Because “selling” is not “selling out”
“So my parents are afraid my sister wants to major in art,” my friend e-mails me. “Somehow they didn’t worry about me going into newspapering.” It’s true, of course, that newspapering is not a get-rich-quick industry these days, what with the internets and the TVs and the whatever else we’re blaming the industry’s slow-speed suicide on these days. Still, most Americans seem to think The Pressª is just as rich and sleazy as your average politician or lawyer. Let me state for the record that this is not true – we are not rich. “Artist,” on the other hand, is universally synonymous with “poor.” As in, Q: What’s the difference between an artist and a large pizza? A: The large pizza can feed a family of three. Sure, there have been plenty of rich and famous artists. But the terrible secret is that they were all either from rich families, became rich after they were dead, or died of suicide, alcohol or STDs shortly after becoming rich. They don’t tell you that in art school, they let you figure it out for yourself. It’s a part of the process. Honestly, my friend’s parents have a right to worry. With a degree in art, the only guaranteed source of income is teaching, which many would rather die of suicide, alcohol or STDs than do. Of course, most students have another plan – they’ll sell their work in a gallery and live on the profits. They will eventually become well-known, sell work for tens if not hundreds of thousands and live in luxury. In this way, an art degree is a lot like a lottery ticket, except the lottery ticket is cheaper and has better odds. My plan was a little different. Upon becoming a Bachelor of Fine Arts, I promptly went to work as a graphic designer for a newspaper, essentially rolling two low-prospect career paths into one. Logically, you would expect some kind of horrible anti-job, one where you pay your boss and instead of health benefits, you get vicious beatings. Thankfully, that’s not true. Then again, it’s only been a few months. Maybe there’s a grace period. All this makes it a little hard to offer my friend’s sister advice, but here goes. Obviously, you don’t go into art for the money. You do it because you have to, because you can’t stop yourself, because not making art is like trying to hold your bladder for too long. But that doesn’t mean you won’t need money. Your head may be full of bohemian dreams of romantic poverty now, but the first time you’re facing eviction, suffering through an illness because you can’t afford a doctor, or watching a pet die because you couldn’t pay a vet to save it, you’ll discover an essential truth: Being poor sucks. Trust me, I’m wiser than my years on this one. This doesn’t mean you have to sell out and go into real estate or anything. Just don’t make the mistake of widening the definition of “selling out” to include anything that involves getting paid. There are plenty of careers in art and design that let you flex your creative muscle, hand you a check and then send you home after eight hours to do as you please. You may even find you enjoy the work. Personally, I don’t see a whole lot of distinction between the work I do for publications like YES! Weekly and the stuff I do to hang on a wall. If art is meant to graphically convey essential truths, then using my talents to present excellent pieces of journalism, to capture the reader’s eye and draw them into important and interesting stories, is an exercise in art’s highest calling. As for the future of the industry, it’s hard for me to predict. I suspect that print media’s current predicament has less to do with our changing times and more to do with their failure to keep up with them. Besides, I don’t see any industry outside monasticism that isn’t in some degree of upheaval right now. Regardless, the world is always going to need artists. If you want to study art, study art. Use it to do good when you can. And always be willing to accept a paycheck for it.
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