The other day I had a doctor appointment at a practice where I am a new patient, so I had to fill out stacks and stacks of paperwork before I could be seen. There is always that line on these forms where it says, ‘occupation’. I always pause at this block, and wonder what I should put…do I put down my day job, or do I say I’m an artist? If I put down one and not the other, I feel like I’m not being totally honest. Does it matter? Not really, but it makes me think about the dilemma of the day job for most artists.
The dream is supposed to be that you become so successful as an artist that you are able to quit your day job and pursue your art full time. You are not *really* an artist or at least not a successful one unless you have quit that soul-crushing day job and spend your days painting, writing, sculpting, etc. In a perfect world, this does sound like the ideal. If I were able to do this and earn a steady and reliable pay check and have health insurance, a 401K, paid time off, etc., sure…sign me up! But I know that this would probably not be the case, and more realistically, I would be scrambling for commissions and paid work, worrying about getting paid, working round the clock, and generally feeling a lot of pressure to earn money. And in spite of any myths about the tortured artist, this type of financial stress is not conducive to creativity.
I’ve had a full-time day job for most of my adult life, with the exception of the times when I was a student. I’ve mostly done administrative work in one form or another, sometimes in art-related places, sometimes in non-art-related places (currently, I work at a law school). And although, yes, sometimes the day job can feel a bit soul-crushing, for the most part, I’m really grateful for it. I need the security of knowing how much money I’m going to be paid each week. I need to put a roof over my head, feed and clothe myself, pay for my transportation, etc. (And let’s not forget about those student loans for my education that helped get me where I am in my career!)
Recently I was reading an interview with a gallerist, and she said something along the lines that she preferred not to represent artists who work a day job, because she didn’t take them as seriously as those who don’t. Her reasoning was that having a day job showed a lack of passion and commitment to the artist’s work. This attitude (however misguided and out of touch) is unfortunately not uncommon and reveals a stigma that has always existed in the art world. If you work a day job, you must not be a ‘real’ artist. Of course, this misconception usually excludes artists who teach. Because teaching is not a real job? I think any teacher would disagree with that. When I think about the professors I studied with, especially in graduate school, many of them were internationally recognized, well respected and well-known artists, by any definition successful artists. And guess what? They had a day job. They were teaching. Why? Because they were passionate about teaching? Not necessarily. Yes, many of them were, and were excellent and inspiring teachers. But I suspect that most of them were teaching not solely for those reasons. They were teaching for the prestige, the connection to the community, the health insurance, the steady paycheck.
Something else that often gets overlooked is the fact that making art is expensive. There’s the cost of materials, marketing, studio rental, equipment, framing, shipping, storage…the list goes on and on and differs depending on what the artist’s work is. Then there’s the cost of your education and training (again, those student loans…), all the blood, sweat and tears and years of hard work that go into it. So my day job not only covers my personal overhead, it covers the overhead of my art practice/business as well. Yes, it can be frustrating to not see financial return on my investment in my work, or have that financial return come so late after the fact that it feels anti-climactic. But I also have the freedom to not worry about it all that much. And that freedom allows me to explore, to take risks, to make mistakes, to step away for a bit and let ideas percolate, to do the things that are so vitally important to nurturing and growing an art practice.
I’ve been reading Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic (which I highly recommend for anyone interested in creativity in any context), and she has a whole chapter on the virtues of the day job, and not relying on your art (or other creative passion) to pay your bills. (Maybe a hard sell from someone who has most likely made a giant pile of money through her work, but she was a struggling writer with a day job before Eat, Pray, Love became a huge phenomenon). She has so many good points that resonate with me, that I could go on and on. She talks about the potential for creative meltdown that can come when your financial well-being rests on the shoulders of your creative work. As she says, “There is no dishonor in having a job. What is dishonorable is scaring away your creativity by demanding that it pay for your entire existence.” If you can manage to have your work pay your bills, bravo! More power to you. Being an artist is like any small business, and working for yourself is really, really hard. If you can pull it off, that’s awesome. But it’s important to remember that if you’re not there yet, or never get there, it’s ok. It’s not the only definition of success.
So if you are an artist like me working the 9-5 grind, don’t despair. Don’t feel ashamed or less of an artist because you earn money to live at something other than your art. And if it makes you feel better, here’s a list of famous artists who had day jobs, too. (I mean, TONI MORRISON had a day job, ok???)
P.S.-The awesome cartoon at the top of this post was done by Paul Basye (and used with permission, of course!)