The Aspiring Artist’s Chicken-or-the-Egg

Which comes first: being a successful artist, or being a full-time artist?

Every artist wants to be successful, presumably, whatever that means to them.  Most artists, presumably, would like to be able to practice their art full-time and still make a living, or at least to be able to devote as much time to it as they can, if they also have another time-consuming career interest (like a scientist-artist).

But for we who are aspiring, who are beginners, who have to work full-time jobs to pay the bills, how do we achieve both?

Is it possible to become a successful creator of art while holding down such a job?  Is the time-suck, and energy-drain, too much?  If you only have so much time and energy left after work and chores to devote to your art, will you ever 1) complete enough of it to have something to achieve success with, and 2) get good enough at your art to make something that can be successful?

But if you don’t have something successful, can you possibly leave a job, or cut down on the amount of work you do, in order to focus on the art?  You can’t allow yourself to starve or go homeless, or mooch off your family or friends forever.

Especially because, before you’ve had success, you don’t know if you’re capable of it.  It’s all theoretical before it happens.  Maybe if you put a full-time job’s worth of effort into your art, you could get there.  But you could also just find out that you’re not naturally good enough to make it, and then where would you be?

And of course, being successful at art doesn’t mean you can make a living off of it, necessarily.  But even if you still keep a full-time job, being successful reduces the amount of work, and the amount of stress, that burdens your art-making.  An artist with some success and recognition under the belt can get their next projects ‘out there’ much quicker and with less effort than a total newbie or unknown.  Support networks develop; a path is cut through the jungle.   Whereas an unknown might need an additional x hours of devoted networking and shopping-around to get a completed work out there, an established artist can just pass that right by.  And the unknown doesn’t know the value of x: it could be 10 hours to get it out there, or 100 hours, or it could be that no amount of hours will make that work saleable.  You just don’t know.  An unproduced work by an unknown artist is a Schrödinger’s cat: it could be good, it could be bad.  Until it’s accepted, who knows?

There’s a toll exacted on the work of the full-time-job-having unknown.  The breaking up of the artmaking into little chunks of work can decrease the quality and kill the artist’s immersion.  The stress of work can make it hard to put 100% into improving the art.  Feeling like an unknown, out of touch, someone who might never make it, can emotionally drain ambition and dedication.  It takes a lot of self-confidence to totally follow one’s muse, and easy to fall into patterns of self-censorship and second-guessing that further decrease the likelihood one can break out of obscurity.

But going full-time artmaker comes with its own stressors and pressures, that can just as easily lead to the same censoring and second-guessing, as the artist now has something very serious to lose if they don’t succeed, and quickly.

(And of course, this whole dichotomy is a privileged one, and ignoring the whole question of whether the artist should just be happy having any job, and suck it up.)

So what does the unknown do?  Risk it all, quit the job and hope the extra hours will be meaningful enough that success can be achieved with their help before money and goodwill runs out?  Or keep plugging away, bit by bit, hoping to carve out that first success a couple lonely Thursday nights at a time?

…Anybody have an answer?

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6 comments

  1. Sadly that’s every artist’s dilemma unless they plan to be artists from the day one and somehow have a full path laid down for them so they don’t have to work a single day in any other profession. But that’s not what the majority of artists go through. Especially since for many, art is still not a “proper job” so people are discouraged to consider going full-time even if there would be a chance. Artistic professions are not valued enough and that’s the core of the problem I think. Also because they aren’t valued enough it makes it harder to secure an income from it. People don’t want to pay for arts they think it just somehow happens. Like ‘no-one wants their kids to run away with the circus but they do go to see the circus when it arrives’ sort of thing. The problem here is that even without the bad economy securing income from arts is hard and many consider being successful (aka a famous artist or similar) a way to somehow still manage to do just that. The thing is even being famous or successful won’t secure a steady income since the arts are an ever changing landscape where new aspirants pop up every day and there’s an oversupply already due to the global nature of our world today.
    I think persistence and faith are the keys like in everything really. As long as you’re advancing it’s ok even if you cannot afford going full time just yet.

    1. Totally. I figure if you keep advancing, then eventually you have to get “there,” right? All the advancing has to lead somewhere.
      That said, I think that a lot of society doesn’t realize there’s an advancement path. They see artists as either popular successes or as deluded pretentious quacks. They expect that you should just somehow burst out on YouTube in your spare time, or into sudden fame from nothing like J.K. Rowling, and don’t realize that those are exceptions to the rule. I think this is part of, as you said, the devaluation; if every artist you’ve “heard of” is already a multi-millionaire, then why do these kids hacking out scripts on their laptops in their spare time need your help?

      1. You put it even better than me:) “if every artist you’ve “heard of” is already a multi-millionaire, then why do these kids hacking out scripts on their laptops in their spare time need your help?” This is why the celebrity status of some artists are bad for artists in general because society thinks that every other artist can also skip the advancement path if they wished /were talented enough.

  2. I think the two key ingredients to being a successful artist are “arrogance” and “fuck you”. Let’s take J.K. Rowling for example. The girl was a single mom who was a full time student when she wrote the first Harry Potter book. What was the plausible scenario where she was going to be a professional writer? Arrogance! Then she got 15 rejections and each time she answered “fuck you” and sent it to somebody else!

    Not all artist who employ the Two Pillars of Success are going to be able to support themselves on art, you also have to do awesome work and be lucky. I don’t think “full time” or “part time” is a huge factor.

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