Unseen in the background, Fate was quietly slipping lead into the boxing glove.
—P. G WODEHOUSE, Very Good, Jeeves!
I WRITE AN EMAIL to the co-ordinator of my university course at least once a month. It always comes out the same way: a friendly ‘Hi’ at the beginning, a casual ‘Cheers’ at the end, and some solid crazy in the middle that tries desperately to pass itself off as calm inquiry about returning to undertake post-graduate study. With each go I remind her of my good marks and ask a few vague questions to make it appear as though I’m just getting more information on the academic venture before sauntering back onto campus, having abandoned the all-or-nothing artistic stagger I resumed after graduating two years earlier.
The truth is, I do this because being an artist allows for a lot of time spent waste-deep in trepidation. Something I discovered ten years ago when starting out as one, and something that, funnily enough, hasn’t changed despite a handful of success, a dump truck of failure, a bank account that continues to wheeze and a uni degree that, since completing, has dissolved the reassuring sense of security that I once clung to for dear life.
To work through the days, weeks, and seasons for something that barely allows you to scrape by is a harsh reality. To know that despite your best most-endearing efforts, the passage of time won’t reveal a finish line—or even a drink station—on the horizon can be terribly defeating. Ask yourself if you could or would work with the same amount of conviction for an employer who halved your wages. Then ask yourself if you would double your efforts if your half wages were cut altogether. If you can stretch your mind this far and still feel somewhat upbeat about the task at hand, then chances are you are just mad enough to survive the chief displeasure of being an artist.
“The gulf between creation and commerce”, as Cheryl Strayed puts it, is tremendously wide and the crux of anxiety for so many artists. It is relentless and something that keeps me in a perpetual state of checking and re-checking for exit signs. Like almost everyone else, I have a very hard time separating the marriage of money and success that tends to dominate societal values—the sum of the former determining the extent of the latter. It is the reason why I write my fantasy emails because undertaking a doctorate, or pretending to, represents a more socially acceptable idea of success that temporarily justifies my current lack of it as an artist. I know that I won’t actually go through with it, but it is a lie that I need to believe, if only to buy myself a moment to pop up an umbrella beneath a gathering storm of fear.
There exists a myriad of these psychological landmines around the common idea of success and money, and no matter how you redefine it in your own beautiful, poetic way, the capitalist notion continues to blow up in your face—the pinch being particularly sharp in the cavity where one’s sense of social contribution should reside. For me, it’s easy that a mundane thing like filling in a patient form at the doctor’s office can become an unwanted exercise in harrowing self-evaluation. I start off strong, going through the formalities with boundless ease and confidence:
Name: ‘No problem’
Address: ‘Hah! Next’
Email: ‘Fake email’
Occupation: ‘Fuck . . .’
There it is.
I suppose you could take the word ‘occupation’ to mean the time-sucking, worky-thingy that interrupts your guilt-free weekends; the thing that tops up your bank account each month, (maybe that’s all my GP expects). Or, you can believe it represents an individual’s earnest attempt to contribute something meaningful and enriching to the world as well as their own life. I’m partial to the latter definition, no matter where the word pops up, and whether you’re a projectionist or a plumber, I truly admire someone whose work makes them come alive.
Back in the doctor’s office I remind myself, as I stare at the patient form (leafing through it, checking to make sure I haven’t missed a ‘Hobbies’ section), that art is not something I dip my toes into every third Sunday afternoon when I’m feeling ‘crafty’. I wake up in its grip every morning and wrestle it like an anaconda past nightfall—at least, it feels that way. All I know is, I’m twenty-eight years old and I should be able to dash off the noun ‘Artist’ without the need to qualify it. And yet, I can’t. This may have something—or everything—to do with the fact that I spend a lot of time justifying to other people what I do, how I do it and more to the point, why I do it.
I’ve never gotten used to the idea that when people ask ‘What do you do?’ what they really mean is, ‘What do you make?’ You could cover the surface of the moon with wildflowers and people will still want to know if your little luna project sold, and for how much, in order to size you up. If the number attached to your work is meagre or, as is often the case, non-existent, they will raise their head and acquire a self-satisfied air, as if realising ‘Ah, so you are not really an artist then.’ People can be such twits.
Once you have been outed as a fraud, expect a follow-up to the tune of, ‘So, if you don’t make money from being an “artist”, how do you get by?’ This is another pearler that I’ve endured innumerable times. It’s amazing how often it comes up in one form or another. Not so amazing is how it always manages to feel like the unpicking of my last bit of nerve.
