Dear Everyone: I’m posting this chapter in its entirety as well, while I sit in LAX, sipping tea and waiting for a flight to San Diego. I’m on the Coast for a series of signings, which I love doing, but first let’s get this handled. Next week I’ll begin posting the more practical chapters, but this one has its place too. I hope you enjoy it. Best,
P.S. The oil is by Allan Chow, “Kansas City Skyline.”
Unless you’re independently wealthy, like Proust, or marry into money, like de Lempicka, you’ll have to take a day job, night job, or some other kind of job. If you’re driven, you can deal with the job for eight hours each day and still find another four to do your real work at night. That might not be an easy way to live, but it’s not meant to be. The tougher aspects of this life are what cull the good from the average, and the great from the good.
The object is to avoid taking a job you hate. It’s also a good thing if the job leaves the art side of your brain free, so that each day as you labor, your talent is subconsciously building up to the hour when you go home and do the work that counts. One of my painters works for a corporation as a graphic designer, but when he gets home each day he’s too burned out to paint well. Yet he couldn’t think of anything else that had a future, and finally put his art career on hold—a decision he still regrets, though he digs the regular paycheck. Many of my other artists who have succeeded worked a variety of jobs: carpenters, teachers, truck drivers, web designers. One of them was also a graphic designer, but worked for a laid-back firm that wasn’t very demanding, leaving her with less income but more time to paint. Her career has done fairly well, though she wouldn’t mind a larger and more consistent paycheck.
As for me, after college I wandered the country for years, working all manner of jobs before settling down, when I married and started a lawn service. To me, at that time, this was the American Dream at its best. I answered to no one, made my own hours, and had plenty of time to write. The money was good and the rewards of being outdoors great. I did this for eight years, wrote four books in the process, read the Encyclopedia Britannica in the pickup on my lunch breaks, and still had time for family.
This job also made me hunger for greater things, since it obviously didn’t satisfy my ambitions. It drove me to write harder, whereas a corporate gig with a fat salary might have made me lazy. Too much comfort early on, and a preoccupation with material acquisition, may dull your senses. You could wind up becoming a slave to your possessions instead of to your work. Consequently your work may languish. Luxury, if it ever fits the artist’s life, can come later. But be leery of that beast if you let it in the door, since once in, it’s very hard to get it back out—even as it’s bankrupting you.
Self-employment, if you can swing it, is the best way I know for an artist to control her fate. You can clean houses. You can paint houses. You can work as a fabricator, illustrator, carpet-layer. You can start a dog-walking service. You can work as a landscape designer. You can install the landscapes you design. You can paint custom signs. You can paint bodies. You can start a lawn service. This is America. You can do anything here, if you have the will and the drive.
But one drawback of self-employment is that artists who go this route rarely save much. We tend to just make enough to get by, so that we can focus on our art. Then before you know it you’re 50, with nothing in the bank. So if you do attempt this, try to save at least $75 per week, starting in your twenties. If you can maintain that habit, eventually hiring a financial adviser who will help you grow your dough, you’ll find you have even more time for your art, instead of going nuts over unpaid bills. Just be aware that seventy-five percent of all small businesses fail. It takes a dedicated entrepreneur to make one succeed. But if you have the talent for this, the freedom is incomparable.
The alternative to self-employment? Take work with a sympathetic employer, in a sane job where the demands aren’t too great, and where you can go home each night with enough energy to dive into your passions. The choices are yours, as are the jobs. You may not like any of these jobs greatly, but that’s okay. Discontentment with those gigs will help drive you to higher levels of artistic achievement. Just try to have a good time with the process, which at its best is something of an adventure.
Where to Live
Again, I have to bring up Europe, since there is no substitute for fall in Florence, summer in Provence, or Prague in spring. But since few of us will spend more than a few weeks in Siena, let’s focus on this country—which, fittingly, is often an object of longing for Europeans as well.
While Europe is a place where art is woven into the fabric of the culture, America, with its love for the commercial, is a place where art still remains largely outside our culture. Fortunately this is a flaw that is slowly changing. More each year, in small cities and large, art is becoming a standard aspect of education and a valued part of life. This doesn’t mean we’re on a par with Italy yet, but we are making progress.
And while we have overcome many barriers of ignorance, we still have a long way to go. This is less evident in the big cities than elsewhere, but it remains one of our great stumbling blocks. It’s also an issue we must address if we’re ever to live up to the vision that the founding fathers laid out for us—although Mark Twain felt we’d blown any chance of that long ago, when in the 1890s he wrote America off as shallow, greedy, and violent. The observation still applies, and yet doesn’t.
