The Unbearable “Likeness” of Being

I know it has been quite a while since I have posted and, as always, I promise to be more diligent at doing so.  Perhaps even consider it a New Years resolution, if you believe in them.  While being away I have been experiencing something rather profound.

While finishing my Bachelors of Fine Arts degree at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, we learned of the many things artists have to do that are not artist related in order to survive.  While there, we were being surrounded by such incredible artworks from the museum that we only dream of being a part of someday. It can be rather easy to forget that these same people, who created this unforgettable and ageless body of work, ever had to exist in a time that lied in between these accomplishments.  However, each day we were lectured about how artists continually have to find other sources of income while trying to sell and make their artwork.  The 2010 labor statistics believe that 60% of workers in the arts are self-employed with many of them working non-art related jobs to supplement their incomes.  All artists will acknowledge that it is true suffering to have to perform non-art related jobs.  Mostly I believe it involves a deep fear that to stop creating artwork will mean we forget how, lose our touch, or lose our forward movement to put our artwork out into the world.

Milan Kundera wrote “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” in 1984.  While the title also refers to love and sex, I believe it also contains a philosophical undercurrent pertaining to the awareness that our lives only happen once and therefore the act of being can become unbearable.  This is true of the artist who works in non-artistic fields for a primary living.

Recently I have received emails from a couple of fellow art students that I hadn’t heard from in a very long time.  Each of them wrote of their current life situation. One wrote to share her story of her need to work as a means of family survival while considering another career path in the medical industry and the other wrote to me as a way to vent out his feelings with the uncertainty that it would be read in its entirety by me because he felt I wouldn’t be interested.  The emails describe their personal disappointment in the fact that they are not creating finished artwork daily (as we did in school) and how much they have taken ownership of this disappointment to their own emotional detriment.  While these two friends of mine (who graduated with me) live in very different regions of the country and do very different artwork with very different views about their work; the commonalities in their emails were exactly the same in detail.  Topics shared included their frustrations with the inability to put their feelings and views on the world into something creative, their sense of failure in not using their hard earned degrees in their current primary career, and the fear that their future will not contain a sufficient amount of time for their artwork.

I, too, have been working in other areas than my artwork with the same struggles. I have relocated to a different state and have been trying to adjust to the various changes in my life and lifestyle.  Having my collegues put words to their “suffering” made me witness my own, like looking into a mirror.   I found myself responding to their emails in somewhat the same way. In my responses I discovered that we were sharing in that profound survival mode, one that we were lectured on but naively never thought we’d actually participate in. 

I never felt as though art school prepared me for the business world of art.  However, looking from this side of that academic experience, I see that they did help me achieve an ego about being able to make artwork for a living and accomplish anything I wanted in the art community.  This ego is the double edged sword that allows artists to put forth their artwork, but also acts as the cement shoes that weigh us down when we have to resort to non-art work to survive.

 I found myself replying to their communications by reminding them that being an artist is about so much more than just creating artwork. Being an artist is also about sharing a particular view of the world.  I believe we look at common things with an uncommon eye.  We feel emotional impulses from objects, ideas, inspirations.  I don’t believe that just because we happen to have a job as a counselor, waitress, customer service rep, or assistant that we lose our ability to see and feel the world as we artists do. 

Yes, we live this particular life only once.  However, we do live for a lifetime in which we create a lifetime of artwork.  For some that may be 10,000 pieces of artwork and for others it may mean 3.  The important thing to remember is to be kind to yourself while surviving your life, embrace your artistic self in all that do (art and non-art related), and do something creative each day even if it’s cooking something different or taking a photograph with your smartphone.

There is an unbearable lightness or likeness of being an artist, but the defining moment is how you choose to allow it to define you.

Bust? Or just a new opportunity to create…

I have been reading more and more lately about Art and the current economic outlook.  The New York Times ran an article back in February discussing whether the “Boom” was over; pointing out the large amount of product for sale in the art communities and the lack of patrons willing to pay for art.  The article discusses the powerful movements created in art from recessionary times (i.e. the creation of SoHo in NY, the use of available materials such as work by Gordon Matta-Clark, or rooftop performance art pieces).  There is some historical referencing done by Holland Cotter to compare this current recession to those which occurred in the 70’s and 80’s.  You can read it in its entirety here
During this same past year LINC (Leveraging Investments in Creativity) released their results from a survey taken using 5380  artists nationwide.  The survey was completed in just under a month over the summer and was titled “Artists and Economic Recession Survey”, focusing on artists economic circumstances almost a year into this current recession.  In general the survey confirmed the NYTimes article with regards to artists having to make changes in their lifestyles, locations, entrepreneurial skill adaptability; all of which will create a large art movement.  51% of artists surveyed reported a decrease in their art-related incomes between 2008-2009 of which a small percentage seen the decrease exceed 50%.  65% of surveyed artists hold at least one other “day job” in addition to their art practice.  One of the most staggering figures was that 44% of surveyed artists felt a need to lower fees/rates charged for their work.  Although most of the figures in the survey are not appealing, 75% of the surveyed artists had a positive outlook to the future and felt it is an inspiring time to be an artist, but not without their personal worry.  In the survey artists indicated their worries are focused around funding for projects, grant monies, and rising debt.  You can read the actual survey here.
Most recently I attended a panel discussion at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago titled “The Creative Economy: Beyond ‘The New Normal'”.  It was a panel consisting of Kelly Costello, director of Design Research at Doblin, Inc.; Mark Dziersk, VP of Design Brandimage-Desgrippes & Laga, Educator at Northwestern University; Theaster Gates, University of Chicago, Coordinator of Arts Programming; and the school’s President Wellington Reiter.   The information used for the panel discussion was the same as it is in the above paragraphs, however I felt this was more interesting because I was listening to the panelists who came from diverse areas in the art community.  The general philosophies expressed were detailed and interesting.  There was a discussion about the MFA becoming the new MBA whereas corporations and businesses are seeking out individuals who have problem solving skills and can think “outside the box”.  Artists are well-known problem solvers and its our creative ways of thinking which are appealing to businesses who are looking to gain ground in a quickly moving world.  There was also a re-emphasizing of the entrepreneurial skill building during the down time in order to make yourself ready when the market turns around.  While this is encouraging for someone like myself who has a strong business and art background, it’s not so wonderful for the person who wants to be  a practicing artist.  However, I have heard from the school that in the springtime they will be holding another panel discussion that focuses on gallery exhibiting and art making in this economy.  You can see the panel discussion on these 3 links. 
1. Part One
2. Part Two
3. Part Three
I guess what I am hearing from all of this chatter about art and our current recession driven economy is that as artists we need to create change.  The artists need to stay focused on their convictions, look inside of themselves to see what they would like to accomplish, and then persevere in that direction no matter what.  We need to continue to solve problems, regardless of their nature and boast that we possess that skill.  This economy will turn around and artists will be the ones who leave the footprint of what it’s implications have been.