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Chicago Artists' News, "On Second Thought," Mar. 2003

Making It

"Follow your dream," someone says. "Get real!" someone else advises. What's an artist to do, to find a path that is both fulfilling and stomach-filling?

First, we dig through the over-generalizations and suppositions. What IS a dream? What is real? What kind of artist are we talking about? These questions are not of the Clintonian "depends on what 'is' is" variety.

Ah dreams. The young artist's "some day I'll be famous" might seem sadly out of touch for the twenty-year veteran artist. Yet, there are those interviews where the famous say "I had a dream, and I stuck to it!" Weren't their dreams as ridiculous as my certainty that someday I would exhibit in the Whitney? How about some else's dream of becoming as rich as Thomas Kinkade, "painter of light"? Is any dream ever really "sadly out of touch?"

No dream can be ruled out, BUT dreams probably should be ranked as to their likelihood of being achieved. An artist might ask "what are the odds of (fill in the dream here)?" Thus, if 100 of the 396,000 American artists (NEA Research Report # 78) finally get a show at the Whitney, the odds of being able to say "I had a dream and I stuck to it" are 3960 to one. We have as much chance of freezing to death, or dying from a falling object. If a question is answered truthfully, we can have our cake or eat something else while trying to get it on the table.

The odds are different if I simply want to make more than $9,830 a year from my art. These odds are 50-50 in Indiana (1998 Indiana Arts Commission Survey). So, this dream is more likely than showing at the Whitney and selling paintings for $800,000,00. Whether wanting to achieve a dream or to make enough from my art to eat -- knowing the odds helps fill both stomach and heart.

Although the questions of dreams and reality have abstract, objective answers, how's that work out in day-to-day life?

Machiavelli, noted for his reality check, said that to succeed takes three things: talent, hard work, and "fortuno," which might be translated, not as the classical (think Oedipus) "fate," but "luck." If "fortuno" includes having the right friends, making the kind of art whose style fits in with the times, entering the right shows, etc. -- then good luck is certainly required. So, back to reality. Got a dream? Gotta know how good I am. Gotta know how hard I work. These are answerable questions, though themselves requiring work. And, while good luck often depends on hard work ("virtu," as Machiavelli noted), it is often unpredictable and out of my control.

Closer to home, in her closing address to the 1998 Mid-America College Art Association (http://scrupe.com/mid-america_college_art_association.htm), Mara Adamitz Scrupe quoted Ken Little, an artist who is not in the big-timey, New York, ARTFORUM circuit.
Get a more practical kind of everyday pleasure and affirmation of whom you are from your work, rather than thinking that's not enough, that you need to have a one-person show like such and such, or reviews, or a coffee-table boo, It's easy advice to give, and it's hard advice to live by....I live in the middle of the country. There's not much here unless you make it yourself. Once you've done it, there's a lot of power.

Ms. Scrupe herself said, "as a vocation we ask too much of our work." She wonders if, like being in a religious order, most artists should not hope so much for earning a living, or getting famous, but rather to engage their minds and bodies in a way that enrichens the self and the surrounding environment.

So, perhaps there are some answers to the questions about dreams and reality. As Socrates suggested, "Know thyself." He could have added, "Know the statistical probabilities and dependeth not on saving acts from heaven."

Knowing how real our dreams are (statistically), we can follow those dreams and get a real life -- simultaneously. Marketplace is real. Vocation is real. Know the real odds, but have some real delight.

©2002 Robert Stanley

Number of artists: Painter, sculptors, craftspeople, photographers, from Research Division Note #78, May 2001, Artist Employment in 2000. "Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) show that more than 2 million people were employed (in primary jobs) as artists in 2000—a gain of 10,000 workers over the 1999 figure. An additional 295,000 people held secondary jobs in artist occupations. This note, #78, reports on the employment trends of workers in 11 artist occupations. The data are provided by the BLS and represent annualized averages of monthly employment counts taken from the Current Population Survey (CPS)."
Odds on freezing and dying from a falling object from: Odds of Death - Security Information Center (SIC) http://www.yesic.com/~pilon/securityinfo/odds.htm
Indiana Arts Commission Survey: Chesterton Art Center Newsletter, January, 2002, p. 1, Chesterton Art Center, 115 S. Fourth St., Chesterton, IN 46304
Machiavelli, from Landmarks in Critical Thinking Series: Machiavelli's The Prince, Merrilee H. Salmon, http://www.chss.montclair.edu/inquiry/fall95/salmon.html