Are there disadvantages to living in certain places as opposed to others? Yes, if you live in a small town it will be harder for you to break out. Sure the Internet has made the world smaller, but there’s nothing like living in a populous city where the galleries are active and the arts alive. This makes it easier to socialize with artists and collectors, invite them to the studio, and befriend them. People like buying art from people they like. Living in or near a population center makes this simpler, but it’s also more costly and harried, so there’s always a tradeoff.
Even so, there’s nothing like taking up residence in one of the major cities for awhile, even if just a few months. In fact I consider it an unparalleled experience. But I’m not recommending that you become overly transient, since in the long run you’ll likely do your best work in a studio you’re comfortable with, in surroundings that inspire you, in a place that feels like home. If you choose a small town, great; the way you compensate is by being represented in a larger city, and by being active in it.
As for suburbs, God help you if you live in one. These are essentially designed as safe places in which to raise children, in a lifestyle that is primarily conformist, reflecting a frame of mind that is often apathetic. It’s not for obscure reasons that Western suburbs—meaning European ones as well—have often been described as sterile. How would I know? I live in one.
After marrying, I decided not to subject my family to the whims of my artist wanderings, so moved us into an old bungalow that the developers forgot to demolish when they built our suburb. My wife and I could barely afford the joint, but it set my children up in a great neighborhood with excellent schools: the same Shawnee Mission District in which I’d been reared. Sure, the suburbs might not teach my kids independence of mind or the need to question authority, but I would.
The drawback was I could never seem to write in that place. So I wrote in the gallery. My first space was downtown, amid the street people and office workers and trash. This was a great place to write. The people were fascinating, the neighborhood was good for inline skating, and I was surrounded by old architecture that whispered of bygone lives. My current gallery, in an old part of the Country Club district, is a good place to write too. It may not have the grit of the first, but for me it still beats the suburbs.
In prior years I always lived either in the heart of a city, or deep in the country. Chelsea in New York or central Connecticut. Ballard in Seattle or a farm on the Olympic Peninsula. Santa Monica in LA or a horse ranch near Solvang. I loved those places, but when the time came to raise a family, I chose a suburb. I’m not unhappy with that, although I sometimes think my more conservative neighbors are. They don’t enjoy questioning their beliefs, but with a rebel like me bopping around, they’re sometimes compelled to.
All I’m saying is you should either live where you’re inspired or work where you’re inspired. The part of the country doesn’t matter, as long as you’re in tune with the rest of the country. Besides, once you start to succeed, you can gain representation in galleries all over the country, who may end up selling your work all over the world. Then you’ll be able to live wherever you want.
How will you gain that representation, and the success that ought to accompany it? Read on. With hard work and dedication, I can help you get there.
Television and the Mass Media
The best thing to do with a TV, in my opinion, is to place it on the receiving end of a baseball bat. Little good has ever come from television, and the longer it’s with us—with its multiple channels, opiate influences and passion-draining hypnosis—the worse it gets. Oh you can make sound arguments for public television and certain dramas and certain comedies, but the bulk of the programming is corrosive crap, perpetually eating at the foundation of our culture, educational system, and ability to relate to one another. Of course I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know.
There’s so much else to explore, touch, and know in life that an addiction to TV can prevent us from experiencing. Our job as artists is to be out experiencing the world, not to become homebound, spiritually numb victims of Madison Avenue. So if you’re an avid watcher of TV, just be aware that the goal of the networks is to keep you that way, since profit is their primary motive, not cultural growth.
Example: In the late ‘90s I flew to New York to meet my first agent. I hadn’t been there in several years, and was glad to be back. The mood of the place had changed since the ‘80s, having become more sane and upbeat. There was a sense of optimism that I don’t think New Yorkers had felt, really, since the early ’60s. In fact many of the natives, upon learning I was an outlander, asked why I was there. I told them, and in every case they wished me luck. I could tell it made them proud to live in a city where an artist could submit his dreams, and great things might result. I’d never felt more at home in that enormous, swaggering, frenzied metropolis.
I rode the subway across town to my agent’s office, and as I did, packed in with the executives and models and Hasidics, I gazed up at the advertising placards. There was Madison Avenue’s whole mission laid bare. Ads for one of the big networks, they were listing reasons for why you should watch TV:
It’s a beautiful day. What are you doing outside?
Scientists claim we only use 10% of our brain cells. That’s too much.
Eight hours a day, that’s all we ask.
Don’t worry, you’ve got billions of brain cells.
And so on.
