On being an artist

Am I an artist? or a work of art?

A young woman came up to me on the corner of Rachel and St-Laurent one evening last summer and asked me for money. She had a novel approach: “Can you spare some change?” she said. “I’m trying to make my living as an artist.”

           I keep thinking about this incident, because for me it crystallized a confusion that reigns in our society around what an “artist” is. To put it bluntly, an artist is not someone who stands on a corner and asks for money. There’s nothing wrong with asking for money on the street, but that’s not “being an artist.” Asking for money has to do with attaining the essentials of life; being an artist is about creating art. The two things are not related.

If the girl on the corner was indeed an artist, I’m profoundly sorry for her that she has to ask for money on the street. I wish, for her sake, that she could find another way to earn the money she needs to pay her rent, clothe herself, eat. But her “being an artist” was irrelevant—it didn’t make me more or less inclined to give her something.

Why would a street person feel the need to tell me she’s an artist? What does that have to do with anything? She might as well have told me she’s a Pisces, or a sapiosexual. She really posed a puzzle for me.

I keep thinking about her.


I’ve been pondering this topic—the relation between art and money—for YEARS, and at last I’m going to try to put my thoughts into some kind of order. Thank you, girl on the street, wherever you are, for forcing me to face up to this question

            For a lot of people, the real artists in our society are the ones who make a living from it, who don’t have to do anything else, who can write “Artist” in the “Occupation” section of their income tax return. As one friend said to me recently, after she asked me if I lived off my art and I replied in the negative: “Oh, I was hoping you’d say you do. To me, those are the real artists!”

            To me, this confused thinking (on top of being personally deflating) conflates two distinct things: art and money. Or, to put it in other terms, “being an artist” and “making a living.” Stated baldly like this, I think most people would concede that these sets of notions (art/being an artist in contradistinction to money/making a living) are not the same thing, but we confuse them all the time. The confusion is inherent in the way we think about art.

            An artist, I believe, is a person who devotes his/her life to personal expression through artistic techniques. Such a person may or may not make money from their art. A lucky few will be able to make enough money to live on. Others will make some money from their art, and will earn the rest of their income from associated activities (teaching is a popular one; for actors, doing commercials; for writers, journalism). Some will have two distinct lives: their “artist” life, which brings in little or no income, and another pursuit that is not artistic (T.S. Eliot famously worked in a bank). And some, by choice or not, will make precisely nothing from their art.

            The point of the preceding paragraph is to suggest that there is no logical relationship between art and income. Making money doesn’t make you more or less an artist.

            To confuse the issue further is that some of what passes for “art” would more properly be called “entertainment”. These are my own definitions, and you might choose to assign other words to the distinction I’m making here. But there is something that I’m calling Art, and it elevates the soul; there is something else that I’m calling Entertainment, which passes the time. The distinctions here are not precise: art may be entertaining (the greatest films of Alfred Hitchcock come to mind), and entertainment may look pretty artistic (the mystery novels of Dorothy L. Sayers). And what is entertainment to me (almost all popular music, for example) may be art to you.

            So there are indeed some people who manage to tap into something in their art that allows them in turn to live off the earnings of their artistic production (Leonard Cohen, say?). There are also people who work hard at being full-time entertainers, and who earn a living that way, but they aren’t necessarily artists, they just work hard (Justin Bieber, say?).

            I would suggest that instead of talking about “professional artists” and “amateur artists” (with all the value judgments implicit in the word amateur), we might more usefully talk about “artists by career” and “artists by vocation”. The career artist is the one who writes “artist” (or actor, or writer, or painter) on their income tax return because there’s nothing else they could reasonably write; it’s how they make their living. The “artist by vocation” is the person who is an artist but who makes their living otherwise.

            Unfortunately, I think an idea has developed in some of our advanced Western societies that being an artist is like being a veterinarian or a social worker: you train and then you should be able to earn your living from it. I say “unfortunately” because things manifestly don’t work like that, and yet we wilfully persist in the illusion that at some point society will evolve to the point where trained artists will be able to earn their living from their art and nothing else.

            The girl on the corner, bless her (she was so young!), was a victim, I think, of this societal lie. If you are an artist, be an artist, but don’t somehow think that you have some sort of “right” to earn your living from it. If you’re working away at your art and still find it impossible to pay your bills, it doesn’t mean you’re a failure as an artist; it just means you have to pay your bills. Somehow. You might have to work at something else. With luck, it will be something you enjoy. If you’re really lucky, it might even use the skills you’ve developed in your art.

            In his autobiography, Stephen Spender talks of a meeting with T.S. Eliot in which the young Spender said he hoped to be a poet. Eliot was confused, and said he didn’t know what “being a poet” meant. I think what he was suggesting was that “being a poet” isn’t something you aspire to; you are a poet if you write poetry. So go ahead and write poetry and don’t worry about “being a poet”. Being an artist is a way of life that arises from creating art. It is not a job.           


T.S. Eliot at his day job, at Lloyds Bank.

So what’s my point, you may ask? Well, I’d suggest it would be helpful if governments and educational institutions and the media and the zeitgeist would stop peddling the lie that you can reasonably choose to earn your living as an artist. You can’t. You might—but the two things are not linked. You might even choose to create art that is manifestly never going to attract the kind of money that would allow you to live off it. That’s an artistic choice (a brave one). But making that choice does not mean that “society” then owes you money. (On this topic of creating art that is unlikely to appeal to many people, permit me a small rant: As part of our society’s theory that artists should be encouraged to be “professional,” we have all kinds of arts grants. This is a good thing. I received my first arts grant last year, and I was profoundly grateful. But many of these grants go to support the kind of art that ordinary people like me need to have explained to us by someone with a doctorate in art history. The people who live off these grants are not, I would suggest, what I’m thinking of when I use the word “artist”; they are what I would call “creators of cultural product.” They are a type of overly arts-educated civil servant who makes exclusive creations that allow some people to say, “See, we’re an advanced country, with a KULTUR.” Please, spare me. Again, I’m just asking for clarity. I’m happy to live in a country that directs money to that kind of activity rather than to military spending, but I’m really not sure it’s even art. It’s closer to design, or engineering.)

I’m also writing this because I sometimes hear artists talking as if they have a choice between earning their living from their art or giving up their artistic life. This is not the choice you face! If you give up, then you aren’t really an artist to begin with; an artist creates out of a need to create, to express.

What I would say to artists of all types is this: what you are doing is beautiful, it is sacred, it is needed in the world. It is its own reward. May you find a way to live that allows you to remain true to your art and also attain the necessities of life—however you balance those two things personally.

Art happens. It happens because human beings are hard-wired to express ourselves, and a few experience this need acutely. Art will happen even when there is no money whatsoever to support it (this kind of thinking drives economists nuts!). It will happen even when it is actively suppressed.

Let’s have respect for all artists, whatever their individual decisions about how to live.

And as artists, let’s have respect for ourselves. And let me respectfully say, if you need to beg to support your art, there’s something seriously wrong, somewhere.



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