Being an Artist is a Privilege

Robert Genn’s latest Painter’s Keys newsletter is an interesting one. He replies to a letter from artist Tom Lockhart talking about how being an artist can be tough. Tom wrote the following to Robert..

“I work 50 to 65 hours per week, teach workshops and serve on the Board of a Local Arts Center. I judge art shows and travel to locations to paint. I earn $75,000.00 to $100,000.00 annually–too much to get a grant. I pay more than my share of taxes, expense out what the law allows and still find it difficult to make ends meet. I’m constantly paying entry fees, dues, advertising, framers, suppliers and travel expenses. I can’t understand why the public insists on buying cheap, crappy art from poorly educated artists who suffer for their craft. Yuk! There are constantly retired lawyers, doctors, architects, dentists and other professionals who decide to become painters. They put their work in galleries and sell to the unsophisticated, taking sales away from deserving, serious artists. And now with the economic bad times, it’s even harder to sell your art. What do you think about this?”

See Robert’s reply here. He basically says things aren’t so bad as you are an artist!

I couldn’t agree more. Being an artist is a privilege that should be appreciated. Listening to an artist complain about being an artist is like listening to someone with 5 Ferraris complain about not having 6 Ferraris. The quickest way to shut me up if I’m ever whinging about being an artist is to tell me to go get a 9 to 5 job.

I’m not saying that being an artist doesn’t have it’s ups and downs, but look at the alternatives. Take an office job or get into sales for a while if being an artist ever becomes a chore. If you really are an artist you’ll quickly come running back to the studio and the many privileges of being an artist.

I never feel sorry for struggling artists as it’s hard to have any sympathy for a person with the equivalent of 5 Ferraris in the garage. I don’t care if you can’t pay the rent or you’re tired of eating 2 minute noodles.. you’re an artist!

About Dion

Australian artist and observer of things.. all kinds of things. I like a wide variety of art, from the weird and wonderful to the bold and beautiful.. and everything in between.


  1. …and he didn’t even mention all the respect you get from your fellow human beings for “…playing with crayons…” :-)

  2. Hi, Woopidoo

    There’s a point being missed by both of them. If we get away from that pretentious and overly used word “artist”, the missed point becomes clear.

    Creative people are compelled to create, whether they make money at it or not. Art is merely one small aspect of this compulsion. Inventors, flower arrangers, composers, writers, master bakers ornamenting custom cakes, computer programmers, games designers, bloggers, landscape artists, scientists creating weapons of mass destruction! You name it, there’s some poor devil compelled to create it.

    The talented, lucky or self-promoting ones get paid for their creativity. Other’s don’t. For them it’s a hobby.

    Privilege? No. Suffering from a compulsion is not a privilege. It’s a pest, but an enjoyable one when you give way to it and the result looks worthwhile.

    P.S. I know you like interviews with artists. Tate has put 400+ podcasts on iTunes U. Visit my blog for the link (quicker than searching Tate Online).

  3. Who cares about respect when you have one of the best jobs in the world Lennard?

    Ian, it is an addiction, but what a wonderful addiction to have.

    I have as much respect for a plumber if he is passionate about plumbing, but I have no respect for a plumber that doesn’t love his job, just as I don’t like artists that don’t like their jobs. If you don’t like your job, get off your ass/arse and find something that you do love. It’s a simplistic view but it doesnt need to be any more complicated as life is brief.

    And yeah I have already subscribed to the Tate talks on iTunes. Theyre excellent. It’s worth downloading iTunes even if you don’t have an iPod because you can still listen to them on the PC for free. Anyone that is interested in learning ANYTHING would be stupid not to download iTunes and explore all the free content from podcasts and iTunes U.

    I listen to them on the treadmill so I am becoming a walking encyclopedia,

  4. Ps.. I dont think being an artist is easy, but it is a privilege.

  5. No one making that much money is allowed to complain about not making enough money. I agree with everything elso you wrote, except for having no respect for those who are not doing what they love. For many people a job is what you do so that you can AFFORD to do what you love and spend time with the people you love. Or to support the children that you love. Or to pay for the education that you love. Or to put food on the table.

