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Why Would Anyone Become an Artist?

The contemporary artist faces daunting odds of ever attaining large recognition or monetary success. This is just a fact of the world we live in. Art jobs do not, generally, pay high salaries, and the independent artist is almost guaranteed to suffer economic shortfalls. Even artists who are selling their work and gaining recognition tend to suffer. Society does not see the independent artist as worthy of great incomes. The artist is not considered as important as a doctor or lawyer or even a garbage worker. After all, garbage workers make comfortable professional level salaries. In our society, we pay individuals based upon the respect we have for them and the level of importance we attribute to their work. This means artists are not considered vital.

Of course this is not true of all artists. There will always be a handful of living artists for whom we attribute great value and respect along with financial rewards. These artists will be promoted by the institutions created for the exaltation of art, and their work will become a part of our social consciousness. It is not these artists that I am discussing, but rather the millions of independent artists, (musicians, writers, performers, painters, sculptures, etc.) who will live and die in anonymity.

So facing these odds, why on earth would anyone become an artist? If you are a parent and your child told you they wanted to be an artist, how would you react? Likely, you would say something to the affect that, while it is nice to make art, it is not a good career choice. You would probably gently encourage them to take some art courses, but stay focused on getting into law school. I can just hear these conversations taking place all over the world. A similar conversation took place between me and my parents when I told them I was going to major in art, so I speak from experience.

Yet, the very expensive art schools are full of students eager to take on art as a lifelong career. Every major university in America has an art department and art majors, as well as music departments, writing departments, and drama departments. Presumably, those students graduate and move on into the world as artists. At least for a time, for many of them do eventually succumb to the realities of our culture and take on more profitable professions. Still, they carry with them their art education, and I am certain that education supports their life choices and well being.

Art, you see, is a calling. It beckons one to follow it, and it does not know of the economic conditions of our time. Art knows only that it is irrevocably fixed to the human spirit. According to the philosopher Jean Luc Nancy, “beauty is the radiance of the true” (1.) In his essay, Nancy refers to art as the expression of beauty and hence the embodiment of the true. This truth, is the truth that Aristotle spoke of and is the essence of what is good and meaningful for humanity. It is what all humans should reach for in terms of their lives. This is why art calls to certain people, for it is a calling towards the radiance of the true, and it is essential to mankind.

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