The truth is, I often don’t get by. There have been many times when I’ve had to take factory jobs unpacking shipping containers stuffed with bottles of Heinz products. I spend the entire day disassembling towers of tomato sauce and then reassembling them`on new pellets under the watchful eye of a farting, nose-picking forklift driver who I know only as ‘Trout’, Trout the forkie. There are times when I have to painfully borrow a couple of hundred dollars from my parents after remembering that I can’t actually pay the rent with my smile—we go through the usual ritual where I swear I’ll pay them back and my mum offers her reassuring ‘it will all come out in the wash’ line that smacks me with a heavy dissonance of gratitude and shame. Other times still, I stop creating altogether—sometimes for weeks on end—convinced I’ve finally heaved up the last bucket from this rapidly shallowing well of creativity. During these enchanting periods it’s a cinch to fall into despair and whilst taking some ‘Me’ time to properly appreciate just how much I creak, I also mentally spend some time hanging out with my ideal future self who is, for the record, nothing like the seized creature that currently greets me in the mirror.
Future Cam (Me) is fluent in French. He’s rich in the sense that he can afford to shout his friends’ lunch with-out worrying if that can of soup will have to be rationed or if his housemate’s food will have to go missing. He gets involved in a lot of conservation work, maybe runs a not-for-profit animal and environmental welfare organisation. He also has a kind of laissez-faire with “The New Yorker” and will occasionally pen the odd article on whatever he pleases; performing his music to small, replete venues, winning everyone over with song and story. Yep, future Cam is a pretty incredible guy, which is probably why his present self can often feel so diminished. Did I forget to mention that he’s also an invention borne out of a present low self-opinion?
We all prop up ideal versions of ourselves from time to time; portraits that embody all the lovely things that seem just out of reach. When we look upon these figures as whole, we feel broken. When we portray them as found, we believe we are lost. And when we visit them too often, we run the risk of becoming indifferent to the present, in all its face-planting glory. Between a past that is immovable and a future that is unknowable, the juicy present is far more deserving of ownership.
It breaks my heart to think of the amount of times I have disregarded achievements in my life, times when I have sat with some small but uplifting victory for only a few precious moments before loading the next distant ambition into the chamber, squeezing the trigger and setting off after it, dissatisfied and convinced that fulfilment lies somewhere up ahead.
To survive as an artist, you must go forward with a heart that knows joy and a mind that continues to bat away cynicism and envy, because if the financial hardships don’t finish you, jealousy and spite inevitably will. With regards to money, you have to accept that by and large, society takes a pretty illogical stance on the artist and how valuable they truly are.
For example, Francis Bacon’s “Three Studies of Lucian Freud” fetched a casual 142 million dollars in a private sale in 2006. On the other hand, Vincent Van Gogh reportedly sold only one painting while alive, “La Vigne Rouge” for four houndred francs and died virtually penniless and unknown after churning out over two thousand works of art in the last decade of his life—Van Gogh’s complete oeuvre is now valued over one billion dollars.
This is not supposed to make you feel better, or worse, but simply to show you how the rules around art and money tend to bend and break and then break again. The English poet Thomas Gray wrote, “Full many a flower is born to blush unseen and waste its sweetness on the desert air.” It is difficult but neccessary to accept that some of the most beautiful creations are never carried to us; never given a chance to be fully appreciated in a world where artificial flowers thrive in abundance.
Maybe you’ll never get payed for this labour of love, maybe you’ll make a million dollars—I hope you do—but if you’re going to be an artist in any sense of the word you must learn to know the difference between the monetary value of something and its worth. George Orwell rightly observed in his unadorned memoir, “Down and Out in Paris and London” that “money has become the test of grand virtue.” To reject this notion takes courage. To accept it is to hand yourself a very low experience of life. One that is quite a way beneath you.
If all else fails and your album is a stinker, if no one buys your book of acrostic poetry and your artist Facebook page goes into negative ‘likes’, do what I inevitably do and round out your most recent artistic catastrophy with a heaving floor-bound crying fit. Drench a few hankies in tears and mucus. Howl wildly. Claw at the floor and bring that buried knot of anguish up to the surface. After you’ve calmed down, call your mum and tell her you’re feeling a bit better since you last spoke (because you are), and then forget about being an artist for the rest of the day. Move gently and think well of yourself, because being vulnerable has a way of making you porous and in these moments you are likely to soak up nourishing things like reverence and forbearance, things that will sustain you in art and in life.
Part 2 of 4 from the book ‘As Dire as its Title: Writings on the Daily Struggles of the Working Artist’. Purchase here.