Songs for the Struggling Artist


Advice for Artists

If I could offer one piece of advice for artists, it would be to be skeptical of all advice for artists.

After so many years of dedication to making art, I think I’ve heard most of it. Some of it might be useful. A lot of it isn’t. I started to think about this after receiving my copy of New York magazine featuring a cover story of advice for artists. I found myself confused about what it was doing there on the cover. Why should advice for artists be a front page story? I read the advice – hoping to uncover some clues as to what made this front page material but there was very little in the thirty three tips that I haven’t read before.

I discussed this article with another lifelong artist and realized that its presence on the front page probably mostly was a result of the author’s recent Pulitzer prize win. He won a Pulitzer so he gave some advice so they took some funny arty photos of him and put him on the cover. And when I received this magazine, I felt weird about it. Not because his advice is bad – some of it does accurately reflect my experience of making art – but because I don’t understand who this advice is really for. On one hand, it seems to be for “the young who want to” – and on the other, it’s for the veteran and also the one about to have the New York Times come to their first gallery show in Soho. Who is that? An arty preteen with super fancy connections and an old soul?

That’s when I realized how bound by our own experience any advice is. Jerry Saltz, the guy who wrote this advice, is a critic who just won a Pulitzer prize for writing. He’s a hotshot. He may feel like he has his finger on the pulse of the art world – that he’s seen the range of the super star artists and the strugglers. But the fact is, Jerry Saltz only sees artists who are in the mix. For some artists, Saltz coming to their show is their one big shot. If he doesn’t respond positively to their work, it will become the story of the time they almost made it. But the art scene also includes artists who will not only never get Saltz at their art show but will also never get a show. They’re not in the mix. The artists Saltz is seeing, and therefore advising, are in the mix – which means they have already experienced a level of success or privilege. This doesn’t negate this particular critic’s advice – it’s just to contextualize it.

Likewise, any advice I’d have to offer anyone is going to come from my particular point of view. To me, the most salient bit of information in Saltz’s advice, was his perspective that it only takes 12 people to create a successful career. That’s something he’s seen happen a few times I’d wager and probably seems relatively easy to accomplish from where he’s sitting. Why, he knows at least 12 well connected people! And he knows a lot of people who know 12 well connected people. No problem.

But the good news about this guy is that he also understands that not everyone has access to well connected people. And that is one of the things that makes him a valuable voice for the arts. Sure, he may have used a photo of (notoriously terrible family-man) Pablo Picasso to demonstrate that being an artist parent is possible but his advocacy for museum space and artists is incredibly important for the cultural life of New York City so I’m glad he’s out here fighting.

But if you’re an artist looking for useful advice, I regret to inform you that no one has the answers. There isn’t a right way to do this. Living with that sort of ambiguity is sort of what it’s all about.

If you find little bursts of information inspiring for your art, yes, please read them and make your work. If Saltz’s article encouraged just one artist to dig deeper into her work, then it was worth it, in my view.

But if this sort of thing left you a little cold and confused as it did me, take my advice and forget all advice. When it comes to making art, yours is the only advice to follow. Not your teachers, not your parents, not some guy in a magazine and not some struggling artist on the internet either.

This blog is also a podcast. You can find it on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts.

If you’d like to listen to me read a previous one on Anchor, click here.

screen-shot-2017-01-10-at-1-33-28-am

Every podcast features a song at the end. Some of those songs are now an album of Resistance Songs, an album of Love Songs, an album of Gen X Songs and More. You can find them on Spotify, my websiteReverbNation, Deezer and iTunes

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Want to help this artist?

Become my patron on Patreon.

Click HERE to Check out my Patreon Page

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Writing on the internet is a little bit like busking on the street. This is the part where I pass the hat. If you liked the blog (but aren’t into the commitment of Patreon) and would like to give a dollar (or more!) put it in the PayPal digital hat. https://www.paypal.me/strugglingartist

 

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“He just came with the building”

An artist has died. He got cancer and some other things and he died in the prime of his artistic life. I did not know him well but I knew of some of his struggle and I knew his artistic skill and promise. He was a composer (an art which is incredibly demanding and does not pay well – except for a very privileged few) and worked as a pianist for many years at a well-known arts institution.

