The Money or Your Life

Does the world want artists, driven by their honesty, their preparedness to help humanity see differently and their fierce independence?  Noam Chomsky expressed it, rather bleakly, like this:

“The world does not reward honesty and independence, it rewards obedience and service. It’s a world of concentrated power, and those who have power are not going to reward people who question that power.

Reducing them to apathy and obedience, allowing them to participate in the political system, but as consumers, not as true participants. You allow them a method for ratifying decisions that are made by others, but you eliminate the methods by which they might first, inform themselves; second, organize; and third, act in such a way as to really control decision-making. The idea is that our leaders control us, not that we control them. That is a very widespread view from liberals to conservatives.”


I grew up in a place and time, some fifteen or twenty years after the Second World War, where the adult population, teaching their young children how to get on in the world, had pretty much bought into the whole idea that you should conform, keep your head down and you would be rewarded with a comfortable, secure, prosperous life.  In their minds, all the trouble had arisen because people had resisted.  Their mental model was not that the root cause was tyranny; it was that people tried to take it on and got hurt in the process.  Far better, they thought, to play along, put your head in the sand, do what you were told, let the authorities do what they will and live quietly, anonymously but safely.

In this world, you were instructed, from a very young age, to go into the professions, do the bidding of the rich and powerful and be rewarded with a nice house, a family and an expensive car, with the odd overseas holiday thrown in.  What was absolutely thought to be a road to self-destruction was to follow your artistic proclivities and live the life of an artist.

To my parents’ generation, “artist” meant “bum”: a deranged, delusional, suspicious no-hoper, living on the outside of society with no prospects for a decent standard of living.  Even starting and running your own business was thought very risky and taboo.  Far easier to sign up to work for a big, established firm, do what the boss told you to do and not question things too deeply.  If you didn’t agree with the ethics, the environmental damage, the disregard for health and safety or the morality of the products made, too bad.  Just play in position and all would be well.  Your salary would be paid regularly and reliably, come what may.

We were lead to believe that those in power and authority had everybody’s best interests at heart, always and so, whatever they chose for us to do, whatever the agenda and outcomes, it would always be for the best.  Our leaders, you see, were not supposed to openly prey upon us, lie to us, and let their self interests trump those of society at large or exploit us.  They were supposed to be our protectors.  Our role was to let ourselves be protected, unquestioningly, by them.

People we trusted, our own parents, told us that obedience and service was the ideal way to live.  Take the money.  Forget about the heroic stands against injustice.  Forget about upholding the truth.  Just take the money and live well.  That was the theory.  It was never stated in such explicit terms, of course.  The message was delivered more subtly than that, but the zeitgeist of the time was that you should seek to maximise your income and security and let everything else be handled by those in charge.  They’d crush you if you sought to meddle anyway (and they really would), so what was the sense in taking on those quixotic quests?  Be a good doggie and get your bone.

If you happened to have artistic interests and talents, or some independence of thought and the intelligence to see behind the bull, the idea that you could ever make a living from your artistry was preposterous, even to somebody with obvious and special gifts.  In that climate of thought, it didn’t matter how brilliant or original you were.  None of it counted when it came to taking out a mortgage, or buying a car, or shopping in the supermarket.  You might be clever and gifted, but that was incidental.  You had to be obedient to get the means for sustenance.  Art and music were ok as hobbies, but you had to pursue a real career and get a real job in some institutional company or a government department.  That was where the real safety lay.  That was where you would earn the big money.

Oddly, my parents never once showed me an example of somebody that had done all of that and became a millionaire.  People that we knew lived comfortable – even bourgeois lives – but they were not rolling in it.  Nobody seemed to care that they were not changing the world or globally renown, for their life’s work.  That was all presumed to be immodest anyway.  Even if you could have been the most popular band in the world, that role was reserved for Liverpudlians, sponsored by proud, established, monolithic British record companies.  The idea that a bunch of kids from Australia could make an impact on the world stage was not a thought that was encouraged.  In fact, it was discouraged.  Actively.

Sadly, my parents’ generation were right, though I suspect their prophecies were self-fulfilling.  People that stuck to their art, in my cohort, all later defected to regular jobs, just to get enough money to live reasonable lives and have a family.  It turned out that it wasn’t possible to live the life of an artist, pursuing their artistic talents to the maximum extent possible, while being able to afford a house, a car and children.  The regular jobs they took were often allied to their art, or loosely related to their artistic field, but in reality, it wasn’t the same as practicing their art.  It was more like sitting on the sidelines, on the reserve bench, while handing out the drinks.

