Most people, if you ask them for career advice, will tell you that being an artist is a waste of time. What they are really observing is that we live in a society that is interested in supporting corporations and what they want to do, not individuals and their particular vocations and talents. Therefore, if you ask them, “should I try to make a living as an artist?” they are invariably going to advise you against it. But is that good career advice, in fact?
Most of the jobs I’ve had didn’t actually exist, when I was a young boy asking for career advice from teachers and adults. They had no ability to guide me into the things I finished up doing, because there were no such jobs at the time I was asking. The roles literally didn’t exist. The technologies and needs to use those technologies simply hadn’t been invented yet. Society hadn’t reached the point where the things I was eventually gainfully employed in doing were required, thought of or established. In short, the career advice I was given was utterly worthless.
Worthless advice is dangerous advice. It can and does lead you down dark, dead-end alleys. You can find yourself believing the advice, given and received in good faith, and finding that unhappiness and misery lies therein. You may also find that the advice is dispensed by well-meaning people with only the slightest grasp of who you are, what motivates you, what your passions and talents happen to be and what you regard as your purpose in life. Indeed, they may try to inculcate you with their own motivations, values, passions and purpose. This is to be resisted. They are not you.
There are also those that are bitter and miserable about the constraints placed on their own lives. They envy your opportunities and so, advise against perfectly wonderful paths, because they are unable to take them too. They might be too afraid to try and so try to instil their fears in you. Don’t listen to these people. They disguise themselves well, as if they are disinterested, but wise and objective advisors, but they have their own agenda and axe to grind. Beware of these people.
When I was young, most of the teachers dispensing career advice only knew how to be teachers. They came from an educational culture that only knew how to rack and stack pupils and batch prepare them for pre-designated roles in society. I think it is little different today. They seldom think imaginatively about the young person asking for their advice. They have almost no knowledge or insight into other sorts of careers, especially art. Few have ever done anything remotely artistic, practical, manual or creative (other than teach, of course), so have no conception of what the life of an artist is like. Even teachers that become art teachers are essentially artists that couldn’t find a way to make a life as an artist, other than really being a teacher that happens to know about art. They are not, in the majority of cases, serious, practising artists. Some art teachers don’t even make art, any more; because they are so busy teaching.
This is not to denigrate teachers. Teachers do a fine job. They’re just not artists. They’re teachers. Their grasp of other careers is very limited. Advising on careers is difficult to do, from such a limited experience and knowledge base. It’s ridiculous that they are asked to dispense careers advice, with so little information to go on. I wouldn’t want to be in that position.
People asked to give careers advice also generally have no idea how to imagine careers that could, foreseeably, exist in the future and even less ability to envisage future careers that don’t exist yet and which are difficult to predict, because they are just so far outside of anybody’s current experience. We all fall short, on that front.
Careers advisors are trapped in the same system we all are, of private, corporate mercantilism, subsidised and abetted by governments, so they can’t easily imagine a different way of existence or life, other than to be a zealous productivist (espousing the idea that people must justify their existence on the planet by working as much as possible and as productively as possible). They advise everybody that asks them what to do about their career to conform to the needs of local industry or business, as they understand it.
When I was a boy, we were all advised to work for the huge, local steelworks, in some capacity or other, as it was one of the region’s largest employers. That steelworks is gone. Every last vestige of it has been torn down and taken away. Everybody that bet their future on the steelworks was let go and betrayed.
“A fundamental element of human nature is the need for creative work, for creative inquiry, for free creation without the arbitrary limiting effects of coercive institutions. A decent society should maximize the possibilities for this fundamental human characteristic to be realized.”
As we have become more mechanised and productive, we’ve reached the point where the world actually needs less work, as we traditionally understand it. We need to not keep trying to creating time-filling, busy-work jobs that really do not contribute all that much to the condition of mankind, just to ensure that everybody appears to be in full employment and paying their way. Instead, we need to find ways to value true vocations; callings such as art.
Unfortunately, there is strong resistance against this, while ever the powers that be serve the needs of corporations first. The most powerful in society find it enormously convenient that you are fully occupied in work that devours so much of your time and energy that you have little left over to question what entitles those in power to be in power. You are always too busy to question the legitimacy of their position or of the current system. This is the real reason, whether people are aware of it or not, that most careers advice consists of advising you to take a nine-to-five job in a safe, secure, large corporation.
I can’t advise you that a career in the arts is not a waste of time, because the society we live in makes it hard for an independent person to make their way in any field, not only art, especially if they are unwilling to sell out to promoting corporate interests in one way or another. There are few genuine patrons of the arts. You might also take a path through the arts where you find infinite ways of wasting your time, instead of making your career fruitful; however you want to measure that.
Being “productive” or at least fully engaged as an artist is actually a difficult skill to learn and maintain. It’s much harder than working in an office, in a large corporation, where lots of things are not under your direct control. Some artists find that surprising and unwelcome, but it’s nevertheless true. Once you are author of your own destiny, you have a lot to do and a lot of extra responsibilities. It’s no easy career path. Good artists are not sitting around in the sun, sipping cocktails, in the main. They work their socks off.
That said, I can say that doing something that isn’t quite you, or worse, that you detest doing, but do anyway, just to conform to careers advice and put food on your table, is extremely difficult to sustain, over a lifetime. You will pay a price in stress and regrets. You might initially think that you’re doing the right thing and making everybody happy, especially those that gave you career advice, but the reality is that you are immersing yourself in something deeply corrosive, on a daily basis, for a large proportion of your time on earth. Don’t do it, if you can at all avoid it.
The only advice I can offer is that you should do what you love to do best, as well as you possible can and hope that there is an outlet for your talents that keeps you from starving to death or leading a life so diminished, in economic terms, that normal human existence and relationships become challenging. You shouldn’t have to forego a decent place to live and having a family, just to be an artist. On the other hand, you shouldn’t have to suppress your vocation and sell your soul, just to survive decently either.
Sometimes making your own job can be a workable compromise. If you are creative enough to devise a working life that allows you to pursue the things that light up the sparkles in your eyes consistently, while maintaining your integrity and not selling out completely to the interests of those that make the world into a lousy place for artists in the first place, then that can work out well, for you. I hope you find your niche. They are hard to find.
To give good careers advice, first we must remake the world and in particular, the world of work. We must re-examine what we value and design an economy that supports those values. Until that time, practically all careers advice is worthless.