The Artist's Paycheck (or lack, thereof)

Started by Noelle, October 10, 2010, 07:45:49 PM

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It's been awhile since I've published a blog here, so I figured it was time to get back on subject.

Today, my subject matter is, as the title might imply, art careers.

I am a recent graduate with a degree in visual art, which is often the subject of both self-depreciating jokes and light ridicule from others. While I'm not living in a cardboard box beneath a freeway (yet), breaking into the creative industry is not an easy endeavor and requires either dumb luck or a massive amount of patience and self-discipline on the part of the artist. I have yet to land my first full-time job in graphic design (as I am aiming for), and it's been tough going even finding openings in a vaguely art-related field, even as a multi-trained artist across a large variety of fields including fiber arts, glassblowing, and a variety of traditional and digital 2D mediums.

I guess you could say that most career paths are suffering right now due to the poor (but gradually improving) economic situation in the US, but I have found that applying for jobs in an artistic line of work is often accompanied closely by feelings of dwindling self-worth and moments of extreme self-doubt even before the application is completely filled out, especially so when the times are hard. We all have our share of troubles, and this blow to the ego isn't just unique to the arts, but I've found that it's often more nerve-wracking to send in a portfolio than it is to merely write my qualifications down on paper. It's less personal, more objective, and I suppose it's naturally easier to feel flippant about a job choice that doesn't mean much in the long run.

The most noticeable difference that I have experienced in many fields that are unrelated to art is that they somewhat take you at your word that you possess the skills and qualities you boast, and often there's a kind of "chance" given to prove yourself when you are hired. It's possible that my perception is wrong given that I don't know what it's like to apply for jobs in other fields, but I feel like many other career paths have a slightly easier time getting over that first 'bump'. Whether or not they fail after that truly does rely on the skills they actually do possess, but sometimes the very hardest thing is just getting an employer to say 'yes'. I don't feel like it's the same way in the art field; the bullets listing my experience are no longer enough. My skills are attached to my resume directly in the form of a visual portfolio that can speak scores more than any phone call to a supervisor or former co-worker and some positive encouragement about the things I've done. It's all right there. If they see something they don't like, I'm not given a chance to prove that I can produce something they will. Day one of the job doesn't happen.

Indeed, my portfolio is very closely tied to the skills I possess, and is in many ways very close to me. It's hard not to take things personally when you're being evaluated on something so directly tied to you, a tangible show of your passion and imagination in an obviously perceptible format. When I am rejected, I take it harder than I take a rejection from applications to be a waitress or cashier. I become critical, I begin to wonder if my work is good enough, if my raw skills as an artist are sufficient, or if somehow I have fallen behind and need to play catchup despite four years of higher education and countless outside hours of my own self-directed studies.

However, this isn't a plea for sympathy or even to say that my woes and the woes of other working artists are harsher or more unfair than the problems anyone else face. I'm not helpless and I'm not content to sit and mope and dwell on my issues and expect them to go away. People dream of being studio artists and writers and musicians, but the hard truth is that those careers are not vital to the propagation of mankind, and thus they have taken a rightful, slightly lower place in society. It's not easy to be an artist at any period of economic health, and I've known this for a very long time. I never once had the delusion that I would be making a fat salary out of college because nobody gets an art degree with expectations of banking. Because I have the power to continue to make myself a viable and competitive candidate for the jobs I apply for, I've taken to doing my own freelance work in the meantime.

The sad fact is, the common artist needs a day job to support their dream because a full-time job comes with difficulty and a freelance job isn't enough -- though it is a necessary evil for some. In my experience, it's often hard, pays shit, and isn't much respected in the career world unless you've seriously created a business of your endeavors. I've fallen somewhere between the intermediate and the professional, too small to consider myself a business, too busy and too talented and probably too prideful to consider myself amateur. However unideal the work, there is value in doing it anyway: I have truly enjoyed picking up some of the practical knowledge of pricing art, interpreting a client's vision and bringing it to life, and how to deal with the less-than-desirable folk who don't consider art as anything more viable than an amusing hobby.

The greatest advice I could offer to anyone who hasn't quite "made it" is not to let yourself stagnate. Whatever your material, whatever your medium, keep your mind sharp, study those who have been successful, and keep building your arsenal of new tricks. I force myself to treat art like a full-time job even if technically it's not in order to keep developing, to keep progressing, to keep learning a new skill or technique every single day. What comes of this is beneficial to me in more than just the sense that I become more skilled at my work, but if asked about the small gap in my employment history, what better way to fill it than by using my free time to show self-discipline, dedication, and a desire to improve and become more competitive.

It's difficult to find optimism when it seems like you're being passed up. Seeing rejection after rejection can make a person in any metier feel like they should quit all together and find a new, more realistic and obtainable path, but the more I think about it, the more that I know that this is the story of producing art in general, just the way it's always been. This isn't my unique story as an artist. I struggle to stay impersonal, to take each rejection as fuel to better myself, but it's often said that the artist is his own worst critic, and I find that especially true for myself, but any artistically-inclined person knows very well the self-rejection that almost inevitably occurs when they hit that wall of development even before it becomes an issue of finding a job, when art really is still a fun hobby. There will almost always come a time when everything they produce is terrible, when it seems like every other artist is better and more talented, when your skills don't seem sufficient. The beauty is that that moment is when artists are inevitably made. That is the point of divergence. That is the make-or-break.  I don't often like to use quotes, but I think it's all too true: "Artists don't get down to work until the pain of working is exceeded by the pain of not working." And for me, the pain of not making art would be crippling. And so with that in mind, I'll keep going.