As a young man, with artistic talent, this idea that art and music were not real jobs caused me great conflict.  I was fortunate in that I was also technically adept and so felt that engineering was a field in which I could do well and enjoy the process.  To some degree, this has been true.  I love engineering.  I like being able to make things that didn’t exist before.  I don’t love working for tyrants that abuse engineers, however.  It’s remarkable how much the artist and the engineer turn out to have in common.  Both skills are way undervalued and respect is in short supply in either career.  Self respect is even scarcer in engineering, if you feel you have abandoned your artistic talents in order to do it.

I conformed.  I did the degree in engineering and went to work for large companies.  I did what I was told.  After I finished my traineeship in heavy industry, I took a job in a company that built music synthesisers.  Giving up my safe, secure job in the big firm was thought to be a form of temporary madness and I was counselled against the move, but I did it anyway.  It was engineering, but allied to my first love – music.  That was an irresistible proposition, to me.  I could at least make a contribution that would hopefully make better music.

I loved that job, but hated the politics.  Funding was always scarce and you never quite got to follow your intuition, inventiveness, innovation and curiosity.  You had to create somebody else’s conception, not your own.  Colouring outside of the lines was frowned upon, even in this relatively heavenly role.  Make something good, if not instructed to do so and you were putting yourself at risk.  I couldn’t help myself.  In the end, I became a somewhat frustrated “Innovations Engineer”, whose task it was to find new technologies and opportunities for new product ideas.  The frustration was in getting them adopted.  Money was always the obstacle.

So I became an engineer and a reasonably inventive one, at that, but I wonder what was lost in the process.  How would my music have developed?  Would I have been able to get my music into the ears of the world and would that have made any difference?  Was I a good enough musician to play in the big time?

When I was still studying at university, I had a childhood friend who was an extraordinary writer, musician, performer and activist.  She was good at those things because she really cared about them.  I adored her for her creative powers.  I thought she was destined to make a significant contribution, with those interests.  Unfortunately, at about the time I was conflicted about my own art and so very impressed with hers, she was in the process of studying to go into a demanding profession.  She’d grown up in the same thought climate and was busy preparing to abandon her many wonderful artistic talents to become a safe, secure, tenured professional, who would always be in demand, always have a job and live well on the money.

I often think about the books she might have written, the music she might have created, the causes she could have championed and the performances she could have given.  We’ll never know how they would have been.  The career she went into had few opportunities for even extracurricular commitments to these artistic pursuits.  It was a demanding career that required full commitment.  I don’t know if she ever secretly wrote her novel, or played and sang much, or if she kept up with her onstage life.  I doubt she could have been seen taking on activist causes, for fear of reprisal in her career.  I don’t know.  We lost the ability to speak to each other some three decades ago, for reasons only known and understood by her.  That’s not to say she didn’t make significant and valuable contributions in her chosen career, but I wonder what it would be like to put your art away for good, or to really put it firmly on the back burner, in your twenties, especially when your talents were so blazingly bright and obvious to all.

I, too, put my art on the back burner.  I only recently began to get serious about writing songs and playing guitar again, after years where I almost did none of either.  I’m still wrestling with the skills gap.  I didn’t become a painter until I was forty six, so convinced had I been that my artistic talents were meagre.  They still might be meagre, but the sense of fulfilment I get from both is not to be sneezed at.  The problem with having put my art on ice is that you never get those years back, when you could have been refining your skills and learning your way into your craft.  You don’t get to benefit from the ten thousand hours you failed to put in.

The problem with this lost time, when you finally resume your art belatedly, is that you know your skills are below where they could have (and should have) been, had you stuck with it.  This deficit begins to dissuade you from making any art, because you know your skills should have been better, by now and you feel that anybody that knows you has an expectation that you would have kept going, when you, in fact, didn’t.  You feel that any art you make is bad art.  You know you chose the money over your life and now the deficit in ability is painful and embarrassing, for all your talk, over many decades, about how much you love your art.  It was a sincere love, of course, but devoid of the necessary devotion.  You were too busy making a living, instead.  At least I was.

This sense of shame and guilt at having let your artistic skills slide is a downward spiral, obviously, which can only be broken by being unashamed of your artistic output, while you get down to catching up on your learning through doing.  Your taste will still be intact, though.  Maybe that can take you a long way in the end, even if it works against you in the short term, by making you overly critical of your early efforts.  Art may have been a love you had forsaken, but at least you held it dear in your heart.  That must count for something.

While all of this sounds like nostalgia for the path not taken, with a rose tinted view of the outcomes, had the other road been travelled, I am not unrealistic enough to ignore the fact that even those with superb art skills, who followed their artistic talents as a career, were always hampered by a lack of resources to really produce and market their art adequately.  We still lost many great unmade albums, unwritten plays and unpainted paintings, for want of the resources to get the work done and out to an audience.  What’s the difference?  We still wound up without the great art that was potentially possible.

