Fall approaches and, as expected, we are all still riding the pandemic wave, hopefully able to adapt to this new meta-reality, one which is not likely to change for some time. I will soon follow this post with a studio update, but I had a few ideas to share in connection with a book I recently read (actually listened to, since I spend a lot of time working in my studio) – The Death of the Artist: How Creators are Struggling to Survive in the Age of Billionaires and Big Tech, by William Deresiewicz. It was published in July of this year but was written pre-pandemic. The book is dense and there is plenty of commentary and criticism to explore elsewhere online. However, the book definitely stimulated my thinking about what it means to be an artist in the early 21st century. I don’t agree fully with its conclusions or some of its recommended solutions, but much of the book rings true. If you refer to yourself as an Artist, you will want to read the book and draw your own conclusions. Here are just a few of my own (surprisingly motivational) observations – maybe they will resonate for you too.
The posts on this platform address my experiences as an artist / designer / craftsperson* – these have not fundamentally changed during the current pandemic. As noted and evident throughout Deresiewicz’s book, navigating The World and its economic terrain as a creative professional** is fraught with chills and spills, to which I and every artist/designer/craftsperson I know can attest. I love what I do, but challenges exist. Wherever we are on the continuum, we have to attend to the needs of body (as well as mind and spirit). Choices must always be made and for most of us that means, in part, doing something to pay the bills. I have worked “in the world” to meet many of those needs. I am currently able to work full-time as an artist / designer / craftsperson and a lot of that work still takes place “in the world,” except that it is nearly always provisional (a fact on which I prefer not to dwell). Committing to a life as a creative professional without a financial safety net requires a certain amount of blind trust, incredible motivation, and a deranged desire to manifest a personal vision. It can be pretty daunting (if not impossible) to sustain this level of energy and commitment day-in-day-out, especially as one ages. Throw in a pandemic and attendant economic downturn and it might be downright suffocating – exposing and nearly extinguishing the fire at the heart of what has always been a fragile and uncertain proposition. And, as Deresiewicz notes, these insecurities have an impact on the nature of the Art one makes.
However…..In the face of the current and continuing challenge to the arts and artists on all fronts, I find numerous bright spots. First, I think this pandemic era, as horrifying and dislocating as it has been, has given us an opportunity to see and appreciate with greater depth our humanity and our frailty. This feels crucial: artists must be able to take this perspective if we are to speak to the concerns of our time with authenticity. Second, importantly, we have the opportunity to look at our historical past as a point of reference for understanding our current lives and predicaments. Where art/artists, etc. are concerned, the body of historical evidence demonstrates that the means and media of transmission, the financing of the work, and the nature of one’s audience are neither stable from one era to the next, nor generally within our control. This we know with certainty. For example, step back a spell and rather than “Billionaires” and “Big Tech” (to use Deresiewicz’s behemoths), you find the Church. For centuries, the Holy Roman Empire garnered the power to profoundly influence the type of art being made, the manner in which it was made, and the lives and exertions of those who made it. On this point, Deresiewicz reminds his readers that the makers of art during the “Middle Ages” (much of it architectural and commissioned by the Church), comprised countless anonymous artisans and craftspeople. The concepts of Art as a stand-alone discipline and Artist as individual/inspired genius did not come until later.
That leads me to some closing thoughts (and thank you for persevering). We are likely living through another great transformation. Historians will be able to put it into clear perspective later, but it is apparent that ideas, information, and other cultural and social underpinnings (not to mention our physical world) are in serious flux. That can feel pretty destabilizing, and it is actually. But is also full of possibility, and that is an energizing prospect. Adopting a broader historical perspective, whenever possible, can help to dissipate some of the anxiety we feel as individuals, whether as creative professionals/practitioners in contemporary culture, as members of a civic body, or as friends, spouses, parents, children, sisters and brothers. Further, if we define Art as the product of “individual creative (wealthy/well-appointed) geniuses”, then it has historically only been easy for and accessible to the lucky few (notwithstanding the seemingly arbitrary nature of the criteria for their selection). That mean that the rest of us still have to get up every morning, face our limitations and do the Work anyway, because we have been “called” to do so. Thinking about ourselves as creative beings traveling along a historically rich and varied continuum feels more inviting, inclusive and open-ended.
Embracing my life as a creative expeditioner has given me “permission” to renew my commitment, to mark the spot and get busy making (and living), each day hoping that the mastery of balance between needs of the body/mind and the needs of spirit will be forthcoming!
The scope of my practice layers the sensibilities embodied by all legs of the primary triad of creative disciplines: Art, Craft and Design.
**I know the word creative is off-putting to some but I am using this is a broad sense to include the full spectrum of the arts, “fine” art, literary arts, the “applied” arts (design, craft), as well as the performance arts. Deresiewicz looks at the broad categories gathering anecdotal evidence from practitioners to support his arguments.