There's a certain kind of person that hears I'm an artist and responds, "Cool, I've taken some art classes." I usually bite my tongue, but it also makes me wonder -- do they ever imagine how well those comments would go over in other fields? If a new acquaintance mentioned the years spent in medical school, would they feel the need to discuss how adept they are at bandaid application? When that dude at a party says he's an economics major, do they launch into a description of how fluently they navigate an online bank account? I doubt they feel an urge to mention to the stranger next to them at a coffee shop busting out HTML code all the meticulous ways they hashtag selfies on Instagram.
For some, being an artist may not qualify as an acceptable, salary-guaranteed career that adults do, and they've decided that it is more suitably viewed as a hobby. However, no matter what career path they're traipsing down, or which major is asking obscene amounts of money on tuition per year to attain, it all demands a certain level of talent a well as serious commitment to succeed. Working in the arts is no different. It asks the same commitment and in some cases, higher levels of talent. Unless the end-goal involves a one room apartment, drinking Listerine to get your kicks and counting how many oil stains you've accumulated on your fry cook apron, working in any field takes skill, a lot of practice and some very hard work to do well. No offense to McDonald's cooks; I'm sure the Big Mac you've just cooked was beautifully plated next to my fries in my paper carry-home bag.
Somehow, musicians, photographers and artists are still grouped into the "slacker" category. Basically, my job choice is a merely worthy of another's hobby. And this isn't a thought process that necessarily changes when artists become successful and sell their goods for unthinkable sums of money. A Jackson Pollock painting just sold for $140 million dollars in 2006 -- the highest price ever paid for a work of art at that time. Another piece by a modern, abstract artist, Jean-Michel Basquiat, sold for $48.8 million dollars last May, attaining the new highest record for the artist's work. And yet, there are still people who look at both artists, shrug their shoulders and criticize, "Eh, I could do that." If you did, I'd like to see how much it fetches at your garage sale.
Maybe I should simplify: Your macaroni art frame you glued together in kindergarten is not be the same quality as the oil-paint, three foot by five foot portraits that I am commissioned to paint. Nor would you expect someone to pay you a lawyer's fee ever time you talk yourself out of a speeding ticket. Artists take pride in their work, an idea that goes for any career. Doctors know that what they do every day is only possible after years of studying and practice. And yet there is a perceived difference between hippy, peace-lovin' artists and adults with a respectable profession. I like to imagine my Uncle Bobby saying that last sentence, who lives in the boonies of Louisiana and takes every chance to make sure I know what a stand-up writer Bill O'Reilly is. But maybe the difference is in visibility of commitment and talent. With career success measured in fame or monetary gain, it's easy to write off the arts, because the majority of artists don't rake in the big bucks. In fact, artists love their trade so much that they couldn't give any less of a poop whether or not they make money. That much should be obvious from the way we lock ourselves in studios, behind keyboards or in a darkroom and work obsessively. If Wolf of Wall Street was about art and named Wolf of Chelsea Art Galleries, the commitment to the trade would be the same, maybe minus the hookers and probably a lot less cash thrown around. I can't say the same for the candle/bondage scene though. Artists can be just as kinky as the next kid.
Anyone can see the nearly-obsessive drive common in artists from the coffee and cigarettes stereotype we've garnered; anything to keep us wired enough to just finish this painting, just to let me fix the way the light hits her nose even though I've probably repainted it fifteen times, even though no one will notice but me and it's 4:00 a.m.
You see, we love what we do so much that we're willing to risk the warm feeling of a monthly paycheck in our plump little palms, and with that, losing the qualifiers that make a job "successful." Most artists can't afford the nice car, new house or trendy clothes, but it doesn't make the career choice less valid. Some people may be delighted when they get a promotion and that corner office, but my challenges come in the form of executing accurate foreshortening on a new perspective, or painting wrinkles without making my subject look ancient. I'm ecstatic when I render a middle-aged portrait without making them look impossibly youthful or outrageously ancient. Although that's a harder accomplishment to pinpoint, the frequent lack of economic gain shouldn't knock an artist's work from profession to hobby. Does the talent become less valid when the majority of the professionals in that field aren't lucrative? Maybe that's what makes people see a Pollock as a fluke or a Richter as outlandish.
More importantly, that's the main reason I don't want to see anyone's skull and crossbones pencil sketch they've done on the margins of your college-ruled 8 1/2" by 11" notebook. If you ever feel the urge to mention your Polaroid camera when someone says they're a photographer, ask yourself if you would tell a lawyer that Law and Order: SVU is totally your favorite show. And please, next time you see a Warhol sell for an unspeakable sum, don't say "I could've done that." You could've, but you didn't. An artist did.
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