I have gotten into a couple heated conversations in the past couple weeks over my assertion that my art doesn’t need to be what makes me a living. People have accused me of perpetuating the starving artist stereotype, of not dreaming big enough, and of being under-committed to myself as an artist. As someone who feels she is nothing if not dedicated to herself as a professional artist, sacrificing many of the “normal” comforts of American middle class life in the stubborn pursuit of a pretty crazy dream, these statements cut me to the quick. However, I haven’t been able to combat them well, and so have been mulling it over a lot. Here’s what I’ve got so far.
I need money all the time. Like, basically everyday. In the grand scheme of things, I live pretty simply, and yet, every month, it seems I require a regular influx of money. My art, while awesome, is not yet commercially successful, and doesn’t happen all the time. If my art were to become my regular paycheck I would need it to happen more often in order to make me money. Additionally, I would need it to be really financially successful and viable all the time. This would lead me to worrying about making risky choices, rather than simply following what is interesting. Currently I try to make without concern of popularity. I consider my audience, but not as judge and jury, more as fellow collaborators who will find the work and then react to it. They don’t have to like it, they just have to engage with it. The honesty of making outweighs the need for the show to be popular because even if I make a terrible show, I can still buy groceries.
Every artist I admire lives off diverse sources of income. No one I think of as great, with a career I am working to emulate, survives only on the supply and demand level of Capitalistic art-making in the US. They teach, they lecture, they raise grants, they have generous benefactors. They maintain a part-time day job, they fall back on other skills when art-making is less-inspired, and they live simply most of the time. Sacrifice is constant, but the reward is that the art can continue to be something that potentially is so ground-breaking that it’s not ready to be commercial. Maybe this is the life that people are describing when they tell me that I should dream of being able to make a living as an artist, but it doesn’t seem like it. It seems like people want me to say “I dream to make shows and earn a living solely from them.” But I don’t. In fact, one of my fears is that my company will grow so large that I am forced to be a full-time administrator to my company and that I won’t be able to make the art anymore. I want to live as an artist in America, and that equals doing lots of different things in my lifetime, including making a lot of art which sometimes I make money from, and sometimes I just make.
Does this make me a turn-coat? An amateur? Part of the problem? I am making experimental plays in a society that still thinks Ionesco and Beckett are cutting edge; that barely has room for the NEA; that, yes, loved Broadway last year, but I am as far from Broadway as my local farm share is from McDonald’s salads. We are in a great resurgence of support for experimental work, but that doesn’t equal financial security, it equals a spotlight on some awesome art. Call me delusional and insane for choosing such a gutsy career choice as a woman from a lower-middle class background covered in debt. Thank god I don’t also expect to get paid a steady salary from just making plays.
I didn’t invent this thought. My teacher Thomas Prattki told it to me. He said that making money is a huge burden that your art doesn’t deserve. This sentiment provides me relief. I can stop wondering why doctors and lawyers have a path to financial security, but artists don’t. Instead I can keep making the work, however I can, and feel delighted by my own resilience. Should I ever find myself making a salary from making art (without also teaching, lecturing, and administrating) I will be happily shocked. I will gleefully eat my hat. For now, I can love the life I have, however it works.