  6. As a lecturer in art and design, I was on a course called the ‘Artist Teacher Scheme’ which allows teachers/lecturers to re-engage with contemporary art and our own art practice. One visiting artist made it quite clear that she didn’t think we could ‘become’ artists as we had decided to take the teaching route. She also mentioned that she had given up her chance to be a mother for the sake of being an artist!!!
    After her lecture I felt guilty for having a secure job and guilty for being a Mum…… can’t win!

  7. Chrissy B. says:

    Is someone really less of an “artist” because they used to be a lawyer or some other profession? Is there something wrong with deciding to become one later in life. Not everyone is born with a paintbrush in their hand or parents that allowed them to explore that kind of creative expression.

  8. Awesome post!

  9. Guy makes that kind of money as an artist and then complains about it. I have no sympathy.

  10. Being an artist is a job? Damn, I thought I was doing this so I wouldn’t have to get a job!

  11. I agree with the Renz, I don’t have much sympathy for the artist complaining. But why would he not have the same right to moan as anybody else who gets down about their pay or job.

    I don’t see being an artist a privilege either. Using one’s ability and passion as a total means of income is a choice.
    I like what coxsoft said “Suffering from a compulsion is not a privilege. It’s a pest, but an enjoyable one when you give way to it and the result looks worthwhile.”

    To me, being privileged is when people give you financial support and the means to live your dreams without a worry or a care about the bills etc. You don’t have to be an artist to be privileged, we have quite a few trust fund babies in this village.

    oh well, just my humble opinion as an artist who has her moany moments, and then gets on with it.

  12. Thats the point, you get on with it, and arent moaning about it on a website in more than just an aside in a thread. He obviously has an issue. And trust fund hippies ARE the most privileged of all, given something they did not earn, and living off of others, in this case, their parents.

    Some can still create in such an environment, Cezanne did, though times were far different then. People lived much shorter lives, there were no medicines to save you, he died of pneumonia from a rain shower, at the height of his powers.

    People now take life for granted, and why art has lost its power. Its relevance. Its concern with more than the individuals experience and life, his “self expression”, as it had always been about adding on to mankind, built on what had come before, adapted to the times of new knowledge and economic culture. From the starting point and goal of a passion, teh actual work is problem solving, all to trigger in teh viewer a complex layering of emotions, ones that lead to an intensity of being, of feeling more, of being at one.

    Contemporary hippies have very little chance of doing this, taking life for granted is the ultimate sin. And i have met few in the classes who create art who dont. As with great music, most artists have come from the street,a working class existence just high enough to have access to outside knowledge, Have seen decadence, sacrifice, on a life threatening scale, evil and the divine, in a broad range of manifestations.

    Art taken away from its roots in survival, becomes effete. This guys certainly is. Tiny little over finished fetishes toward an external nature, one that does not show mankind or god in it, but as a commodity, is Fine art, not Creative. This guy is one step above Thomas Kincaide, as one responder alluded to. And why he is bitching. He is jealous. not a good source of creativity.

    He is not destined for any museum, its a business for him, Fine, go about it, he is doing well, especially considering the current economy. To bitch now is just absurd. And ties him to the contmporary art scene, babies always want more.

    art collegia delenda est

  13. Corrine, it is a compulsion and it is hard but would you do anything else? It’s the best addiction in the world to have. I love painting more than anything else, even if it does make me an emotional roller coaster.

    Im far from a trust fund bitch as I have worked my way out of working class (I have been a hard working slave more than I ever wanted to be), but not through art. I have a ridiculous pastime that lets me work on paintings that noone will ever buy and I don’t want them to buy as I hate selling paintings, so I feel like the most fortunate person on earth, praise to whatever the F* is god.

    Admittedly I’m single and dont have kids, but such is life. I’m free, I travel whenever I want, and I paint what I want. It’s bliss but it’s tough in many ways too. We can’t have it all.

    I do like nice hotels and new places though, even if I can’t splatter paint on their stupidly overpriced

    Life is hard, especially if we choose to be a painter fulltime.

