Art, Economics and Other Problems

26 June 2018 · Karl Finch · Permalink

Above: the annual income you can expect as a professional artist.
Above: the annual income you can expect as a professional artist.

It will mean years of thankless grit, self-doubt shifting like sand, financial insecurity and a pervasive mental turmoil—all means to an end for that stunning result: zero guarantee of Making It.

You’re probably familiar with the ten-thousand-hour rule, the daunting but appealing idea that by doing something for ten or twenty years, it can be mastered. Optimistic from the outset, this rule assumes putting in the effort. Can you even conceive of devoting a chunk of work to your craft day in, day out, whether you feel like it or not, regardless of whatever less important responsibilities vie for your attention?

A year, ten thousand hours or a lifetime—it means next to nothing unless you fully intend to commit. If you’re not quite ready to kill another human being for the love of your craft, it might be time to have an honest conversation with yourself, or perhaps just nurture that relationship until ritual murder becomes palatable.

Marcus Aurelius, writing well before the coming of the post-consumerist cesspool, condemned those who didn’t start each day with the drive (if not the desire) to achieve something. Having produced honey, bees don’t then stop to wait for the recognition of their peers—they just get back to it.

Being so much more advanced than bees, it’s a jarring thought that this should be as troubling for us as the thought of getting out of bed in the morning. Perhaps the best we can hope to do in life is leave the world better, or at least no worse off, than the way we found it. A low bar in a world that tends to kill its MLKs and imprison its Mandelas, but compassion is still a real tough nut, so back to the somewhat easier act of creation.

The professional artist exists at a junction of hows (how good they are, how much they care, and how easy it is to translate these into money). Since every complex of human experience can be represented in the form of a Venn diagram, we can see how commitment to a craft rubs shoulders with the other plagues on our sleepless minds:

Venn diagram of the professional artist
As Galileo opined: measure what is measurable; reduce to absurdity what is not so.

Of course, some of the situations resulting from these overlaps are more likely than others. Carving out a niche somewhere on the map is an achievement, just not a very good one if it’s in the wrong place. Realising your personal vision is one terrible potential pitfall, as are failing to subvert audience expectations, being predictably consistent, and being anything but predictably consistent.

Where you gravitate between these forces will influence, but not define, the quality of your work. This corresponds to a colour on Finch’s spectrum, which ranges from utter travesty at one extreme through mediocrity to the status of semi-divine.

how Finch's spectrum works
Finch’s spectrum is a metric to easily evaluate the abstract qualitative value of an artwork.

If this is cause for concern then make sure not to reflect that you’re partway through a finite lifespan, that you can only read a finite number of books during this time, or that the opportunities for creative expression are similarly finite.

Art as a profession, then, is tragically out of reach for the majority of us. Best find comfort in the fact that starvation is a matter of career choice for you rather than everyday reality. Still, there has to be an alternative. Meaningful and productive work for the betterment of the community is good, yes, but also very demanding.

An existence devoted to criticism—that’s something requiring a great deal less investment, risk and spirit than creation. A simple equation actually allows us to measure the worth of a human being based on how much of their noise is critique:

equation for calculating the value of someone's soul
The value of the soul (S) expressed as a decimal, where n is the instances of work produced, Q is the weighted average quality of work based on Finch’s spectrum, E is the energy expended in joules, and t is the lifespan in years.

This is all crude speculation, though. For those of us who can’t navigate this diagrammatic nightmare, especially the ones who’ll settle for a life of anything other than the fierce pursuit of artistic ecstasy, what else is there? Being a wage slave without the means to do the craft, versus life as an artist treading water above the poverty line, is a precarious balance but a false dichotomy.

The right to elective employment, here meaning the ability to quit your job, is one of the few avenues of liberation left to us in this society. The state of clear-headedness that follows is as important to consider as the well-hidden truth that, while the company hiring you has a shred of regard for you, the opposite is probably not the case. If art can’t save you, maybe this will.