Sunday, January 18, 2015

The life of an artist in a changing world

Vincent Van Gogh,
Self-Portrait as an Artist
Two items in the media have recently come to my attention, and I would like to share them here.

In the December/January issue of the Atlantic, William Deresiewicz writes an article titled "The Death of the Artist - and the Birth of the Creative Entrepreneur". You can read the article on-line here. Note that the discussion is focused on the Western tradition of music, literature and visual art, and that the masculine pronoun is assumed.

Deresiewicz traces the evolution of the artist's identity from the Middle Ages, when essentially the artist was an Artisan. He went through a long apprenticeship, and his value was in the execution of his craft, not in his ideas or his innovation. His status in society was lower than the merchant, and he was largely supported by the Church. This situation evolved during the Renaissance to the point where individuals who had achieved an exceptional mastery of their craft were given individual recognition (Rembrandt, for example.) Many of these painters supervised a crew of artisans in their workshops, who produced work approved and then signed by the Master.  Still, the work's conformity to the tradition of the Academy was more important than the display of individual creativity.

With the age of Romanticism, the artist came to be seen as a solitary Genius, in touch with a higher plane of thinking, unsullied by commercial considerations. If he was lucky, he would be taken on by a dealer or a patron. If not, he could starve in his garret while waiting for the world to discover him. Slowly, innovation came to be valued and the standards of the Academies shunned.

After the second World War, art became more institutionalized. Cities vied to have the best collections in the biggest museums, artists applied for grants and went through MFA programs in universities, often gaining teaching positions and fellowships. They became credentialed Professionals, seen to be "working very hard" and explaining to the cognoscenti exactly what it was that they were trying to do. (Hence, Artspeak.)

And now, since the turn of the millennium, we are in an era of the Artist as Entrepreneur. The institutions that supported the Artist as Professional are struggling and contracting. Writes Deresiewicz,
"Everyone is in a budget squeeze: downsizing, outsourcing, merging, or collapsing. Now we’re all supposed to be our own boss, our own business: our own agent; our own label; our own marketing, production, and accounting departments. Entrepreneurialism is being sold to us as an opportunity. It is, by and large, a necessity. Everybody understands by now that nobody can count on a job."
To understand the implications of this shift, it's helpful to read the Atlantic article. But when the customer is king, and the internet has made everyone a critic, it is likely that art will become "safer" and that quality will suffer. Artists are more likely to work in multiple media (poet / dancer / filmmaker) and orchestrate community involvement in collaborative projects. Less important than putting in the 10,000 hours needed to master one's medium are the 10,000 contacts in the artist-entrepreneur's network.

Complementing this essay in the Atlantic magazine is an interview on CBC with playwright and performance artist Darren O'Donnell. He admits that, as someone who has chosen to make his living as an artist, he spends most of his day on e-mails and writing grant proposals. He says that the romantic notion of the autonomous artist is outdated, that such a person no longer exists. Further, he suggests that young people who are drawn to this idea of becoming an artist should be cautioned, and should consider other careers as ultimately offering more opportunities for creativity.

This rings true for me. When I look back on my years as an elementary school teacher, I see that there were many daily decisions and interactions that called for creativity. Dealing with individual differences in learning styles, pulling together materials to teach concepts and skills within a chosen theme, working with colleagues on activities for Reading Week or the Christmas musical production, shaping the space in the classroom to foster learning: all of these aspects of being a classroom teacher called on creative thinking. I think that many jobs require problem-solving skills, whether in construction, management, research, or being a full-time parent. Young people looking at career options would be well-advised to consider broadening their definition of creativity.

What do you think? Some of you reading this will have had experience in non-arts careers. What is the reality of creativity in the workplace? in the day-to-day life of a full-time "creative professional"? Please comment!


Dianne Robinson said...

I'm not sure that I agree with Darren O'Donnell - I do think that there is room for the artist - it has always been difficult to succeed as one. What has changed is the way in which patronage and dealing with the public now works. And yes, there is creativity in most jobs - I think in my business world we called it "showing initiative" "thinking outside the box"

Thanks for the thought provoking article

Dianne Robinson said...

and after seeing today's exhibit it would seem that Andy Warhol is a classic example of the artist as entrepreneur!