    Donald, I used to see weekend hippies in a place called byron bay here, famous for free thinking hippies. I thought they might be free thinking open minded people but they were more afraid than the stupid people of any cosmopolitan city here in Aus. Whenever I spoke what I really thought, the babies would run away from me. They wanted to save the world by using coarse toilet paper which is just f*ing ridiculous.

    If you aint rich and powerful you aint doing shit to save this world. Sell your parent’s Mercedes and become a capitialist and you might actually change something!

    Money and power is the only language this world listens to, so the stupid continue to live up to their f*ed up ideals.

    Sell your soul and buy land I say. Then tell the mining compaines to go jump when they come knocking.

  14. What I like, is, he complains about losing sales to uneducated artists… What does that say about his art?
    Some believe being an artist is a responsibility.
    All I know is…
    I have a lot of fun

  15. I am actually going around galleries at this moment. I have loaded up my works van, like Dion, have worked full time all my life. Gotten two unemployment checks but otherwise been working full time since college, and worked at least part time while in it.

    My kids are grown now, and now back to what I do best, and now the world is finally ready for it. Got a guy who has an open building, actuially owned by Scientology of all people, right off of Colorado Blvd in Pasadena, lots of old money, beautiful building, and guy knows lots of interior designers and people who directly sell to collectors, and he is dying to get my stuff. Not an art school grad, so has excellent taste, of course. The brain washing of art schools is difficult, but not impossible, to break.

    Just waiting for one 6′ painting to dry, was dirty as hell and turned the hose on it, been cleaning another that had mold on it from sitting in the garage for the 15+ years i have been out of the art scene. One I returned to in horror, far worse than when i last was disgusted with it the early 90s, and the neo Ex guys were still around. Had never heard of YBA, imagine my horror.

    Guy wants to keep my paintings there after the show, til the building gets tennants, whenever that is. But several are for my Vatican proposal, Cardinal
    Ravasi liked the triptych studies, and three others I want to use in a courtyard, designed a small chapel. A Judgment Chapel. Where personal responsibility must be faced. Coltrane music playing, A Love Supreme, Crescent, Coltrane, Africa Brass and perhaps Kulu Se Mama playing in it. No music is more passionate and spiritual.

    Hope it works, the wife is fixing up the blueprints into a true designed building right now, simple to build, but this is another way to get around the galleries and decadent art scene. People love real art, when they can find it. But the marketing mechanism has been controlled by fools for decades. Time for a change. And the Vatican wants to find works that represent their point of view at the Venice Biennale, their first time there in 2011. Thre is no god i contemporary art. Its all a bout the individual, and his supposed brilliance, being above nature and god, the supreme achievement of natural selection and individual supremacy. LOL!!!

    We shall see, back to the game, portland is losing to houston damnit. Want them to get it together and beat the Lakers, cant stand that baby Kobe. So much talent, but such a jerk, perhaps he shold consider opening a gallery? Paintings of him everywhere.

    Anyway gotta run, you know teh drill.

    art collegia delenda est

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  17. ps.. Forgive my language. I had a few too many red wines when I left my last

  18. Argh, can people read over their blog post before posting? Donald has “teh” in place of “the” four times in two posts. Not that the posts make a hell of a lot of sense anyways….

  19. My apologies, it was hastily written as i was in a hurry. Though transposing hte should not be an issue.

    Its amazing what putting work up in a window can do, on a street where real folks move about, next to a parking lot where thousands pass by to a street filled with shops and restaruarnts, where music and film are played all night. People stop and comment, are curious, are asking questions. Unlike the mausoleums of contemporary art, and galleries where zombie like artistes wander in a daze. Where life most certainly does NOT happen.

    We got 25 artists in a huge area, a beautiful classy art deco building. A vast vaulted place for music, dancing and art where antique stalls had stood before. There are ways around the dead and android like gallery ‘scene”. Temporary places like this, where vastly different types of art can be shown, not agaisnt sterile white walls, but brick and glass and black drapped felt. With an atrium and different rooms, natural light, and people actualy moving about and talking. Its great, if temporary. Taht whihc stays in one place too long always decays, and becomes a bland mediocrity.

