don’t get to participate in social and economic life the way the other “normal” people do, and instead are doomed to live like outcasts, creative but not productive. Our predicament is juxtaposed with the fortune of “honest working people”, those that do some kind of work for just reward. Such people get to “exist”, both in terms of survival (it really is not financially viable to be an artist) and socially, through the material validation of their activity by society.
Now, I know that my friend spends hours on end in his workshop and is one of the most “honest working people” I know. He is creative and by definition, this also means productive. Or does it?
How does society view productivity?
Being productive in our society and in every society for that matter is perceived primarily as producing something valued (and rewarded for it) by society. Naturally, if one is productive in splitting hairs or in counting grains of rice and keeping a record of this, this isn’t something society can be expected to regard as useful, so this kind of productivity is rather regarded as idiocy. I do not think you can find a society that would defend the value of such work, its usefulness to the whole, and that would be willing to reward the rice counting worker for his/her labor.
The equation in our societies is quite clear: The proof of value is reward and the meaning of reward is value.
What about artists? How does the artist’s labor fit into this equation? How come hard working artists that do meaningful work encounter such difficulty in their work being valued and their labor rewarded? I am not talking here about charlatans who nearly always manage to get rewarded. But then, they perform a valuable service: They provide spectacle.
The exception for art to society’s equation of productivity and its consequences
If there exists a common understanding that art and artists are performing a valuable task, primarily by keeping society from a spiritual and political regression towards the Dark Ages (a place we are headed back to with increasing speed), why then is there an “exception” from the above mentioned equation?
Don’t get me wrong. I am not talking here about state protectionism, where the artist, no matter what he/she produces, even when this something is merda d’artista (Manzoni’s work nevertheless could be regarded as meaningful at the time), has a salary rolling in every month from the state.
I am talking about society generating real life opportunities for artists to sell their work or be rewarded for their services by merit. The inexistence of such a policy towards art and artists and the fact that they seem to be condemned to remain outside the financial arena, agonizing to make ends meet, often to the point of deprivation, often makes artists feel inferior even when they compare themselves to the most humble of unskilled laborers.
And this conditioning of artists to feel bad about themselves and about their profession is naturally reinforced by their social environment. Time after time, the artist is told, sometimes in a direct, other times in a more subtle way (I do not know which is worse) that they are an anomaly. It is common knowledge that for better or for worse, man is a social animal and whatever notion a society has about a group or an individual, eventually, if this notion is repeatedly expressed in behavioral patterns (as it usually is) towards the said group or individual, it will most likely be internalized. Eventually the individual’s or group’s idea about themselves will mirror society’s verdict.
With time, almost inescapably, artists are bludgeoned into adhering to society’s verdict: They don’t do real work. And this adherence, conscious or not, contaminates them with self-doubt, guilt, and finally, a general feeling of worthlessness.
Is there an alternative to the artist’s dark basement?
I admit it is naive to ask for an exception to society’s all mighty laws. As is the case for education, in order for a just policy to exist for art and artists, society needs to change as a whole, and steer its objectives towards the betterment of men rather than the augmentation of a minority’s power and bank accounts. If this is too much to ask, or at least something not likely to happen in our lifetimes, one has to inquire whether there is an escape we artists can carve for ourselves regardless. I believe there is.
Below I present the duties we are faced with if we want to see ourselves and our work emerge out of obscurity and marginalization.
First duty: Liberate your consciousness
The first thing we need to do is disengage ourselves from the socially prevailing notion that what we do is not work. Many of our woes come from the fact that, to a smaller or greater extent, we have internalized society’s dismissal of art’s inherent value and consequently the value of our labor. We need to realize that art and artists, at least the kind that matters, always went against the grain and were seldom acknowledged as something or someone of value (certainly not something to pay good money for) by society at the time the work was produced. That doesn’t have to mean that we must wait until the afterlife for our work to be acknowledged.
Second Duty: Defend your work
It should be common understanding that no one is going to “discover” you out of the blue, without you taking some steps to get your art out into the world. Nevertheless, I am always surprised to see how rare it is to see artists backing this rational fact with actions. If you believe in your work, then it should be a sort of ideological statement of yourself, one that you are committed to defend no matter what the adversities are. Defend your art as if it were your religion or ideology.
That means defending it inside and outside the workshop.
Spending countless hours producing your work should be your primary activity but this doesn’t do much for the work itself (or for you for that matter) in the end if you are avoiding the, admittedly, tedious, task of reaching out.
Third Duty: Defend your work in the face of “authority” and do not despair at “failures”
Again, defend your work! Maybe you have had a series of “failures”, maybe no authority you have reached out to until now seems to give a damn about what you do. If you do though, you have to keep propagating, disseminating that is, your work. You have to act like you are your work’s greatest supporter and believe that, more likely than not, eventually the world will catch up.
Recently a major publication offered to publish my work. This is what the publication’s editor told me when I expressed my appreciation: “This is how it goes, when you reach out you may inspire someone”. And I did. All I had to do was stick by my work and send that submission out.
Fourth Duty: Follow your own value system
Don’t back down on your pivotal values and principles in order to “be accepted” into the “crowd” or out of fear that you will miss out on “an opportunity”.
This shouldn’t have to be backed with a phrase of wisdom but I will mention something that exemplifies this point pretty powerfully to my mind. Patti Smith has stated that one of the most valuable pieces of advice given to her was this one by William S. Burroughs:
Build a good name. Keep your name clean. Don’t make compromises, don’t worry about making a bunch of money or being successful — be concerned with doing good work and make the right choices and protect your work. And if you build a good name, eventually, that name will be its own currency.
Fifth duty: Pass on the knowledge
Never forget that socially, the artist is not an isolated entity. What happens to artists as a whole, sooner or later, one way or another, will affect you as well. And that artists’ well being depends greatly on the sense of solidarity between themselves within a given society. Now, solidarity is one of the last things that this society propagates and is interested in preserving since it is considered a potential danger to all types of unjust, antisocial policies. When all sorts of authorities practice divide and conquer, it is up to the spiritual world first and foremost to defend solidarity with actions.
Share your knowledge and lessons you’ve learned along the way. This will create community, a condition from which everyone involved stands to benefit and which, at the same time, will weaken the powers that keep us in a state of deprivation. We can actually change our condition. But for that, we have to believe that our work and our world are worth fighting for.
UPDATE: A few months after I wrote this article, a new idea was born, meant to provide artists with a useful tool to sustain their practice. I now see this piece as a prelude to this idea. You can follow the effort of creating a new kind of art patronage platform for artists and art lovers by following this blog. You can also:
And if you wish to know the basic outlines of this new idea, you can start form here: New Art Patronage Model
Featured image: Penelope Vlassopoulou, Le Rebelle, print, 94 x 110 cm, 2006