Friday, March 16, 2012

Being an Artist in a Capitalistic Society

Yesterday, I was interviewed by a college student who was taking a Sociology of the Arts course. Fascinating stuff—not my answers, but the class in general. They talk about how art is formed by society and the ideals we hold. What are the arts like in a capitalistic society versus a communist society? Who decides the trends in arts? Who decides what art is? What is the role of a critic? What is the role of a patron? What roles do government and economics play in art? It made me want to take the class, especially after having recently seen the movie Exit through the Gift Shop, a movie about the commercialization of street art.

One of the questions I was asked was what advice I would give younger artists. One of the things I said is that you have to be a jack-of-all-trades. We live in a competitive society in which the artist must compete for patronage and favorable criticism. This isn't a simple road race; it is a decathlon. And you do a heck of a lot of training before compete. I do my work with the realization that it may be years before I am paid for that work—if I get paid at all. As you can imagine, I don't have many people who work under me. I have learned to do things for myself. I built my own website, sent a press release, designed and sent promotional cards, and wrote query letters. I am still working on doing the numbers. As an artist you frame your work, take photographs of your work, write blogs, address technology, write marketing plans, and network.  None of these skills came prepackaged in my college degree. You learn to fake it until you figure it out. Today, for instance, I am working on the cover art for my book and learning to design custom frames/borders for promotional postcards. Tomorrow, I am working on taxes. At some point, I must figure out how to connect my Twitter account to my blog and vice versa—and to get the links on my website. Did Picasso do all this?
Is this what it means to be an artist in this society? It is my experience. I wish I could be a fly on the wall when the sociology class participants give their reports on the interviews they conducted. What do our collective answers and actions say about our society? I'll leave you with one more of the questions I was asked. (I am paraphrasing.)
When did you first begin to tell people you were an artist/writer? My answer? I didn't feel comfortable telling people I was an artist/writer until I was getting paid for the work I did (even though the work I was getting paid for was done years previously).

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