    I dont like the net, far too many hucksters and students praying for a sale. Little experience, little life. And finding that which will stand, is the eternal needle in a haystack. Taking it to the streets is the only way, non sterile, a little dirt and grime are fine. The analness of the artiste must end. There is no perfection, growth entails sweat, blood, toil and tears. Where humanity of all races, classes, education and experience can mingle and find commonality. That is not on the web. And now that the financial vice grip of the spoiled and vain is broken, it must be attacked. Now is the time. By any means necessary.

    art collegia delenda est

  20. My excuse for any errors in my last comment is red wine. I paid the price though and won’t be touching alcohol again for a while!

    Also, I get it that we do crappy jobs to pay the rent and support the family, but it has to be a short term fix. Life is much too interesting to remain in a job that we don’t like for too long.

    The saddest people I know hate their jobs.

  21. Being able to afford to work as an artist these days is definitely a privilege. If you are barely able to pay your bills don’t worry, you’re in good company. There are plenty of blue and white-collar workers out there who don’t love their jobs and have to work a lot of hours, but still struggle to pay the bills. I’ve worked in machine shops, print shops and in the office environment as a graphic artist while I honed my craft as an artist in the evening and on weekends. The interesting thing about not being able to do any artwork for 40 or more hours each week makes me want to work harder when I do have the time. When I was a steelworker, I would do small sketches on scrap paper whenever I could get away with it. I would also sit in my car and draw while on my lunch hour. As a graphic designer I am sometimes able to surf the web for artist blogs, art submissions and other info related to artwork.

    I am almost to the point where I’m ready to quit the day job and become a full time artist. It’s difficult, because I have a mortgage and other debts including college tuition bills for my sons, but I believe I am ready. With the economy being what it is, this is not the best time, but I can’t wait much longer. As we all know, life is too short.

  22. I am in the same position as quirk above, and do hate my job. Its ok, but useless, printing place working with stupid artistes and ad agencies. like one company now who outsources Sony picture stuff, making huge backlits on Fujitrans from files built for cmyk poster printing, and lose details, gotta rebuild them and they are so damn f’in anal, and wasteful with full size tests they nit pic over, its absurd.

    But most of us do have kids, a house, even if small, spouses, responsibilities, but do find ways to be creative, positive, and enjoy life. Raising kids is damn tiring and creative, wild ass chillin. But now is a huge opportunity in teh arts, the old salon is dead. You look at galleries adn articles adn the first thing you see is the degree of the artistes adn where he went, when all you see is crap on sterile white walls. Poo’s on major scale. Things are changing, not on the internet, but perhaps through it gettin info, though again is wallowing in muck to get to the shiny brass rings on the bottom of teh cesspool. Gotta do what ya gotta do, there is only one shot in life, gotta go for it. But not stupidly. I aint losin my house, I would be paying almost more to rent now anyway.

    But the world is ready for something different, what was, failed, Its self deception, and carreerist nonsense. People want something substantial, are craving it, but tired of what was offered. Go for it. Now is the time. I actually feel very positive about it, I never have before in my life, and thats a looong The big 5 0 on sunday, wife taking me out of town after the art party friday nite.

    And drink some more wine, Dion. What the hell? Then can call you Dionysus from now on. We need gods in art again, a mythology, to unite mankind. Not fracture in self absorbed therapy and arrogant games. Loosen up, but bee deep, feel things, and get to work when sober in teh morning. There is always more wine waiting at nite. Its a god thin, a gift from god. Along with garlic, onions, olive oil, tomatoes and basil.

    art collegia delenda est.

  23. To tell the truth I’m grouchy about Donald’s typos because I’m grouchy about anything while I’m sitting in my cubicle, 9-5, entering data. Yes that does make me a sad person. But only when I’m in the cubicle. I am certainly not sad when I get home and paint every evening and weekend.

  24. “Corrine, it is a compulsion and it is hard but would you do anything else? “

    ACtually I wanted to be a nurse,I LOVED auxillary nursing when I was in the UK. Whether I worked as a nurse or not I would have still created, it is like you said a compulsion. Right now I LOVE being able to work on it full time, but there were some compromises/choices made for that to happen.

    As for trust fund babies, I wasn’t disparaging them for having been privileged in that regard. Most of the one’s I know appreciate it and have carved out lives living their dreams AND contributing to their communities. I am happy for them.

