After over 17 years of living in my house, I saw it from the other side. Literally. My husband and I sat around a fire pit at our neighbors’ house across the street. It was the first time I’d ever been to a purely social event at a neighbor’s. When the topic of what I do came up, another neighbor from further down the street asked wide eyed, “Do you really make a living from your art? I’ve known lots of people who’ve tried, but hardly anyone who does.”
“Yes, really,” I replied, which is 100% true and has been true for well over 25 years. My neighbor was clearly impressed. My answer seemed to give him a little hope in this Walmart society of ours, and yet, whenever people ask me some variation of this question, I always feel a little weird. No one ever asks an IT pro or a lawyer this question. I gazed up at my own screened in porch, unable to see, but knowing within it is the studio window though which I’d been gazing out this direction while working less than 2 hours before.
I thought about the projects that have been consuming much of the last 4 months of my life, the projects that I can’t yet talk in detail about because I signed a non disclosure agreement, the projects that promise to make my expressive account’s eyebrows raise one more time when he goes over next year’s corporate tax returns for Victoria Lansford, LLC. How could any successful artist still get hit with doubt, fear, or impostor syndrome?
Here’s why: artists exist caught between the Scylla and Charybdis of society’s legitimizing us through buying our work, and accusations of not making real “Art” by our peers if we sell enough art to make a living. This means there is no right answer and no legitimacy to be had.
One of the weirder questions I sometimes get is whether I really make my living selling my art, or if I just sell some and make up the rest of my income by teaching, as if my legitimacy as an artist now depends on a pie graph. “Some of the rest of what?” I always wonder. The ability to live in a regentrified historic district that was still sketchy until a few years ago? The ability to pay the mortgage and eat? The ability to take my family on vacation? The ability to turn down work my heart is not in?
No one ever asks the reverse question: “Can you really make a living teaching specialized metalsmithing workshops, or do you make up the lack of income by selling your art?” The funny thing is the answer to that question would be “Hell, no.” Even though I’m toward the top end of the food chain in terms of workshop fees, I could not passionately teach at the level of giving that I do enough times in one year to pay all the bills. It’s not physically possible. Sadly, the way the question is usually asked of me, my willingness to share illegitimizes my status as an artist to the outside world. Huh?!?
I figure creative people have enough to worry about without society and our peers telling us both directions are wrong. It is more than enough for us to worry about making good art and spending twice the number of hours to put it out in the world and find it a good home as it took to make it in the first place.
In today’s Brain Pickings newsletter, Maria Popova interviewed poet Sarah Kay. During the interview, Popova paraphrased Seth Godin’s take on making a living making art:
Seth’s point was that for the vast majority of history, one made a living and then one had a creative life — the two didn’t have to be the same. Only recently did we come to believe that what legitimizes one as an “artist” is making art full-time and having that art also make one a living. The insidious implication of that belief is that the art made by people with day-jobs is somehow less valid, less legitimate. Which, of course, isn’t the case. It is indeed a rare thing for a creative life and a living to be one and the same.
My neighbor, who is originally from Europe, was probably not likely to have been raised to value mass produced, made in China, plastic stuff from Walmart more than hand made art by locals. Much of the rest of American society tends to need more convincing. The reason society legitimizes artists through the full-time sale of their work is because people are more comfortable liking or wanting something they know other people want or already have. Most people aren’t comfortable being the trendsetters, the impresarios, or wearing, using, or hanging something without its creator’s back story of struggle-turned-success.
I had a wonderful philosophy professor in college, David McCarty, who smilingly described himself as a “professional philosopher.” He had found that, if he merely answered “philosopher” when people at parties asked what he did for a living, his answer was not taken seriously because people tend to dismiss philosophy as a way to make a living. Adding the word professional in front, didn’t make people think he was less strange, but it stopped the jokes before they happened. Though I didn’t feel the need in last evening’s receptive crowd, I’ve used his strategy more than once at parties.
When I go back into the studio today, Alice will once again be on her usual side of the looking glass, in front of the window, hammering away on the projects that cannot yet be revealed. The view of my house from my neighbor’s backyard is now indelibly imprinted on my brain. When I stand on the deck outside my studio, I can see all their houses, and I’d assumed all these years, that they had an equally reciprocal view of our comings and goings, but my lot is lined by small trees that shroud it even while still bare. Several of our neighbors told us that they’d long wondered who lived in the mysterious blue house. My view from within reveals much of the world, but the view from the outside reveals so much less, no matter how hard a cobalt blue house is to miss.