By Bruce M Black
The contemporary artist faces daunting odds of ever attaining large recognition or monetary success. This is just a fact of the world we live in. Art jobs do not, generally, pay high salaries, and the independent artist is almost guaranteed to suffer economic shortfalls. Even artists who are selling their work and gaining recognition tend to suffer. Society does not see the independent artist as worthy of great incomes. The artist is not considered as important as a doctor or lawyer or even a garbage worker. After all, garbage workers make comfortable professional level salaries. In our society, we pay individuals based upon the respect we have for them and the level of importance we attribute to their work. This means artists are not considered vital.
Of course this is not true of all artists. There will always be a handful of living artists for whom we attribute great value and respect along with financial rewards. These artists will be promoted by the institutions created for the exaltation of art, and their work will become a part of our social consciousness. It is not these artists that I am discussing, but rather the millions of independent artists, (musicians, writers, performers, painters, sculptures, etc.) who will live and die in anonymity.
So facing these odds, why on earth would anyone become an artist? If you are a parent and your child told you they wanted to be an artist, how would you react? Likely, you would say something to the affect that, while it is nice to make art, it is not a good career choice. You would probably gently encourage them to take some art courses, but stay focused on getting into law school. I can just hear these conversations taking place all over the world. A similar conversation took place between me and my parents when I told them I was going to major in art, so I speak from experience.
Yet, the very expensive art schools are full of students eager to take on art as a lifelong career. Every major university in America has an art department and art majors, as well as music departments, writing departments, and drama departments. Presumably, those students graduate and move on into the world as artists. At least for a time, for many of them do eventually succumb to the realities of our culture and take on more profitable professions. Still, they carry with them their art education, and I am certain that education supports their life choices and well being.
Art, you see, is a calling. It beckons one to follow it, and it does not know of the economic conditions of our time. Art knows only that it is irrevocably fixed to the human spirit. According to the philosopher Jean Luc Nancy, “beauty is the radiance of the true” (1.) In his essay, Nancy refers to art as the expression of beauty and hence the embodiment of the true. This truth, is the truth that Aristotle spoke of and is the essence of what is good and meaningful for humanity. It is what all humans should reach for in terms of their lives. This is why art calls to certain people, for it is a calling towards the radiance of the true, and it is essential to mankind.
Look back on the history of the human race and you will see this is so. The cave paintings at Lascaux were made between 15,000 – 13,000 BCE. Older cave paintings date back to 30,000 BCE. The paintings at Lascaux are huge and took many years to complete. Archeologists have discovered holes in the walls that they believe once held beams for scaffolding. They have also found old animal fat burning lamps and mixing bowels for pigments. All of which means these early artists required assistance. One artist would have had to have painted while others moved scaffolding, mixed pigments, kept the lamps burning, and gathered food. This is a lot of work considering the stark conditions of the time and the emphasis put on survival over culture. For some reason, these people felt that the making of art was as important as survival. They were willing to set aside precious energy and resources to engage in this activity of art making. There must have been some innate call within them to make these pictures, a need that went beyond the desire to decorate.
This is not the only time this has occurred. Again and again when humans find themselves in the worst conditions, they still manage to make art. During World War II art was made in the concentration camps and POW camps. Artists took bits of charcoal or a stub of pencil and created images. Some of them were made to document their suffering and others were made as a means of mental escape. These artists put themselves in terrible peril to make this art, and it took energy away from their strategies of survival.
One such artist was Benjamin Charles Steele (1917). Steele was stationed in the Philippines in WWII. He survived the Bataan death march as well as internment at Cabanatuan. (This was the largest POW camp on foreign soil; 9,000 people lived there; 3,000 Americans died there. The death rate was at 38%). Steele survived dysentery, pneumonia, blood poising, and forced labor. When assigned to the Tayabas Road Detail, Steele worked in the jungle without water or food and was the only one out of fifty people to survive. At some point, Steele began to make drawings of his fellow prisoners as an act of honor towards them. In her essay on Steele, author Penny Ronning states that “with no formal art training, Ben began to draw on whatever scraps of paper he could find images of what his eyes had seen and his mind worked overtime to process. These drawings were Ben’s way to honor his fallen comrades and record his experiences. At risk of death if discovered, Ben continued to pay tribute by secretly drawing the bravery of each soldier facing the most horrific of human cruelty. Sadly, all but two of Ben’s drawings were lost on a transport ship” (2)
Following Steele’s heroism, as well as the many other artists who have come before and after him, having been compelled to make art despite the circumstances; one must therefore, come to the conclusion that art is somehow linked to the most elemental parts of our humanity. It is linked in a way that goes deeper than societal conventions. It is rooted far down within our souls; down there with our instincts to survive, to procreate and to exist. It must be on the same level as the ant’s instinct to dig or the bee’s instinct to build honeycomb. The artist is compelled to examine his world and attempt to explain it through his unique vision and participation in life. As Carl Jung put it:
“Every creative person is a duality or a synthesis of contradictory aptitudes. On the one side he is a human being with a personal life, while on the other side he is an impersonal, creative process… The artist is not a person endowed with free will who seeks his own ends, but one who allows art to realize its purposes through him. As a human being he may have moods and a will and personal aims, but as an artist he is ‘man’ in a higher sense–he is ‘collective man’–one who carries and shapes the unconscious, psychic life of mankind. To perform this difficult office it is sometimes necessary for him to sacrifice happiness and everything that makes life worth living for the ordinary human being.” (3.)
So then, back to the initial question: why would anyone become an artist? Perhaps a better question might be, why would anyone choose not to become an artist? It is a wonderful calling that goes well beyond the artist’s ability to make money or fit easily within societal conventions of success. It is a vital component of being fully human.