Working For A Living: How Do Artists Survive?
Since the beginning of time there have been individuals with a need for self-expression through various forms of art. It is generally understood by anthropologists and historians that art is reflective of a society, and can offer some knowledge of the beliefs and perspective of communities rooted in space and time. When we study the art of a civilization, such as ancient Egypt, we stand to gain understanding of the their culture and way of life. I’ve always been fascinated by the need for artistic expression in society, and the ways in which artists have brought their visions to fruition. The challenge always seems to be to find a balance between artistic vision and survival in a commercial sense.
The creation of art demands time, resources and hopefully, talent. Works of art can be costly due to the materials used, or the great amount of effort and buildup of technical expertise required for their creation. As societies develop, the segmentation and specialization of work becomes more prevalent, so that in every highly developed civilization there are full-time professional artists of many sorts: poets, singers, painters, musicians, dancers, sculptors, architects, actresses, even comedians. For these people, art is their profession, their passion, and a way of life. It is interesting to look at the world of professional artists today and make a few comparisons to how their predecessors were able to survive and create art.
We tend to view art today as consumable; a product and commodity to be bought and sold. We don’t know for sure, but can suspect that the earliest artists were seen to have received their talent as a gift from the Gods. During the earliest recorded history, the highest form of art was produced as a tribute to the kings and queens, or in their service. The rulers were thought to possess divine right, that is, they were a direct extension of the Gods, or God. Works of art were believed endowed with supernatural powers thought to bring good tidings, or to aid in winning wars. Music was used to bless the harvest, affect the weather, or to instill fear in the hearts of enemies.
Works of art have also beenproduced for people’s own purposes. Epic poems and stories told by master storytellers handed down aurally the traditions and history of a people, before the invention of writing. Music was often shared in the home for self-entertainment (what did people do before TV and the internet?). Artisans produced works to beautify and add color to the drabness of everyday life or as a source of delight. The most talented of entertainers and craftsmen worked as journeymen or started small industries, such as with carpet weaving or tapestry dying.
Music was a feature of religious ceremony and remains an important part of the liturgy of many world religions to this day. Bach made his living in the service of the Catholic Church. Musicians and artists needed patrons, and during the Baroque Renaissance in Europe, the patron was usually the Church. As the merchant classes grew richer the idea of wealthy individuals as patrons of the arts grew rapidly, and the Classical Era saw many private patrons emerge to compete with the Church as patrons, such as the Medici in Rome. Mozart performed not only for the Queen, but also for many private parties and events.
As we entered the modern era we saw the phenomenon of concerts emerge. Liszt, the flamboyant pianist of the Romantic Era, was one of the first musicians to offer concerts to the general public that were successful. At first people tended to be skeptical of the idea of concerts. They thought people would not want to sit and listen to music. How wrong they were!
Today, musicians and artists connect directly with their fans, and act more like CEO’s of their own companies. Successful artists are often self-employed entrepreneurs, whether in music, visual arts, literature, or the theater. They employ agents to do their bidding, and use the power of their image to carve out a niche in the marketplace. Art is seen as “intellectual property”. This can be very good for artists, who can create something and earn money from it for a long time, but also creates challenges in accessing the market. Many artists teach. Fortunately for them, there is a steady supply of students wanting to learn, if only for personal enrichment.
Every artist today is faced with the conundrum of remaining true to their artistic vision while earning a living with their art. Artists do not create in a vacuum; their creative output has to appeal to somebody. Artists still need patrons of the arts to be able to survive from their art. The more things change sometimes, the more they stay the same.