I want to be an artist: Four paths to an artistic career

Let me introduce this in a slightly roundabout way:

I recently read a fascinating article in The Atlantic by William Deresiewicz – lengthy, but very much worth reading for anyone considering a career in “the arts.”

His main contention is that the arts, like most other careers, are becoming more and more directly exposed to the market: that would-be artists are having to rely more and more on their own charisma/audience/entrepreneurship to sell their work, rather than being shielded by middlemen like patrons, publishing houses, etc. Increasingly, the “artist of the future” seems to become more like a venture capitalist than, say, a poet-prophet.

I agree with the substance of his article; but I want to take one of his points and explore the question of this blog’s title.

Deresiewicz identifies four “notions” or conceptions of what an artist is, each of which has something to say about who pays an artist and why. He grounds each conception in history, arguing that each image was publicly prominent at a different time in recent Western society.

I want to contend that, while his fourth conception is indeed rising and the others seem less prominent than they once were, each of these four categories can still guide a would-be artist into a viable artistic career. We can think of each of these as paths that might have a career at the end. If you’re thinking about pursuing the arts, consider each of them: the path you choose will help you know where you seek funding, why someone would want to pay you, and what your best steps forward are.

Here we go!

Path 1: The Artist as Artisan

Deresiewicz’s first notion of “What is an artist?” is that an artist is an Artisan: a craftsman developing his or her skills to create a product for another. For centuries, as he notes, artists were treated as artisans: employed by those with means to produce portraits, religious works, etc. to the best of their ability.

What is art to the Artisan?

In the Artisanal view, art is the product of an informed, trained, skilled craftsman. The emphasis is on mastery of one’s craft, combining tradition and training to make a product that does what it’s supposed to do.

Who funds the Artisan and why?

In short, a patron or employer funds the Artisan in exchange for a commissioned product. They like what the Artisan does: they think he or she is talented and can meet the employer’s hopes or expectations for a portrait, a photo session, etc.

Pursuing the Artisanal path as a writer:

At least with writing, the Artisanal path still exists; and this is probably the safest bet financially for a would-be writer. If you’re thinking of going down this line for writing, what you want to do is get a job where you can hone your ability to think and organize words. Journalism. Marketing. I’m in ministry, and I have a lot of opportunities to do this. Craft and craft, and develop your craft.

Developing one genre of writing will help you develop others, and becoming proficient in your field will help you move toward publishing down the line.

Artisanal careers/steps:

  • Journalism
  • Marketing
  • Editorial/Publishing
  • Writing workshops on craft

Path 2: The Artist as Sage

Deresiewicz’s second notion is of the artist as Sage: a solitary genius or mystic bestowing spiritual blessing on others. In reaction to the Artisan’s dependence on patrons, the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries saw the growth of the “iconic artist” image: a lonely genius connected to the Universe and uniquely suited to dispensing cosmic blessing by virtue of his or her gifts.

In tamer (saner?) terms, the Sagely artist is tapped for his or her genius/insight and praised (and paid) accordingly.

What is art to the Sage?

In the Sagely view, art is the product of an inspired individual with a unique quality of soul. It comes from whatever he or she views as the source of inspiration, and comes at the beck and call of said inspiration – typically, Sages pursue art that is lofty and original above all (think James Joyce).

Who funds the Sage and why?

In short, Sages tend to 1) be independently wealthy or 2) make connection with some kind of art mogul who recognizes his or her talent and brings it to the world. The emphasis is on really impressing some really influential person.

Pursuing the Sagely path as a writer:

If you can’t tell, I have a little – shall we say – disdain for the Sagely approach to an art career (probably because I have an inner Sage, and he’s a punk). Being born into wealth helps one start down this path; so can schmoozing the right people, or pursuing influence among the rich and powerful.

In all seriousness, your best bet is to put yourself around either other artists or around people who might be able to fund your work. And if you’re going to focus so hard on craft/idea development, you’ll want a job with minimal time and mental-energy requirements: think Einstein at the patent office!

Sagely careers/steps for writers:

  • Editorial work in highbrow magazines
  • MFA programs, especially prestigious ones
  • Work that puts you in contact with literary “patrons”
  • Writing workshops, especially prestigious or literary ones

Path 3: The Artist as Professional

Third, we have the notion of the artist as Professional: an institutional worker providing a valuable commodity or service to society. Deresiewicz places this within the absorption of the arts into universities, which ramped up around World War Two. On this path, the artist provides a service to society in general with 1) his or her own art, and 2) his or her ability to train others toward meaningful artistic contributions to society.

What is art to the Professional?

To the Professional, art is a product that provides some concrete benefit to society, either through its ideas or through its beauty. Meaningful art requires talent, education, and the insight into society that institutions tend to provide.

Who funds the Professional and why?

The Professional artist is funded by social institutions connected with that art from: universities and the various established publishing houses related to each form. Writers might find a teaching position in a creative writing program that lets them work; they might also, if they get established, become secure enough in the [relative] promises of a literary agent or a publisher.

Pursuing the Professional path as a writer:

The main way to pursue this path is to seek institutional credentials (an MFA or a promising publishing career). Proving yourself through a good MFA program and working your way into a university that will platform and fund your work as part of your other duties is the most secure route down this path.

Professional careers/steps for writers:

  • Professor
  • Editor in publishing house

Path 4: The Artist as Entrepreneur

And finally, we have the artist as Entrepreneur: a creative salesperson persuading people to buy into his or her vision or brand. Deresiewicz sees this model becoming the most potentially viable, and that’s probably true: “what’s your platform?” is one of the first questions would-be artists have to answer. The Entrepreneur is part creative and part salesperson: they convince people that their products and/or their brand are worth investment, directly interacting with the market.

What is art to the Entrepreneur?

To the Entrepreneur, art is a product that captures the attention of potential investors and makes them want it in their life for some reason – beauty, fun, or whatever.

Who funds the Entrepreneur and why?

The Entrepreneur is funded either directly by his or her investors (by direct sales, Kickstarter, etc.), or by generating enough buzz to be bought into by advertisers or, finally, a publisher. People generally connect with Entrepreneurial artists because 1) they find their products compelling, 2) they enjoy the semipersonal contact of an Entrepreneur’s website, and/or 3) the Entrepreneur is working with some interest or sphere they share (think mommy blogs).

Pursuing the Entrepreneurial path as a writer:

Other paths may have more hoops for you to jump through (like an MFA program or teaching Freshman Comp), but this path probably requires you to do the most creative-tangential work. You’ll want to keep up a blog or website faithfully; you’ll network with other writers and people interested in writing; and unless your blog is about writing itself, you’ll want to cultivate an interest-group in whatever field you have. This may be the most spare-time-consuming path.

Entrepreneurial careers/steps for writers:

  • Blogger
  • Publishing/Networking workshops
  • Career that lets you blog or doesn’t take too much time
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