Wednesday, September 17, 2014


What the Artists Said

“Learn a trade.  Something you can do part-time, or seasonally.  If you work forty hours a week, you’ll be too tired to work on your art.”

That was the advice given by some art faculty at a gallery opening on campus this week.  We have a small gallery supported by some generous donors, and the current exhibit is a show of art by our faculty, both full-time and adjunct.  

At the opening, a couple dozen students showed up, along with the ten or so faculty who had works on display.  The curator of the show organized a brief q-and-a, during which the students could ask questions of the faculty.  One student asked what advice the faculty would give to young artists.  The opening quote jumped out at me, but several others echoed it in various ways.  One simply shrugged and said “money helps.”  Another counseled learning to live on very little money.  They weren’t bitter or cynical in their delivery; they seemed to be trying earnestly to answer the question that was asked.  The students seemed to take it in that spirit.

To be fair, some also mentioned passion, hard work, persistence in the face of failure, and the need to be true to your own voice.  Those, I expected.  But where some variation of “follow your dreams” would have gone when I was in college, I heard “learn a trade” and “get good at living on very little money.”

It was striking.  On the one hand, I thought, such straightforward answers were to the considerable credit of both faculty and students.  The faculty respected the students enough to tell them the truth straightforwardly, and the students respected the faculty enough to hear it as it was intended.  Nobody appeared offended, and nobody got overly theatrical; it came across as a matter-of-fact recognition of, well, fact.  

On the other hand, though, I couldn’t help but feel the generational shift, and mourn a bit for the sense of possibility that has been lost.

Lately, I’ve noticed a spate of pieces about the loss of clear markers of adulthood.  A.O. Scott’s piece in the New York Times suggested that the proliferation of man-children in popular culture reflects a deeper sense of loss of the grownups.  Heidi Moore’s characteristically smart piece in the Guardian on the markers of financial adulthood drew some thought-provoking responses; I was struck that everyone understood the question, but so many gave different answers.  Last year, Jennifer Silva published a brilliant book claiming that in the absence of the economic prerequisites for the traditional markers of adulthood -- marriage, buying a house, that sort of thing -- millenials have made a virtue of necessity by turning to tales of triumph over adversity.  Stories of addictions or abusive relationships overcome now serve as markers of adulthood, in the way that home purchases once did.  

I see a lot of truth in each of those.  Moore’s and Silva’s pieces, in particular, are thoughtful, well-researched, and compelling.  They get a lot right.

But I’m starting to wonder if we’ve missed something more basic.  

The discussion among the faculty and students was admirably mature.  It was adult, in the best sense of the term: people acknowledged a difficult reality and offered the most practical suggestions they could for dealing with it.  And the students took it in stride.

I didn’t see a man-child anywhere in the room.  I saw a room full of adults of various ages.

What I didn’t see, though, was youthful idealism.  I didn’t see what I used to think of as teenage bravado.  I saw some very young people who had been forced by circumstance to act in ways that used to be the province of their elders.  I saw young adults, rather than teenagers.  

In many ways, that’s great.  Given the very real economic obstacles many young students face, a certain gritty realism is appropriate.  And if memory serves, teenage bravado can be wearing in its own right.

But that “bulletproof” teenage stage -- that, in retrospect, relies on a base of economic security -- serves a purpose.  It sets the unreasonable expectations that drive unreasonable effort.  That’s true whether the expectations and effort are directed towards art, technology, politics, or anything else.  Yes, in the cold light of adulthood, some of those teenage ambitions can be mortifying.  But some of them hang on, and serve a real purpose.  

I wonder if the ubiquity of “man-child” characters in popular culture is more a sort of wistful wish-fulfillment than a reflection of reality.  In reality, I see millenials being much more “adult” at early ages than my own generation, which, in turn, was much more “adult” at early ages than its predecessors.  Several decades of stagnant wages and economic polarization took away the base of economic security that made earlier generations of “teenagers” possible.  People who had to grow up too fast may find a poignant comfort in man-child characters that would have struck earlier generations as either unreadable or ridiculous.  

None of this is meant as criticism of the faculty or students at the opening.  Honestly, I was impressed by the maturity of both.  It’s meant as a suggestion that before we get too focused on the real or perceived “failure to launch” of a strikingly mature generation, we should probably ask some different questions.

