There is a terrible place that all artists can find themselves in, if things don’t go as well as hoped. They can have put in a lot of effort, over a very long period of time and begun to pay the price of pushing themselves so hard, with their health. Every human body has a way of telling its earthly occupant when the amount being demanded of it is more than it can physically withstand.
Usually, the health issues that accompany burning the candle at both ends, as well as in the middle, are those typical of burnout. That is not to minimise them. Burnout can lead to some very serious health consequences. However, sometimes a human body will simply let go, suddenly, without warning. A dear and relatively young friend of mine, the hardest worker you could ever meet, who did everything for everybody, with grace and minimal appreciation, busily keeping her one-person business alive and trying to excel at being a quality supplier, in the face of increasing red tape and regulations, found herself on the floor, one day, without understanding why. She had had a stroke. A stroke can occur at any time to anybody, it’s true, but you have to wonder if the sheer application and effort she had put in, over decades, along with the accompanying stresses, had finally taken its toll. Her body, in a very clear and obvious way, had had enough.
It’s all too easy to push oneself way too hard, in trying to reach our desired goals. Never forget that those goals are invented by us, so we can change them, any time we like. We don’t have to be so relentless on ourselves.
Except sometimes we do, because there is no real choice.
The other nasty feature of life, in modern times, is that the financial obligations we accumulate, just by existing, can overwhelm those whose work contributions are chronically undervalued, economically speaking. A person, especially an artist, can be running themselves ragged, trying to build up their professional practice, but making little headway, financially, despite the hard work. If it’s what you do and what you temperamentally must do, yet the work is consistently poorly rewarded, those financial obligations can begin to dog you. Added to the feeling of sheer exhaustion, the toll on your health from the hard work and the derisory rewards for your efforts is the constant, unremitting stress of feeling hunted, by the utility, subsistence and tax bills that are stalking you and creeping up on you, threatening to exceed your ability to pay them.
It’s a terrible zone to find you have landed in. You’ve worked so hard, that your body is showing the signs of resistance to too much more being asked of it, yet the world is emphatically saying you haven’t done enough to prevent going under, financially. Meanwhile, everything you do meets with little remuneration, relative to the price of everything else. Your only options are these:
- work harder, at the risk of your health failing catastrophically and sooner
- go under
- find a way to suddenly be much more highly rewarded for what you do
- pace yourself, so that you maintain your health, but the financial wolf steadily gains on you, until it eventually catches up with you and devours you
Three of these options are not nice and one is highly unlikely, because you don’t have full control over how well your efforts are rewarded.
Another option is to abandon what you do and do something else that is better rewarded, per unit of effort expended, which is what most artists caught in this terrible zone have to do. Unfortunately, that choice adds stress and strain on the person too, due to the frustration associated with having to live a life in a way that doesn’t permit the fullest expression of one’s deepest calling. This option has health consequences and relationship consequences all of its own.
So what do you do? Hope for a miracle? Let the inevitable destruction of your body and soul take place? What’s the solution that preserves your existence, maintains your peace of mind and happiness, reduces the frustration and stresses of being in the wrong occupation and which rewards you well enough to prevent the financial obligations from devouring you?
One is to reduce your financial obligations, but you can only go so far. There is a base level of expenditure involved in keeping a roof over your head, food in your belly, your family well-maintained, while you are required to provide for them and your art practice running. You can move to somewhere cheaper, but that has its costs too and in the modern, globalised world, cheap places to live, for artists, are becoming less available. Moving too far from the market for your work also serves only to reduce the rewards for your efforts.
Alternatively, you can move to where the money flows. Of course, that is beyond the means of most artists. Such places are in high demand, so the price of entry to living in a large, metropolitan area, where people will pay handsomely for your art, is designed to extract some of that value, rentier-fashion. This is so that those without artistic skills, necessary to create things of real value, can live idly, by charging for accommodation from those that do have them.
Any way you look at it, it can seem to be an insoluble position. I have professional artist friends whose choice seems to be to spend more time marketing their work, at the expense of the time they currently spend maintaining their health or actually producing work and improving their technique. It’s a very difficult balance to strike. While marketing is necessary, it’s expensive in both time and money terms and the rewards appear to be less certain than ever, if the marketing is competing in a mass deluge of marketing messages, coming from seemingly every direction, pitched at people whose finite attention is already so heavily taxed. Most of the recipients of those marketing messages are under financial stress, too. They don’t have the ready cash to buy artworks with.
I don’t know what’s going to happen. I see people who are working extremely hard now, who would have to work harder still, to stay viable, but whose health would be consumed in the process. At the same time, I see people whose health is already letting them down, who cannot work harder and must work less, but who have no answer for how to maintain their finances at all. There are also those that are attempting to make themselves better known, in the hope of better rewards for their artistic efforts, but who are spending all their energy on that, rather than on their art.
Meanwhile, the economic backdrop is one of severe wealth inequality, so that money is concentrated in a few hands, who don’t buy enough, depressed demand for discretionary expenditures like works of art, the threat of global deflation, where all prices fall, increasing debt pressures, reduced government help for those in the arts, stagnant earnings and nobody in charge giving a damn about it. What would help everyone and about the only tool remaining in the economic tool kit that has a hope of being effective, is a pay rise for the middle classes and widespread debt cancellation, but no politician is currently actively advocating these things, for fear of losing the financial support of wealthy individuals and corporations, both of which want to maintain the status quo, which self-evidently hasn’t helped the vast majority of people in the economy and artists less than most. It feels like we’re all being driven onto the rocks by helmsmen that are heedless of the dangers.
I don’t know what the average artist caught in this terrible zone should do, or even what they could do, on an individual basis. The problem seems to be trying to exist, with integrity, in the face of forces much larger than any one person can withstand and fight, on their own. People will continue to succumb to the stress of it all, die prematurely, be permanently damaged and incapacitated, lose their ability to pursue their heartfelt vocations, suffer from relationship issues and breakdowns, lose everything, go bankrupt, fall into poverty, slip into madness, live with constant despair or push themselves so hard, that their lives become a living misery.
Meanwhile, politicians will congratulate themselves about how well everything is turning out, under their stewardship. And less art will be made.
Of course, not all artists are in the terrible zone and good luck and felicitations to you, if you happily find yourself without any of these problems, but my anecdotal evidence is that increasing numbers of them are. That is a tragedy beyond comprehension, which has not even begun to be discussed, in the main stream media. It’s a trend that has human consequences way beyond what anybody is currently contemplating.
It’s a terrible zone.