Living and Sustaining a Creative Life
Living and Sustaining a Creative Life, Sharon Louden’s collection of essays by contemporary artists, chronicles how these men and women have sustained themselves, both financially and intellectually, throughout their artistic careers. When read in sequence, the essays coalesce to form a chain-link narrative of 40 different careers that all began some time in the last quarter of the 20th century.
While Louden’s contributors claim a broad spectrum of commercial success, most receive supplemental (or primary) income from other employment. Several of the artists started out in New York City, and thus reminisce about the days of cheap space and free time. Almost all of them hail from a formal art education background, with disproportionate representation in favor of the MFA programs at Yale and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. This comes as no surprise given that the latter is the editor’s alma mater.
Louden prefaces the book with her disillusionment with the conflicting realities of student debt and the likelihood of immediate and secure gallery representation. This has become a relatively uncontested fact among a majority of those currently pushing through an undergraduate fine arts degree. Working part time and painting furiously in your Williamsburg studio may have been a reality 20 years ago, but today it is an unlikely luxury.
Despite Louden’s attempts at variety, the book becomes a cross section of a specific type of artist: one whose definition of a “creative life” has been shaped chiefly by the art institution and by commercial opportunity. They are professional artists in the truest sense. By and large, these are the art school artists. Thus the book almost functions as a reference—if a slightly dated one—for those headed in the same direction. The path in question begins at graduation, with the young artist stumbling into a quirky entry-level job, turning to teaching, and then hopefully moving on to some degree of self-employment.
Some essays come off as haughtily autobiographical or overly diaristic (although there may be readers who are genuinely interested in the particulars of an artist’s yoga practice). The more interesting of the lot read more like considered lectures. This tone seems unsurprising as at least half of the contributors held the title of professor at some point in their career. (In large measure, these were the artists who chose to have children.)
Unfortunately, the country’s current economic state of affairs precludes many of the experiences described in Living and Sustaining a Creative Life. Today in academia, you are less likely than ever to find a position with benefits, let alone tenure track. The disappearance of the middle class has had no small impact on the prospect of such a lifestyle in an art context. Just how are young artists to advance their artwork “25/8,” as Thomas Kilpper suggests, if they are already conscripted to work a 9 to 5 with two hours for travel? There must still be a way to reconcile a need for thoughtful artistic engagement with the ebb and flow of everyday necessity.
The difficulty of sustaining this lifestyle is something that we are all familiar with and reminded of every day. The reasons for going to art school at 18, as foggy as they were, now seem much clearer than the reasons for continuing to strategically pursue the life of a professional artist. It is amusing to learn of all the odd jobs that are out there and can help finance an artistic path, but it’s not particularly illuminating or illustrative, as the particulars (and viability) of an artist’s life are constantly changing with the times. The more interesting question may be to ask these artists why they did it, rather than how. The idea of motivation as being some mysterious, ineffable given is simply unsatisfying.
In actuality, the question that these essays raise is one of definition. What does it mean to live and sustain a creative life? In the case of most of the artists presented in this book, it means finding a way to operate within the capitalist framework of a consumer society. It means the artist as a personal business, brand, service provider, or product. This is taken to the absurd literal in the case of artist duo The Art Guys, whose posthumous ashes are available for advance purchase, if anyone is interested. Perhaps the title of this collection should have been Living and Sustaining a Creative Career.
Nonetheless, there are definitely essays within the grouping that offer surprising insight in a succinct two to three pages. The inclusion of both Blane de St. Croix and Jenny Marketou ensures mention of the alternative fund sourcing that characterizes their individual practices. David Humphrey writes eloquently about the politics of space in relation to the art market as well as his own personal practice. Richard Klein renounces the artist-as-recluse, and in so doing makes us all feel a bit better about our day jobs. He does so by criticizing the notion of time spent out of studio as time wasted: “This model at its core, believes that art-making is humankind’s highest calling (or at least its coolest activity) [...] living a full and creative life means embracing cultural activity in the broadest possible way.” To think otherwise is to believe not only that an artist’s value to society merits liberation from the toils and tedium of a working class life, but that such experiences are not suited to inform an artist’s practice. Living and Sustaining a Creative Life proposes that these experiences are valuable, and that there should be a greater dialogue for the everyday artist.
Despite its strengths, much of the book ends up projecting a standardized biography of the career-oriented Western artist, who defines creative experience as the production of branded objects and ideas. This institutionalized perspective seems to funnel creative energy into discrete occupations and spaces. Perhaps this prescriptive approach to an artistic career is an inevitable pragmatism, given the surplus of “professional artists.” However, is it not in part the ambiguity—the embodiment of possibility—that draws one to creative exercise? The sharing of practical strategy is certainly valuable, but to quote Klein again, one should note all enterprise with “a healthy skepticism about much of it.” Uniformity encourages passivity and ultimately undermines art’s subversive potential, which is perhaps the aspect of creativity most nourishing to everyday existence.