I have never wanted to be an artist. For someone who has always been known to be drawing and to be good at it, this is a funny statement. Yet I’ve never considered it a career option. Seriously, though, nothing else was a career option, either.
Then, during Christmas break of my senior year of high school, I started playing with oil paints in earnest and, after graduating in June 1975, turned most of my conscious hours to a further study of art history and painting. It was then that I knew that I didn’t want to be an artist. They tend to live unsettled lives and not to have much money or many material possessions and while I’ve never cared much about money or status I do like to turn my home into a library.
But it was also a matter of not having the temperament to promote myself.
And, ultimately, it was a realization that I actually need to make art, that something needs to come out of me that my conscious mind has no control of and no intellectual or external force can dictate.
In the beginning I sold a few paintings to friends, classmates, and family. If it was a work that I’d already created all was fine. If it was a commission for something I probably would have done anyway, such as a portrait of a rock band, it came out alright. But if it was for something I would not normally do, such as a landscape, it was a painful failure.
Over the years my art has persistently taken a turn toward the sexual until, in the spring of 1983, I began doing drawings that were sexually explicit and it came to be the only graphic work I was producing, something not many galleries are willing to put on their walls. It has taken me decades to untangle what that was about, and I’ve been finding it was a lot more than hormones and cabin fever.
It took me quite a few years to filter through this, and to come to terms with the limitations of exhibitors, still going through the motions of looking for a gallery to sell or exhibit my stuff. This led to a show of my drawings at UMD’s Tweed Museum in the spring of 1983 and propelled the Duluth Art Institute into putting up a group exhibition of drawing in the spring of 1985.
That was the last time I’ve shown any drawing or painting of mine in public.
Any reason I can give will sound puritanical and righteous. It was just a matter of artistic survival: if I had no inner compulsion to make the art I simply wouldn’t draw or write or paint anything and I cannot produce what I am not emotionally compelled to do.
I finally, consciously chose not to pursue art for money but to take any job that would keep my art free.
Slowly I’ve accepted the stigma of being an amateur rather than a failure. (It is perfectly honorable to fail at making a living through your art. You just have to be seen making the effort.)
Someone recently referred to me as a dilettante. At first I took offense, not so much because it implied I wasn’t serious about art (though there is that implication) but because of the class associations. Can a working class person, someone not much more than a janitor, be a dilettante? It sounds so affluent.
There aren’t many synonyms: amateur, dilettante, tyro (a totally alien word), dabbler, putterer. Specific to painting is the “Sunday painter”. Traditionally that would be someone who paints in the park to relax and, maybe, draw a little attention (and if they are good enough, a few strokes to their vanity).
Much more offensive, to me, is to call a non-professional artist a hobbyist. I would refer to someone playing in a cover band or the aforementioned Sunday painter as a hobbyist: someone who does it for pleasure or relaxation. But someone whose art is coming from some hidden psychological place as a matter of necessity is no hobbyist.
But I’ve had to live with my opinions as nothing more than a defensive posturing until last fall when I blundered into a wonderfully wise and coherent filmed monologue of musician and record producer Steve Albini talking about life in the recording industry. (I will quote it extensively in a moment.)
He is one of the most revered record producers in rock and a something of a legend because of his 1980s band Big Black. There are quite a few interviews, monologues, and lectures available on YouTube. I recommend watching all of them. He is always clear spoken and direct and intelligent. Whether or not you agree with him, and I don’t, he’s well worth listening to.
You can imagine the sense of validation I found in listening to him say that not everyone should expect to make a living through their art, that it’s not only hubristic but also destroys the art (or your feelings toward your art).
The quotes below, almost continuous, begin at 4:22 in the video. It opens with him discussing why a band might not choose to allow their song to be used in a film, which most bands would look at as easy money, if they’re not wanting to be associated with the message of the film.
“We’ll just carry on working at our day jobs for awhile and make money and pay rent. You know. We don’t have to use music as a tool to generate money. I think that’s an option that’s open to everyone. I think everyone could treat music that way. It’s in a way a hubristic presumption to think that you can be purely a musician and that the rest of the world will pay you for the privilege of hearing your music. I think that that’s a little bit naïve in some cases and, you know, grossly overstating your importance in other cases. And, in any case, it makes it harder for you to do things that you’re comfortable and happy with if you have to use your art as way of generating your income. Then you’re inexorably linking your lifestyle and your personal comfort with the decisions you make for your art. But I see music as something like, say, skiing or painting, something that you can enjoy doing for its own sake, and you should. Very, very few people should expect to do it professionally. Very few people should expect to do it as a career. And most of the tension within any artistic endeavor comes from the mistaken presumption that anyone who wants to can be a professional artist. You know. And that’s where a lot of discontent comes from. A lot of people’s dissatisfaction with how they’re treated comes not from the fact that they weren’t treated fairly but from the fact that they carry expectations about how they should be treated. And the easiest way to avoid that disappointment is just to maintain a realistic perspective on music or art or whatever it is you do as your creative expression. You maintain a perspective on that where that allows you to enjoy doing that.…If it’s a passion first and foremost you will enjoy it and it will be valid. And if you expect it to be your job as well, eventually, I think you will come to resent it, in the way that most people resent their jobs.”
Thank you, Mr. Albini.