Money and Art

Yesterday, I read a post by Austin Kleon in which he wrote,

“The “meaning” in your job is: it pays the bills. Get as good at it as you can, because it’ll   make the job more interesting to you, and it will provide you exits to another one. Then find the rest of your meaning elsewhere.”

The subject of the post was day jobs, and Kleon argues in favor of all creative types keeping their day jobs because of the security they provide. There’s a lot to be said for security, possibly more to be said for security than there is to be said for “following dreams.” Bear with me here: I’m all for following dreams. I quit a job I disliked to find a job I love, though it pays less and the hours are shorter and sometimes my future feels uncertain. But I did it after I paid off my student loans, with money in the bank and a partner to support me if need be. I didn’t quit my day job to write full time. That wasn’t in the budget.

And frankly, I don’t know if it ever will be. I’m not entirely sure that I agree with the idea that we must pay for art. I’m not sure that I believe art has to profitable in order for it to be worthwhile. But if your art isn’t always profitable, it probably isn’t going to pay the rent. It wasn’t until fairly recently that artists made much money, unless they had a patron. So most survived with day jobs.  William Faulkner had a day job. T.S. Eliot had a day job. Franz Kafka had a day job. William Carlos Williams had a day job. Harper Lee had a day job.

I think we have this notion in society that in order to be good at something, to have “made it,” you have to be paid to do it. I know I’ve fallen into that trap: imagining what my life would be like if I was a successful writer, published, interviewed, on Oprah. The problem with focusing on becoming successful and being recognized is that it doesn’t actually make you better at your art. And being published, interviewed or on Oprah would not necessarily mean I was a good writer. There is a lot of crap that gets published. Van Gogh never sold a painting. Justin Bieber sells out concerts. Whose had a more lasting impact?

I’m not arguing that all art should be free, or that writers, musicians and painters should never get paid. But I think we have to get away from this idea that you are only successful if your creative work can fund the rest of your life because that’s just not a sustainable idea.

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