The Plight of the Starving Artist

by Bryce Wilson

Art is the right hand of Nature. The latter has only given us being, the former has made us men.

-Fredrich Schiller

I am in love with an artist. In every sense of the word she embodies imagination and creativity. It is safe to say the walls in our apartment are not white. She excelled in graphic and web design by the time she reached middle school, and purely by coincidence, her artistic talent blossomed in the most professionally applicable way she could have aimed for. It’s hard to imagine that she spends her weekdays behind a desk serving as an executive assistant. Her evenings she dedicates to the rigid study of mathematics and economics, and rigorously struggles to develop skills that are unnatural to her artistically stimulated disposition. Her job, financially, has been a great blessing. Transitioning from working late six days a week at a local restaurant to a day job that offers salary, enough money and time for education, professional experience, and very promising potential for growth is a dream come true; however, this is not the future she dreamed of for herself.  Vocational art school had always been her destination but unfortunately, art-related degrees reward with dismal salaries, and what’s even more dismal:  very few job opportunities. The reality of the working world was never an illusion to her, but a few financial curve balls turned her professional aspirations away from what was naturally stimulating for her, toward a more “realistic” career path.

Art in a technical sense is one of the few cornerstones of our civilization and it saddens me that society fails to recognize and reward that talent accordingly.

Historically, the term “art” refers to the mastery of a human activity without emphasis on craft or science. The ability to master a representative abstraction or physical environment is a human faculty that has played a monumental role in identifying civility and civilization. Traditional artistic mediums such as painting and writing were evidently created for communication; but it is hard to imagine art without the dichotomy offered by humanity’s inherent affinity for aesthetics. Art is effectively both beauty and disgust, imagination and simplicity. Aesthetics refers to the sensory contemplation of an object, environment, or conscious state. Primitively our early perceptions of beauty came from what made us feel good, and conversely distastefulness was associated with negative feelings. We came to understand nature’s interaction with our emotions and began to harness the power of aesthetics as a means of communication, as well as a means for obtaining serenity. Like harnessing flame, one of man’s greatest achievements, is the understanding and precise control of aesthetics and “art” as a function and a craft; to be mastered, refined, redefined, and redistributed.

The nature of man itself can be defined by the creation of and its reactions to art. Like studying our reaction to the world reflecting from us, humanity’s aesthetic standards and artistic values have evolved and revolutionized the human experience. Ultimately the study of art has revealed that humanity possesses basic instinctual need for harmony, rhythm, and balance. The joy achieved by listening to one’s favorite song or dancing ritualistically around a campfire is rooted within natural necessity. From the earliest moments of emotional interaction with the world around us to the creation of fine arts, culture, and language, art has been in our nature as long as WE have been in nature.

Art in the nineteenth century turned its focus from beauty to truth. Artistic merit infiltrated mass communication and the power of propaganda flooded a technologically accelerating population. A massive forum that can be recognized as the “media” is humbly a product of the incredible ripples of artistic evolution. The fundamental definition of art continued to fragment into sub-genres and counter cultures, creating a foundational skeleton for ethical and scientific breakthroughs. Communication, political reform, entertainment, psychological satisfaction/healing, and anarchistic social subversion are among the most influential artistic identities today. As national and global cultures continue to identify with technology and ever-changing global necessities, art will continue to engage and provide for the inventive and imaginative needs of future generations as man’s most functional natural tool and instinct.

Why then, is it so evident that pursuing art professionally is a hopeless cause?  Why do the artists of today’s world so easily associate with the expression “the starving artist?”  I browse art school opportunities online with my girlfriend and we are met with headlines like “Art Majors Should Embrace Unemployment” and “Worst Bang for Your Buck, Fine Arts.” Art deserves more credit than it receives. Paying off a student loan should not be the highest financial aspiration of professional artists. For now I can be grateful that the pancakes she makes us for breakfast are appropriately shaped like her favorite animals. For now, that’s enough to make her smile proudly, with satisfaction. I hope there will always be something in her life to engage her artistically. I hope the walls in our apartment are never white, and that her creative flame is never extinguished by society.