What none of us, who conformed, expected was that, having traded our lives for the money, our standards of living would not be all that fabulous.  It wasn’t really traded for all that much money, in the end.  It certainly didn’t bring certainty or security.  Things feel as precarious as they ever did.  To get the money, we had to put up with a lot of dissatisfaction and frustration, humiliation and degradation, in our obedience and humble service, without the comfort of our art to soothe us.  Do that for long enough and the cost is not just a part of your soul.  It begins to affect your health.  The underlying stress of denial makes that inevitable.

In my case, my attempt at independence, through my money-making engineering skill instead of through my art resulted in near bankruptcy, the loss of a house, loss of dignity, loss of hope and a very long road to recovery.  I was severely punished for my attempt at independence, by people only too happy to (or too scared to not) conform, obey and serve.  That event changed me forever.

You see, the settlement turned out to be a betrayal.  We played along and didn’t get the security it was supposed to bring.  Our kids have even worse prospects of conforming and reaping the spoils.  The powers that be reneged on the deal.  Meanwhile, those that stayed artists had to live with even more insecurity and their kids are just as unlikely to find prosperity through conformity, in the future world of work.  We’ve been had, all of us.

The problem is and has always been that your dentist doesn’t have to put a “donate via PayPal” button on his web site, like many artists and musicians have to and yet even he has to deal with the insecurities of running a small business in a community where few are wealthy enough to cover his fees and overheads.  Nobody realistically expects a lawyer to work for free because of the great exposure taking the case will give them and their careers, yet there are a lot of empty waiting rooms in chambers.  People can’t afford them and so their security is in doubt too, especially when boilerplate legal agreements, their bread and butter, are freely exchanged on the Internet.

The real problem and the root cause of all that is wrong in the world is that the honest and independent are not rewarded by the people whose wealth and power they will question.  Only those that protect the interests of wealth and power, obediently and subserviently, get thrown the odd, increasingly meagre crumb.  The problem is the concentration of wealth and power.

I still cannot find a route to making my art pay enough to do it full time, though I keep searching.  My soul is in better shape than ever, though.  Launching a full time career in art takes much work and effort.  It becomes the same as working two jobs, while you are in transition.  Something has to give.  Who knows if I will ever be an artist without a day job?  While wealth and power is so concentrated, it barely makes any difference.  Whatever the outcome, it’s going to be hard to sustain a living, while keeping body and soul together.  That’s because independence is not rewarded and I cannot be anything other than independently minded.  It’s how I am wired.  “Wired for Weird”, as a friend of mine so aptly put it.

What advice would I give a young person conflicted between following their art and taking the money?  On balance, I would say go with your heart, follow your art and hope you get good enough to be one of the lucky winners.  That’s like advising people to bet on the outcome of a lottery, I know, but the other way is not a sure fire prize either.  While all outcomes are uncertain, I would suggest travelling the road that is more scenic.

In the mean time, maybe an artist, somewhere, can precipitate a change in the concentration of power and wealth, through their art.  That would change everything.

About tropicaltheartist

You can find out more about me here: There aren’t many people that exist in that conjunction of art, design, science and engineering, but this is where I live. I am an artist, a musician, a designer, a creator, a scientist, a technologist, an innovator and an engineer and I have a genuine, deep passion for each field. Most importantly, I am able to see the connections and similarities between each field of intellectual endeavour and apply the lessons I learn in one discipline to my other disciplines. To me, they are all part of the same continuum of creativity. I write about what I know, through my blogs, in the hope that something I write will resonate with a reader and help them enjoy their own creative life more fully. I am, in summary, a highly creative individual, but with the ability to get things done efficiently. Not all of these skills are valued by the world at large, but I am who I am and this is me. The opinions stated here are my own and not necessarily the opinion or position of my employer.
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3 Responses to The Money or Your Life

  1. Thank you Michael for such an honest and heartfelt piece. Perhaps another way of seeing it is that instead of being linear, life comes in cycles…and we return to a similar place over and over (though it’s slightly different each time we arrive there) and we get to make the choice again. i know it doesn’t feel like that…I often feel that many things have slipped through my fingers…by I do think life brings along second and third chances, and who knows if taking a different road the second or third time around is actually an inferior choice? Some of us are more complicated, the road isn’t straight and clear, and our victories aren’t always obvious to the world or as spectacular as those who have clearer paths. Someone posted on facebook the other day: ‘life is not measured by having a good hand, but in playing a bad hand well’….that helped me deal with my own sense of not having got as far ahead as I would have liked in many areas of my own life.

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