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February 06, 2003

Doing It For a Living

Friedrich --

Your recent postings about Impressionism have reminded me of a question I've always wanted to raise about art. It's the question of doing it for a living.

There tends to be an assumption that if you're good at something, you should (or could) turn it into a job, you should do it professionally. Having a job that you love doing (and are well-paid for) is a widespread fantasy, and one that's taken very seriously; if you have a talent or an activity you enjoy doing for its own sake, you're likely to receive a lot of encouragement to turn it into a job.

Yet is this always good advice? I wonder. It strikes me as more than likely that the process of turning an activity you love into your means of making a living might very well kill your enjoyment in the activity. Why should it be otherwise? Something you do freely, and purely for the pleasure of it -- isn't this chemical formula necessarily going to be modified if you add "now go make money with it" to the mix? It might change for the better, but it might very well change for the worse.

How so? Imagine loving making furniture. You love the wood, the concentration, the process of design, the tactility, the sawdust, the tools and machines, the planning, the smiles on people's faces when you give them a gift ... Now imagine making furniture for a living. Bosses, possibly -- always a joy. Accountants and bookkeeping in any case. Clients making demands instead of friends delighted to receive gifts. Competition and compromises. (After all, the more straightforwardly market-economy a field is, the more you're stuck servicing your customers -- a good thing generally, but is there any reason to assume that it'll enhance the pleasure you take in your craft?) Even if you're financially successfully, you might very well wake up one day wishing you'd never followed your bliss. You've spoiled your pleasure in something you used to love.

Yet the fantasy persists. I think it's partly because we're Americans, and we have dreams about finding joy and satisfaction (redemption, really) in our jobs. I think it's also partly human and completely understandable. It isn't easy -- in a life that includes job, family, friends, and routine maintenance -- to squeeze in much of anything else at all. So it may be natural to fantasize about getting pleasure and "fulfillment" (whatever that means) in addition to a salary from the workplace. That way, at least you'll have a little leisure time at the end of the day. Without a fulfilling job, you're stuck: use the spare time for leisure, or for what you love? Splitting those precious hours half and half doesn't leave a lot for either.

Another example is blogging. I contribute to this blog for fun and pleasure. If someone loves my work and wants to throw money at me, I'm certainly not going to refuse to cash the checks. But such a thing will never happen. What tends to happen instead is that, if someone likes what he sees here and is willing to offer me money, he's going to want in exchange some say in the matter. He'll want some adjustment in how I write, or what I write about, or at what length, with what spin, and at what frequency. That might or might not be a good thing for my writing (let alone for my readers). But would I continue to take the same pleasure in blogging?

If you're someone whose pleasure in an activity is spoiled by doing it professionally and who therefore avoids the market, you're regarded as a mere hobbyist. If you do something you love professionally you're regarded as the real thing -- but you're risking losing your appetite for the activity over time. Yet the general public seems to demand that "doing it for its own sake" is a necessary part of what makes something art, and someone an artist.

A quandary, no?



posted by Michael at February 6, 2003


Thought provoking post. How about the reverse? If it's your job, if you are stuck doing it day in and day out, just to make a living, you might as well make it an art form. Isn't this how a lot of art forms (maybe even furniture making)came into being in the first place?

Posted by: Paul Mansour on February 6, 2003 5:49 PM

Paul has ruined my life. This has never been a problem for me. I don't even tell most people about the things I do best and enjoy most.

Seriously. I've thrown things at people who walked into my workshop without knocking.

Posted by: j.c. on February 7, 2003 12:33 AM

I think you're mixing up categories here. Obviously one's job is about, as they say in Genesis, earning your bread by the sweat of your brow (or, in today's society, by the secretions of your adrenal glands.) So if the place you can earn money the easiest isn't in your area of emotional interest (and it almost certainly isn't)then amateurism is entirely appropriate. However, I think a too-complete separation of work and creativity--by which I mean working with no degree of emotional investment--is likewise bad for your quality of life. I think it would be bad for your mental health to take no pleasure at all from your job.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on February 10, 2003 9:14 AM

I take no pleasure at all from my job - and you're right, it's bad for mental health. (And leads to much surfing...)

On the other hand, what about artists who seem to take no pleasure for their work, but enjoy the being big dogs in the art world.

Am I the only one who sees this? I know a number of artists (mostly painters, one poet) who make a damn good living with art... and seem to spend most of their creative energy on developing and improving their status in the art world and have little interest in art for it's own sake.

Posted by: j.c. on February 10, 2003 12:56 PM

Paul -- Excellent point, both very Zen and very provocative. A rant I may or may not manage to formulate someday concerns art as the-usual-thing-just-done-better. But you sound way ahead of me on this. Eager to read more from you about it. There's one element that I get stuck on, myself: what if the job offers non real creative opportunities at all? Bank clerk, chicken plucker, executive assistant, etc.

Friedrich -- You're describing the predicament exactly, so far as I can see. "The thing you love" and "what make sense to you as a way to earn a living" -- they might or might not overlap. And who's to say what degree of overlap is best for a given individual? Some people seem to thrive best on a job that makes some sense economically and gives their creativity (if you will) some opportunities. But other people might find that infuriating, and might prefer to keep the chasing-after-money end of things entirely separate from the doing-something-for-its-own-sake end of things. Matters of temperament, preference, convenience, individual choice. I guess my underlying beef is with two general American attitudes: "you ought to find fulfillment in your job" (sez who?), and "you aren't really serious unless you can make a living at it" (again, sez who?). I think both can do individuals a disservice, and I think both in fact do the arts a great disservice.

J.C. -- It's a funny spectacle. When you've gone to a lot of trouble to get involved in the arts, you don't really expect to encounter people who treat the field in as careerist a way as they might treat, say, banking. You'd expect them to feel lucky, have fun, be loose and a little quixotic. Surprising how often that isn't the case. I'd love to hear about some of what you've seen.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on February 11, 2003 12:29 AM

Let's begin a HOT discussion :))))

Posted by: t-shirts-man on April 6, 2004 5:30 AM

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