It’s partly because of garbage like this that I became a writer, and probably why you’re an artist. I could almost see the group of miserable souls who, together in some soulless office, composed these passages. It was so corporate—the very kind of corporate bullshit that people like you and me love to battle. Do our efforts matter? They will always matter.
You don’t want to be a pawn to these commercial empires. Far better to be hip to their game and use them however you choose.
The Internet is similar. We’re daily bombarded with information from a growing number of superfluous gossip blogs, e-magazines, and celebrity-driven websites. If you browse too many, you may wind up neglecting your work and dulling your senses, as if you’ve cut yourself off from the feast of life. I find the Internet in general, and social networks in particular, are adept at helping to deepen that sense of isolation. So while I participate to a degree, I’m careful to keep all that stuff at a distance.
Sure, part of your job is to be informed about the state of the world and its many cultures, but the other part is to live outside that world at the same time that you live within it. There’s nothing wrong with being well informed; in fact it’s a kind of duty. To that end I read the paper every morning, listen to National Public Radio each evening, and read the New York Times weekends. I’m just careful to avoid getting sucked into the vortex of useless information while staying abreast of events. Sure, I also surf useless websites on occasion; hell, it can be fun. But for the most part I only utilize the Internet where necessary, whether in marketing art or conducting research for a project.
What I much prefer is conversation with a new friend, debate with an old one, a bout of volunteerism, a long jog, a brief swim, an engrossing book, a bad play, a good night’s work, or a night of great sex. I get more out of these things than I ever will from an evening of televised tabloids, canned laughter, and websites that steal from my soul rather than feed it.
My brother calls it mood maintenance, his need to regularly bike, ski, rock-climb, or whatever. He loves how this helps him combat the blues. To stay active energizes us; to be energized helps us control our depressions; controlling depression allows us to work better.
I’m no jock but I do dig pushing my body, simply because the high gives me pleasure—hiking to the bottom of the Grand Canyon and back; learning to surf in my fifties; swimming twenty laps on a Saturday afternoon—before going out and drinking several beers on a Saturday night. Habits like this make me feel I can accomplish anything, and since I’ve often been faced with crushing odds, that’s helped more than a little.
Why bring this up in a guidebook for artists? Because I’ve noticed that somehow, from art school forward, many artists get the idea that it’s not cool to exercise. I don’t know about cool, I just know that if you don’t do it, the aging process sets in much earlier. And since a career in the arts tends to be something of a marathon, being out-of-shape just makes the challenges that much tougher.
For some people, getting exercise simply amounts to taking a walk each day, while for others it means training for triathlons. Either way, I’m not here to tout this rather obvious maxim. I’m just trying to make your journey easier, and staying fit is one of many things that, by my experience, helps. Or as one of my gin-loving friends once put it before yoga: “Honey, you gotta detox to retox.” That’s not exactly my take on the issue, but to each her own.
The Simple Art of Reading
Do I really have to address something so obvious as this? For those of you who read regularly, of course not. But for those who don’t, I feel I have to mention it for the following reason—the Internet, the magazine trade, and television are slowly killing what used to be a national drive to read books. This is a dangerous trend for any democracy, although I have little faith at this juncture that it will be reversed.
Whether you’re self-educated or attended a university, knowledge is likely something you’ll always hunger for. A great deal of that is acquired through experience and conversation, the rest through books.
I can’t emphasize enough the inspiration that can come from a balanced reading habit. This will broaden your knowledge of the world, history, and artists, which will definitely affect you and your work. It will also assure you of how art is woven throughout all cultures, all peoples, all historical events. Sometimes art is influenced by those events, often it presages them. By reading about the people who populate the history of art, you’ll learn about the natures, drives and adversities of artists from other eras. By studying other subjects, whatever those might be, you’ll simply learn.
None of these things interest you? No problem; perhaps biographies will. When well written, a biography can read like a magnificent novel. If the book’s about an artist you admire, then by the time you finish, you’ll realize how much you have in common—the struggles, the despair, the successes. The book will also fill in educational gaps relating to the humanities, geography, and the commonness of the human experience.
Some of my favorite biographies have been on Orson Welles, Simone de Beauvoir, Degas, Truman, Duchamp, Gertrude Stein, Jim Morrison, Jackson Pollock, Sylvia Plath and George Bernard Shaw. Naturally these works not only discussed the life of the person concerned, but the lives of related figures and events. Then there are the novels and books on history that I love to read, and reread.
Beyond books there are the usual art magazines and periodicals that you’ll find relevant. Some of these will relate to your interests, others you’ll be indifferent to. The right periodical though will keep you abreast of new installations, exhibits, debates, petty squabbles and emerging artists. Most of this is worthwhile, some is not. Either way, the exploration of it can be a great deal of fun.
