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Muse in the Marketplace: In Search of the Worth of Art

Updated: Jul 5, 2019

As a self-proclaimed has-been who never was, I am well acquainted with the struggle to be paid for my art. Like many artists, most of the time I've had to supplement my income with side-jobs of one kind or another. I've worked as a waitress, a clerk, and cashier. A daycare worker, a group home worker, and a Christmas elf. Later I worked as a magazine editor and a building manager. These jobs paid my rent, but I resented them. How humiliating to have to sell one's time. If only the world would recognize my genius. Toiling for filthy lucre, under the lash of somebody' else's clock, I dreamed of the day when I could quit my job and devote myself solely to the noble pursuit of creation.

I know many brilliant artists who are in the same boat. They drive truck, they paint houses, they deliver mail. Like me, they all want to quit their day jobs. When I finally did, I discovered the new boss was as bad as the old boss. Because to survive, I had to SELL my art. And I had to sell myself as well: my social skills, my abilities, and my image. This is an exercise in soul-sucking, mind-numbing navel-gazing.

Ideally, you first sell to someone who knows how to sell to lots of people, and doesn't screw you in the bargain. They tell you where to sign and suddenly you are making enough money that you can hire somebody else to design all your promo material, organize your tours, and get you publicity. You get to spend half the year creating art and half the year touring in front of adoring fans, staying in fine hotels and having somebody else lug your gear.

Leslie Alexander and Jenny Allen
Art For Sale

But the reality is, if you never cross paths with that magical person, you are still a slave. You may have the freedom to plan the hours in your day, but now you'll have several side jobs. You'll be writing grants and promo material, making posters and websites, booking tours and chasing public media. You'll struggle on if you have hope that your art has value to someone else besides yourself. That someday the right person will recognize it, and you'll get all of those cool items you want on your rider, no questions asked. In the meantime, you'll take what you can get. When I finally quit my day job, I was still grumbling about not having enough time to create. The conflict between commerce and art remained.

And i discovered something else. When my life was consumed with promoting myself, it was like spending all my time staring into a mirror. I was constantly comparing myself to my peers, doubting my work, and polishing my public image. The image that comes to mind is a snake eating it's tail. To write, you need a life worth writing about.

You need to be connected to the community, so that you can observe and participate in events that matter. And I don't mean just your own community of starving artists - I mean people of all ages, doing things that are outside your own scope. You can find these experiences within a side-job, however humble. Sure, you're gonna be inspired by things that happen to you and every other individual on a wider scale - your break-ups, deaths, upheavals and whatnot. These are universal experiences, and writing about them can be tremendously healing. But once you've written yourself into the ground, it occurs to me that the time comes to turn the lens outward and bring something positive and revolutionary to the table. For this, you need to be embedded in wider concerns than your own political advancement. And you need to have experienced enough in life that you have some answers to bring forward.

I've had a few personal and public successes; got to see some cool places, played some nice rooms, got some good reviews and a few spins on radio. But these didn't translate into enough income to justify the effort. Maybe I lacked the drive to push it through. Perhaps my artistic decisions could have been brighter - or braver. Maybe it was just bad luck. One year I crunched the numbers, and realized I was making 1.72 an hour. It was a wake-up call. I decided that my work lacked sufficient quality to compete on a large scale, and that all I was doing was taking up space that could be better occupied by someone with real talent.

At the age of 47, I abandoned the pursuit of art in favor of becoming a nurse. This is no side-job - it took years of education and all of my faculties to get there. There was no time for staring into my navel to discover the mysteries of the universe - they were laid out for me in my textbooks. Biology, physiology, social studies and psychology all opened my eyes to a wider frame of reference. Meanwhile, on the nursing floor, I was testing my capacities - my memory, judgement, and willingness to serve. I found things out about myself I didn't know - the most important being that bringing practical value to life of another is far more gratifying to me than applause.

Now I have a good job with benefits and am expected to be there for so many hours a week, doing my best to help my patients. I get a regular paycheck and a paid holiday once a year. My time is no longer my own, but in return, I have a new measure of security, as well as a new sense of purpose.

Has my "art" suffered? Yes. Do I miss it? You bet. At my worst, I've been heard to grumble and complain that I'm "losing the artist in me." I used to write at least ten songs a month. Now I write maybe five a year. I went from doing a hundred-fifty shows a year to maybe ten. Sure, I'd like to record my new songs, as well as many others that never got to see the light of day. I know there are few people out there that might be interested. I also know that the likelihood of recovering my costs are small. Is it worth it continue performing and writing when my hours could be spent productively helping people? Is it my "art" that has gone AWOL, or my sense of ego gratification?

I am only beginning to process the insights I've gained since embarking on a new course of study. Meanwhile, I've been having fun with music when time allows - at campfires, kitchen tables and jams. I joined a classic rock cover band to keep my chops up. And I've been slowly recovering from a radical change in identity. Because now I realize I am more than just "an artist." I am a human being with many capacities in my toolkit. Even so, I can only develop one a time. So far, none of my new-found interest in science and social studies has resulted in any kind of major creative achievement. As yet. I have hope in the muse, and in myself.

So I guess I'm trying to have this life worth writing about. All of my best work has come in the midst of commotion, change, and inner growth. These things take up a lot of your day. There are periods that flow by so chock full of newness that there is no time for reflection, and you think you'll never create again. Later, it all comes pouring out, sometimes in a different medium. When a song is shouting at me, I welcome it with open arms. If it's a good song, I'll put many, many hours into it - editing, polishing, and then learning how to perform it.

But why? Why put in all that time? If a tree falls in the forest, does anybody hear?

I'll tell you why. Because when you begin to create, you aren't thinking about the end-game. Because in the act of creation, you pose your question or idea, and the muse fills in the blanks. Sometimes she gives you the whole works.

I'll go to my craft with a problem to solve, and in writing it out, I'll find a punchline. And I'll get a private rush. The sum of this exchange has a value beyond measure to me. It helps me grow, to understand myself and the world around me. I could opt to try and sell that rush to other people, but actually, I'd just like to purchase some myself. I'd like to have it around all the time. Like good coffee.

I heard a familiar grumble from a songwriter recently, who was pointing out that when she performs original material, she makes far less money than when she covers tunes at the casino or club. She points out how much sweat and blood goes into writing a song, how hard it is to make audiences listen to it, and how easy it is to gather them up when they're hearing songs they've heard a thousand times.

But it makes perfect sense to me. A creation that has proven it's worth to countless listeners has more value to them than something unfamiliar. In order to get someone to pay attention to - and pay for - your particular take, I guess it has to be pretty fucking good. if a million people don't buy your art, though, that doesn't mean it has no value.

It has value to YOU. And it's priceless.

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