Life of the Artist

Posted on 04 June 2009

I find people generally do not get the life of artists and most certainly don’t get the nature of fame. I am including the artists themselves in this generalisation. I feel that everyone would be a little happier or at least better informed if some light were shed on this topic.

Wealth

If people see the work of some artist in the media, they tend to assume the artist is therefore wealthy. This myth is perpetuated by US television and film. However, its effect has been felt around the world, and storytellers internationally have taken it on in order to tell stories about the rich and powerful.

Some artists get rich. We hear a lot about them, because they attract interest and sell papers. Most artists in all fields struggle through much of their career. Even artists who have been on TV may find they are still living in rented accommodation and perhaps on the dole. They may have fans and they may well have some important things to give to the world, these will assure them food, clothes, and a roof over head, but perhaps not a gold watch and a Ferrari.

Most countries outside of the US just do not have the wealth or population to create a vast pool of resources for its creators. This is sometimes kept secret, because people often judge success in dollars and cents, rather than the effect an artist has had upon them and their culture. Nothing succeeds like success, so who wants to admit they may be doing it hard?

The sad results of this situation are people treating artists with contempt for being poor, and treating them with contempt when they are rich. They must have “sold out” if they have money. They must be “no good” if they are doing without.

I have been a part of (and left) a committee for a conference where the organisers were planning on asking some performers to work for free. After all this particular conference event was going to be for charity. They didn’t consider asking the caterers to work for free, they didn’t consider asking cleaning and maintenance people to work for free, nor did they  consider asking  the venue for free hire. Do the performers deserve less pay than these people simply because they are artists? I tried to explain that artists frequently do not get regular pay nor get paid very much. They could even be the subject of a charity. The response I received from some was that then the performers should be grateful for the exposure. This is coming from a group where a significant percentage earn wages over the six figure mark.

As an artist you will need to start out working for peanuts and sometimes even for free. Just be careful where you give yourself away. Support the people who support you. Support other artists. Support venues that help young artists to develop and find their feet. You can choose to help charities, but do not let them take up so much of your time that you aren’t establishing a paying career. You don’t want to be the subject of a charity yourself. Anything else and it’s worth being part of a guild to ensure you and other artists are paid fairly for your work. Never let yourself get so desperate that you slit your own throat and the throats of others by taking less than adequate wages. This helps no one.

More Important

Our culture has many subtle hierarchies beyond the usual hierarchies of race, wealth, and power. Media exposure lends its subjects added importance. People tend to believe that you are at least a few more steps above them if you are worthy of public attention. Sadly, a school teacher who manages a hundred percent success rate in seeing her students graduate is likely to be seen as of less value than a hooligan who repeatedly gets into the news for misbehaviour.

Artists need media exposure in order to sell their wares. Sometimes their wares, as in comedy, are directly about making media interesting. Fans are not simply fans, they are customers. So of course you will see performers doing things to gain attention. It’s how they make their living. It may or may not be about their ego.

Mind you the hierarchy of media attention brings with it plenty of opportunity to inflate your sense of self. I remember when my book about the Internet came out in the nineties. I remember promising myself that it was okay to be proud of my work and to thank people for their compliments, but it was not okay to think I was better than, separate from, or above anyone because of its success. All people are of value. Even so, it did take an effort to keep my ego in check, though maybe not 100% successfully. Some of the people around me were pushing very hard to expand it, because it made them feel important to be around someone important. I watched other authors published at the same time give into the inflation. They became less pleasant people to be around.

It does not pay to alienate your audience by playing the “more important” game, even if you are playing at being the high artiste. Art for art’s sake is a myth. Every work of art needs an audience. If a painting hangs in the forest and no one sees it, is it art? This does not mean you should give into always going with the mainstream. You must  weigh the needs of the audience with your own needs and the needs of your vision. Keeping that balance right is an important  skill and where true artistic integrity lays. You are a human, you are connected to humanity, art can be an expression of the soul, but if you wish to make that an expression to the world, then you will have to learn how to take criticism as well as praise gracefully.

Fleeting

Fame is fleeting, respect can potentially last a lifetime. But honestly, no guarantees can be made for people following the artistic life. You can be hugely popular in your youth, then disappear into obscurity as you get older. You can work very hard for most of your life and finally get a bright burst of acceptance late in your career. And you were no more or less important at any stage of this process. Public attention can flow in and out like the tide, even though it’s the same ocean.

Early on you are going to have to find a firm foundation for your sense of self esteem, because the fame game will never give you enough support to feel truly good about yourself. Feel good about yourself because you are skilled and meticulous. Feel good about yourself because you care about your audience. Feel good about yourself because you help other artists and other people. Feel good about yourself because you are a compassionate and humane person. Feel good about yourself because you are a unique being in the universe. Don’t rely upon fame as your inspiration. Stick with your artistic pursuits because you love them, they too help you to feel good about yourself.

Peace and kindness,

Katherine


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