Combined with new experiences, travel, and devotion to your work, reading will take you places that nothing else can, and open inner doors like nothing else will. It’s the best way I know to commune with those who passed before you. But then I would say that, being a writer.
Before we go on to some of the more practical topics, I’d like to touch on graduate school a bit. Whether you went or not, or whether you intend to go, I feel it’s important that you grasp the fundamentals of this option.
An MFA is not for everybody, either financially or inspirationally. For those of you who are confident in your talent and connections, it may well be a waste of time. For those of you who don’t feel this way, it would give you a couple of more years to develop your work, as well as those priceless connections that the art world so much revolves around. Even if your instincts guide you toward graduate work, there’s not necessarily any hurry in signing up. Take a year off if you like. Move to some other part of the country, or some other part of the world. See how this affects you. Then when you’re ready, make your return to academia.
Before choosing your school, you might ask yourself why you’re going back. Is it to grow artistically, or are you merely going to kill time and chase boys/girls? Do you want an MFA so you can teach? If you do wind up teaching, will academic life impede your artistic growth or will you thrive within it, despite its inevitable politics, intrigue and obligations? All these can be good reasons for getting the degree, I’m just asking if any apply to you.
If you do decide to return, you may want to consider selecting a school that’s new to you, in a part of the country that’s new as well. This will broaden your experience, and the credibility of your resume.
Assuming you gain acceptance at the school of your choice, what can you expect? Greater freedom, for one thing, to choose the courses you want and to spend a lot of time in the studio. Many of your required courses will be behind you. Now you’ll be able to focus on your work. Also, other artists in the program will, like you, be at a higher level of accomplishment. You’ll find this stimulating—and on occasion frustrating, especially if you feel they’ve outdistanced you. Please don’t think that way; you should run by your own clock, not anyone else’s.
You’ll also get the chance to meet established artists who may occasionally visit campus. Get to know them, if you can. Older artists, for the most part, love helping younger ones. You’ll benefit from their experience, and perhaps pick up a contact or two.
Apart from all this, you’ll also get to spend time with professors who have been in the game for decades. They’ll likely take you more seriously now than when you were an undergrad. Bull sessions over wine or coffee will give you insight, encouragement, and on occasion, discouragement, depending on the nature of the prof and her level of optimism/cynicism.
Many of those professors will tell you about their work, their lives and experiences. Some of them will be outstanding artists as well as outstanding teachers. Some will be average artists but amazing teachers. Others will be just average as both artists and teachers, burned-out on everything—teaching, students, art, life itself—which isn’t to say they didn’t breathe fire at one time, before the burdens of life wore them out.
Try to gravitate toward professors who inspire you, and who have a realistic view of the world you’ll soon enter. Their wisdom is critical.
If you choose to enter that world as an instructor, please just make sure you’re as devoted to teaching as you are to your work. If you don’t feel the drive toward creating as deeply as you do toward teaching, fine. Perhaps that will be your art. If so, I can think of few things more needed or selfless.
Whether we like it or not, America is the country that formed us (unless of course you’re from a different country). We’re citizens of the world, sure, and most of us labor to attain a world view. But whatever our view, this remains the country that gave us the opportunity to pursue our calling, and that formed many of our attitudes.
As Americans we’ve accomplished much for the world that is good, and have rendered plenty that is bad. We’re by turns a mediocre, whining, dissatisfied people, using up resources far in excess of our needs while always demanding more. Yet we can also be brilliant, stoic, generous, and we do remain, despite our various flaws, one of the world’s great republics. I try not to take that for granted, though I often do. I also try to remain mindful of the people who came before me, sacrificing for the right to vote, the right to an education, and the right to a life of dignity.
I don’t discount either all those soldiers who died on our own soil, on faraway beaches, or in distant jungles and deserts; some for the preservation of democracy, others for the most paltry of capitalist motives. Most had no choice but to serve, regardless of whether politicians sent them for reasons of nobility or greed. And going to war changed their lives irrevocably, whether through the loss of time, career, limb, or life itself. Some of them were artists, and many of them hated war.
Regardless of the war, or time in history, those people served so that you and I could have the privilege of drinking beer on Friday nights and complaining about what a bitch it is to be an artist. I know; I did my share of that when younger. Now I just try to remain grateful that I’m able to pursue my dreams and overcome my hardships, since the bulk of the world’s artists will never get that chance.
Grapple with your hardships—you’re meant to. Then transcribe the experience into brilliant work—you can.