“True Art” & “Selling Out”

This whole brokeaholic thing started because I was taking a look at some of the crazy ways I think about money stemming directly from being a creative.

I’m not a full-time artist. I would say I never have been, but I suppose that depends on your definition of “artist.” I say I’m a creative. I have spent most of my life doing creative jobs, and I sometimes make art on the side. Right there you see that I’m making a distinction between “true” art and “what I do for money.” This is part of the problem.

I remember my dad once saying to me in a voice filled with regret, “It’s too bad that the world will never pay you for what you do.” I also heard comments from other people about how I was “never going to make any money” and “art doesn’t pay.” I read about great artists and other creatives who died penniless, ranging from Schubert to van Gogh to Poe to Tesla.┬áThe phrase “starving artist” is so common that it’s not even questioned. It seemed a given that since I’m by nature a creative, I was also destined to be broke.

I’m definitely not alone in this. In fact, when I talk about being a brokeaholic, other artists and creatives are the first to start nodding knowingly. It seems that we’re all raised with this, that the separation between doing art and making money are fixed in all of our minds.

But here’s the crazy awful truth that I learned the hard way: I am at my least creative when I’m broke and hungry. Whenever I get stressed about paying rent or realize I have to make whatever is currently in my fridge last until the next time I get paid, there’s no way I have enough mental space to be creative. I can’t invent anything, feel inspiration, or even choose a color if my mind is filled with thoughts of bouncing checks and angry creditors.

It was in one of these desperate moments that I made the decision to be done with being broke. I had a lot of writing to do and I couldn’t think of anything but money. I decided I had to do whatever I needed to do to have enough. I had to stop stressing about money 24/7.

This might be the moment when I could be described as “selling out.” To me, however, it felt a lot more like taking care of myself and doing something in service of my art. What was really in conflict with creativity was being broke.

I started to think about the documentary filmmakers I know who direct commercials so that they don’t have to rely on their documentaries to make money. I thought about a theater lighting designer I met who does lights for theme park rides and lives off that money for the rest of the time he’s working in small regional theaters. I thought about Michelangelo having patrons, the Globe theater selling tickets, and Warhol making fun of all of it.

I also thought about one theatrical artist I worked with who felt he had lost his ability to choose which plays he directed because he had to accept whatever jobs paid him well enough to cover his mortgage – and how he started to get bitter and jaded about his once great passion: directing. I remembered burnt out painters and sculptors who grew tired of struggling and stopped doing work altogether. And I definitely didn’t want to go down that path, because a world in which I no longer get joy from making things is a very dark one.

Now I have a job that pays me well at a company that celebrates my being a creative as well as my organizational skills. And I make stuff on the side. Yes, I have less time to do art, but when I do have time I now have enough mental space to let the creative thoughts flow.

Making art, being creative, inventing something new – all these require that you have enough time and mental openness to let your thoughts wander. And those thoughts get easily crowded out by stress and hunger. It’s easier (happier, better, lighter, freer) when they’re not around.

Some days – many days – I don’t make any art at all. But it’s not for lack of ideas or because I’m in a panic, and for that I’m deeply grateful. Now I just have to deal with my lack of focus… which is a topic I’ll have to write about at another time.

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