This essay was my morning's work. For the interest, I hope, Of TBD readers, it's about...
I have had this little book of essays in mind for quite some time, but have never been quite sure what it was actually about. I realized that a collection of essays was not much of a book in itself. It needed focus. And while I recognized a special attachment to these pieces of writing that now span more than thirty years, and felt in my bones that they shared a common theme, I had been pretty much content to sit around waiting for them to tell me what they wanted to be.
Then it came to me, sitting together yesterday evening with Ellie and the group of a dozen or so artists who come to our home every month for discussion and mutual support, that these pieces of writing are all in one way or another about survival—the survival of the creative spirit in a world that embraces only a very lucky few.
It’s a particularly tough moment, today, for the lesser-known artist. The national economy is in crisis and, like other small businesses, the “art business” is in the doldrums. Artists who were able to scrape together a living with a combination of modest sales and part- or full-time jobs are now finding it harder to survive.
Listen to a handful of the stories that I heard last night: one of our group had planned, finally, on retirement this month, to devote her attention to her studio work. She had planned to say goodbye to a job she had never much liked, but that paid the bills—but now, like so many others, had watched her financial retirement plan wither, and could no longer afford to leave. Another had just been laid off from her teaching job; her husband, in his search for employment, was constrained to accept a job a thousand miles away. A third had also seen her husband lose his job, and was devoting much of what would have been her own studio time and energy to supporting him in his search for a new direction.
Tough times, indeed—and not only for artists. Remarkably, though, I heard no note of self-pity. What I heard was more like courage, perseverance and dedication. To each of the artists in our small group, the need to be involved in the creative act is predominant in their lives. It’s what, in a phrase I often return to, they are given to do. They will not abandon that dedication, no matter what. Without it, their lives would simply make no sense.
It’s this phenomenon that I have been writing about. How is the creative spirit to survive, in an “art world” that in the past half century has, increasingly, had less to do with art and artists than with money, celebrity, and marketing? What happens to the dedicated, workaday artist in a world that so often neglects their talents even as it richly rewards its superstars?
I’m sad to say that I have lost the first piece that I wrote, that clearly belonged in this collection. It was called “A Word for the Amateur,” and was published more than thirty years ago in one of those small, ephemeral magazines that were the life-blood of much underground art writing before the Internet came along; and it was seized upon with enthusiasm by an organization of women artists and reprinted in their newsletter. Both have gone the way of all worthy ephemera, and the essay has disappeared without a trace.
The essay, though, provoked some interesting controversy. At the time I wrote the piece, I was not only an observer of the art scene in Los Angeles, but also the dean of what was then Otis Art Institute, and I was hearing a lot about the need for students to learn to be “professional.” I understood that it was well-intended: they should take themselves seriously as artists, and present themselves seriously to the world. But this was a time when art schools and university art departments were beginning to disgorge thousands of “professional” artists each year, equipped with expensively-earned degrees to prove their credentials, into an art market which had room for only a tiny minority of them. You’d have to be willfully blind to ignore the fact that at most ten of every hundred of them stood a chance in hell of actually becoming “professional”—in the commonly accepted sense of earning a living through their practice—while the other ninety would need to learn to deal with the frustration of the expectations they had been fed. The whole thing began to seem disingenuous and wrong.
So I wrote “A Word for the Amateur.” By the late 20th century, of course, the word “amateur” had acquired a bad reputation in the art world. Amateurs were notoriously Sunday painters, third-rate artists whose work was way beyond the pale of acceptability in the mainstream. The amateur was one possessed of neither the skills nor the seriousness of purpose of the “professional,” who was clued in to the arcane secrets of the contemporary art scene. I wanted to recover something of the original meaning of a word I considered to have a certain historical nobility—since most eminent scientists of earlier centuries, as well as a good number of artists, had been amateurs—lovers, really—people dedicated with passionate altruism to the life of the mind, with no thought or possibility of financial reward. Professions, I argued, are for lawyers and doctors and such, who realistically expect to earn a living by the fruits of their studies.
Such, alas (perhaps!) would be a fanciful expectation for the vast majority of those we certify as “artists” with the award of a college degree. What results is a difficult disconnect between what they have been led to expect and the realities that await them, and there is an army of the walking wounded out there to prove the point. I hasten to add that they are not only artists: creative people of all kinds find themselves in a similar predicament. Our culture celebrates “creativity” from the earliest age, in schools where children are encouraged to “express themselves” before learning the ABC’s that would enable them to do it. So many of our brightest young people are out there, dreaming of careers in art or music, acting, film or television… and find themselves in a career market that offers them scant possibility of fulfilling the dream they have been urged to dream.
This collection of essays, I now realize, is for them. Though I myself have been fortunate enough to enjoy some measure of success as a writer, I consider myself one of them—confronted with the reality of a publishing world in which too many thousands of worthy writers flounder against the formidable rocks of commercial interests. If I write about the survival of the creative spirit in such a cultural context, it’s because I myself have needed to develop strategies and mind-sets that enable me to persevere with a sense of dedication, self-respect and persistence that might otherwise seem foolishly quixotic. My essays seek to remind me that I am, first, foremost, and always, a writer—if only because that is what I have been given to do.