After the artist had worked there for some time, that arts institution finally managed to provide some of its long-term artistic staff some health insurance. This was an important gesture and I can attest to the fact that it doesn’t happen everywhere. I think I know around about when this gesture happened. I was still working as a Teaching Artist when arts organizations all over the city suddenly started making its long term artistic staff actual employees. Apparently, they’d come under some scrutiny for getting away with paying all of us as freelancers for so many years. But even in that flush of sudden employment and a sheaf of W-2s where I once had 1099s, no one ever offered me health insurance I could afford. So this arts institution, where the artist worked, did something really good. And for a brief while, the artist experienced some actual security. He had health insurance and a bit of regular work.

Then, after they’d gotten used to it, the arts institution decided to withdraw the health insurance from those they’d previously provided it for. They didn’t fire those folks. They just took away their health insurance in order to save a little money. It was probably just a line item on a budget to them. The arts institution took away the artist’s health insurance and very soon thereafter, the artist got sick. He’d had health insurance and then it was gone and then he got ill. His friends set up a Go Fund Me – but healthcare is expensive and they did not reach the goal.

Maybe even if the artist’s Go Fund Me campaign had been fully funded or he’d still had health insurance, he would have died anyway. But also maybe not. I can’t help feeling like the arts institution has his blood on their hands. I feel like they killed him.

A few months later, the arts institution provided a free space for the artist’s memorial performance. The titular head of the arts institution took to the stage to welcome everyone to his building. He made a speech about the dearly departed artist and said he didn’t know dates or anything but he’d known the artist for ages. He said “He just came with the building. He’d just always been there.”

And I’d already been wishing I had a pile of rotten tomatoes to throw at this guy who was getting all kinds of praise for “generously donating the space” when his organization so egregiously contributed to his healthcare situation. But when he said this thing about the artist just coming with the building, I wanted a whole truck of rotten fruits and vegetable to throw at him. An arts institution decides to take away an artist’s health insurance, as a result he dies and then the arts institution gets to look like a hero for giving up their space for a day? And THEN “he just came with the building”?!?!?!? I mean. You couldn’t ask one of your assistants to tell you how long he’d worked there?

And of course you took his health insurance away. He’s just part of the building. Building fixtures don’t need health insurance.

Of course he’s just part of the building. That explains why, despite many years of knowing him, you never once listened to one of his compositions. Parts of buildings don’t have their own artistic work, they are just part of the landscape. And this is how artists are often regarded – not as human beings making art that have needs just like any other human being – but as part of the atmosphere. We’re like the furniture. You use it for a while and then when you get a new interior designer, you throw it out for the next set.

This Arts Institution Head managed to express, in one dumb joke that was clearly meant to be charming, the way so many artists are viewed in institutions. Not as the very reason for the institution. Not as vibrant participants in the artistic life of the place. Not as contributors. Not even as artists. Just – part of the building.

The building just comes with artists – whose lives are as inconsequential as the dust that gets swept up on Sunday nights.

And so the artist’s work will likely be lost to the ages. And the building will stand. And another artist will come to be seen as part of the building eventually.

 

This blog is also a podcast. You can find it on iTunes.

If you’d like to listen to me read a previous blog on Anchor, click here.

screen-shot-2017-01-10-at-1-33-28-am

Every podcast features a song at the end. Some of those songs are now an album of Resistance Songs, an album of Love Songs and More. You can find them on Spotify, my websiteReverbNation, Deezer and iTunes

*

You can help be more than part of a building

by becoming my patron on Patreon.

Click HERE to Check out my Patreon Page

*

Writing on the internet is a little bit like busking on the street. This is the part where I pass the hat. If you liked the blog (but aren’t into the commitment of Patreon) and would like to give a dollar (or more!) put it in the PayPal digital hat. https://www.paypal.me/strugglingartist

 




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