  25. Leslie Dancer says:

    “Being an artist is a privilege that should be appreciated.”

    Hmmmm….a privilege. A privilege is something someone gives to another person. A privilege is defined as a right or immunity granted as a peculiar benefit, advantage or favor usually attached to a position or office.

    Who gave the person the “privilege” of being an artist? Would you say being a doctor is privilege? Or a lawyer or a mechanic?
    A privilege is result of the postion (being a doctor, lawyer, artist, etc.), the position is not the privilege.

  26. Paint nurses and merge your two passions ;-) Who cares if Richard Prince has already done it (actually his nurse paintings are his most interesting works for me).

    And yeah, I’m not agro against trust fund babies but I have seen a couple go to the dark side. If I am at all agro against them I’m probably but nah, I like how I made it to this point in life and wouldn’t change anything.

    Leslie, we give ourselves the privilege. It’s a complete blessing to be able to work in a studio most days creating things that the world doesn’t really need. I couldnt think of anything else I would rather do in life. So, yes it is a privilidged position with many benefits.

    A doctor or mechanic is also priviliged if theyre doing what theyre passioniate about as they have given themselves permission to be what they want to be.

    If you don’t love what you do I feel sorry for you as life doesnt wait around while we get our shit together.. it just keeps on ticking.. tick tock tick

  27. How do you feel about celebrities writing kids books and taking work from ‘proper’ authors?

  28. Anonymous says:

    The fact is that if being an artist is to be considered a profession we must all secure our exclusive rights as creators of art. Allowing people to make a mockery of current copyright law is not going to do a thing for our standing in society. If you want artists to be taken serious than you must support exclusive rights and you must turn your back to fellow artists who turn their back to our rights!

  29. Steve, dealing with new competition is just part of doing business. We are business people too, not just artists.

    It might even be possible to learn some branding/marketing tips from the celebrities. Theyre famous and successful because they have people working to make them famous and successful. Lazy artists expect to be discovered just because theyre so

  30. Tom, sounds like you may be an artist, but not a business manager. Which, if you’re in business, you need to be, or find someone that can help. (See the earlier stated Ferrari reference.) No sympathy for people that complain and moan, especially when followed with,”I make $75-100,000 a year and still can’t make ends meet.” Killin’ me!

    Everybody may have their say, and yes, Tom has every right to complain. I don’t know how it was said earlier, or exactly the phrasing, but let’s put it this way. Whatever one creates is art, simply because someone believes it to be. That is the only reason. If one is selling their “art”, then it is worth only what someone is willing to pay for it. Complaining about others stealing your customers, or books written by “proper authors”, whatever in the hell that’s supposed to mean, is completely and utterly ridiculous and does nothing but demonstrate the pure fear and anxiety one may have over being found incompetent. If one still finds it necessary to complain about the customers and their art ‘IQ”, then maybe they should start interviewing their customers to make sure they are “fit” to purchase said “art” piece. We’ll see how well that works out for you…

  31. Being an artist isn’t a privilege, it’s a choice that one makes.

    I know artists who love what they do, and some do well financially and some don’t. And then there are the bitter ones – that are looking at what everyone else is “getting” and “why aren’t I getting that?”

    It’s an ugly attitude that brings on an ugly reality.

    Artists do best when they cheer each other on, when they learn from each other, help each other, and are happy for each others success.

    I think this artist that is bitter should try to change his approach – instead of being angry about the artists that are selling more work than him, he should befriend them, find out what they are doing that he isn’t doing, and learn from them.

    And, of course, he will be much happier if he was grateful for what he has.

  32. I love your blog, very interesting.

  33. aw, 75-100k a year, poor bugger – must be hard. All those opportunities he has that others don’t, all that money – can’t believe he manages to carry such a heavy load without weeping into his art supplies.

  34. Being an artist is a privilege in a society that doesn’t dictate your trade or path in life and allows individuals the freedom to choose. Being an artist is a privilege if you choose to be an artist and can afford to live as an artist without dependence upon other means of income (though income is not a definitive criteria). Being an artist is a privilege in a culture that appreciates art and the need for it in a vibrant and healthy society.

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