What Are You Doing With Your Art?
What did you do this morning?
This morning, I got up at 6:45, left the house by 7 to go downtown to my gym and swim in the pool, then was back by 9 to get right to work. That was the plan, anyway. And I did work. And I felt very important while I was accomplishing something. But that was my desperate attempt to salvage the day after failing to do so many times.
I bet you did something similar. Get up, go to work, zone out but get paid for whatever you did. The question is, what did you want to do this morning?
How about get up (when you felt like it), make some coffee, and then take the cat out on the porch while you drink the coffee, have a smoke, and either read the paper or chuckle as people on the street below rush off to work. If you so inclined, maybe you would have practiced some guitar licks, written a few lines of lyrics, gotten two pages of your novel written, interrupting that with a nap or several more cups of coffee.
That’s what I would have liked. Except for the smoke, I guess (an aside: I’m reading The Slap right now and all anybody does in that book is smoke or have affairs. Those characters are destined for heart attacks.) Lucky for me, my work sometimes involves writing. Not so lucky for me, I usually push writing to the bottom of the priority list unless I have a deadline, preferring to occupy myself with important things like responding to emails, making lists of work I have to do, or checking my horoscope.
We’re all the same, right? We wake up every morning hungover and with good intentions to finally change our bad habits. Then it’s 11:00 and nothing is different. 4:00 and you can’t believe the afternoon is almost done. 7:00 and you better cook supper or somebody in the house will wonder if you’ve gone out for the night. And another day goes in the trash.
I spend most of my life claiming I’m too busy to do anything fun, then realizing the whole point of busying myself is so that I can eventually have money and time to do fun things. It’s a truly messed up, modern way of existing that doesn’t leave much room for alternatives. If I don’t accomplish something substantial during the day, I don’t feel like a productive member of society, or that I’ve done my part in forwarding a basically non-existent career. This is the trajectory of our North American lives, but even more so for artists, because those goals of a slow-moving career always seem so far away, and each step a miniscule one towards them.
One of the artists I interviewed last week told me a story about a fellow player who had been at a party of musicians. This guy was lamenting his artistic stasis and one of our mutual friends, 11 beers in, began jabbing him in the chest with his finger, saying, “The question is, what are you going to do with your art? What are you doing with your art?”
There’s two points couched in that statement: one, that if you want to be an artist, it takes some hard work. Opportunities don’t just come to you. And two, it’s okay to fully throw yourself into your art, and not to let everything else in your life be an excuse for not doing it. Stop checking your horoscope and write three lines. It’s better than, “One day, when I write my book…” Just write the damn book.
I suspect this question is becoming the central tagline for a scene like the one in Calgary, where it’s possible to make a full-time living as a musician, if you don’t have high expectations and you get the right gigs. Many artists have left behind good jobs (in the middle-class America sense) for a life of creative work and slightly lower pay. When younger artists see this as a possibility, they are anxious to move in the same direction, but feel torn by obligations to raising kids, supporting spouses, paying a mortgage, and generally maintaining their appearance as a good, contributing citizen who happens to play music on the side.
But what if you didn’t care about these things? I’m not saying that you should let your kids run around with no breakfast because you really want to spend your time finding the perfect rhyme for ‘heart’, but you could live in a smaller house, pay rent instead of a mortgage, wear thrift store clothes, not have an iphone (imagine! I still don’t. I’m really okay. Really.) and do what you enjoy doing. I’m not saying quit your day job either, because we still need nurses and teachers and hamburger makers (though I’m all for ubiquitous vegetarianism too). But it’s possible to fit your art in, somewhere. Turn off the TV for an hour at night and practice. Get up at five instead of six and sketch out your next painting. When I was at a concert this week, two of the people there, both dear advisors of mine, asked me why I wasn’t trying to play on that stage. Once I got over laughing at the idea of performing, I did wonder why not. I make the excuse that I’m ‘too busy’ to practice, but I’m a bloody music professor. Shouldn’t that be all I’m doing?
For those who despair the fondness artists have for creating slowly, finding inspiration in a variety of settings, living by a different schedule, or working odd jobs to get by, guess what. The stupid economy will survive. It’s just that we’ll have a different economy; not one that relies on cheap, shitty clothes and electronics sold in stores, but that relies more on people’s creation and consumption of art. If you think that’s crazy, take a moment to review that 200 year period we call The Renaissance.
Oh, this is all very idealistic, isn’t it? But I get tired of the attitude that if you’ve chosen artistic work then you’re not working at all. Anyone who has played four hours at a wedding for $40 in pay would tell you it’s not a life of pure fun. And the critical fall is greater for those who invest their time into something creative than those who do routine work – imagine hearing a criticism like “their playing hasn’t improved over the last five years” when all you’ve done is practice several hours a day in that time. Somehow, “you could have folded that shirt better” doesn’t have quite the same emotional impact.
For most of us, the fear of failing at art, or the uncertainty of where to begin in our creative projects will keep us from really trying. But there are those few that we should admire, who do get up in the morning and write lyrics. Even if it seems like they’re ‘lazy’ from some fucked-up overdriven American perspective, they’re the ones who are doing something important.
And just so you know: I practiced for ½ an hour tonight. I won’t tell you how long it’s been since I played the guitar, although it was still in tune. Tomorrow, I plan to get up and have a coffee (and a smoke?) on the porch, but the cat probably won’t join me because she’s smart enough to stay out of the heat.