A friend from high school studied sculpture in college, with a focus on metal sculpture.

He has a "day job" as a welder.
Don't overlook the fact that those young adults were 13 or 14 or maybe 15 when the Real Estate Bubble Depression hit, or that some might be older and have served in combat.

I'm not quite the right age to have known more than a few people who were in that demographic in 1929, but they got it. No one had to explain to them twice that a trade would be useful.

My parents were around that age when the privations of the WW II mobilization hit, disrupting the nascent recovery. (People could finally afford to buy a car or replace a stove or get new tires, but there were none to buy for another 5 years.) My dad had a trade as a backup to a professional career.

My next door neighbor growing up had fought with the 101st in Bastogne. Didn't know that at the time, but it does explain his motivation as a family man.
Maybe "follow your bliss" was always an upper-middle-class and/or white and/or male phenomenon. The late Grace Paley gave me the advice she always gave young writers: Keep your overhead low.
Similarly to meansomething's comment, I remember reading a Piers Anthony book in the 80s or 90s in which he gave advice to aspiring SF/fantasy writers (probably in a long, rambling author's note at the end of one on his novels), and his advice was to have a wife with a good job.
The comment by @Anonymous 9:27pm reminded me of this old post about receiving insurance support through a spouse.
I think there's a bit of a selection effect here, in that people who are successful and self-aware generally have a lot of the "bulletproof" feeling beaten out of them on the way, while people who have the sort of teenage bravado you weren't seeing don't ask for career advice at panel discussions because they don't feel like they need it.
Ah, yes, I remember Baby Boomers giving me career advice well.

At any rate, by far the most useful career advice I've gotten is, "There will always be money in computers," and using that set of skills as a backup for other pursuits has served me well.

I worry that this generation of people won't be able to 'dream big' and they'll be stuck getting by and miss opportunities for innovation (which requires a degree of risk-taking and the ability to experiment). I find them to be almost too responsible, too pragmatic, and in my role as a professor advising on co-op placements I am always having to push people to recognize their boundaries and go past them.
Virginia Woolf said that women not only needed a room of their own but 500 pounds -- an inheritance that ensured that they could focus on their writing. There is a feminist message in there, but also a clear-eyed financial reality.
I remember being told I could "do anything" but knowing it meant it did not matter what I did because those saying it thought I would just get married, anyway, and my college degree would just be a cultural asset, a class marker, and so on.

My parents would have loved for me to go into music but did not accept that you have to start very young at that, and have a lot of talent. They dreamed of me becoming a bohemian artist, which is what they stopped being to support kids, but it would have hurt them had I become that, since it was what they had wanted for themselves. And it was the 1970s, with inflation and recession, and it was obvious that one could not be a bohemian artist.

Going into something technical, or scientific, or the social sciences would have been crass according to the family, so I went into humanities as a compromise between what they wanted (arts) and what I did (Something Useful).

My father, however, secretly believed in having a trade as a backup to a professional career, yes. I would like to have a professional degree as a backup to my academic one.

I think people who go into academia should think about it the way the current artists do. Figure out what your second source of income will be, what kind of consulting or investment or business venture it will be, and start it early.
P.S. Here are some other translations of "follow your bliss":

1. I do not want to discuss this with you, so I will just make a vague statement.

2. I am not prepared to think about careers and the current job market at all, so I am not willing to have this conversation with anyone.

...Teenage bravado: I don't remember having it or knowing anyone who had it. It was the 1970s and things were shutting down, everything was very serious, it was obvious that you were going to have to really excel in very tight markets. My parents, who had been young in the 50s, did not understand how comparatively bleak things looked for jobs and so on.

I remember getting that kind of bravado later on, in my 30s sometime, when I had sea legs as it were and more confidence than it would have been possible to have later. I don't think it is a bad time to have it and maybe these artists will get to have it then, too, if they do not have it now.

As a professor of graphic design for many years I think the response by faculty to students is right on point. Graphic design used to be an optional creative trade for artists but after 9/11 & the ever on-going recession this is not the case anymore. And teaching used to be a safe profession offering vacation time to work on creative endeavors. I encourage students to keep at their craft and have realistic expectations.
I would love to indulge in my passion as a career, but then the sustainability to me doesn't make sense. If I can get a job where I can sustain my passion outside of work, whilst being able to sustain myself, I don't see why not. 

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