This country does not value the artist. Once I was an business executive. Then I became an artist. The difference in how our society has responded to me is palpable. A few weeks ago, someone labeled me as “semi-retired.” Making art, to that person, was akin to playing golf. In his mind's eye I was amusing myself, keeping myself busy.
I feel it at parties and social events. In the past, talking about my work fit well into the chit-chat. I do this, they do that. Never mind that most of us aren't really present during martini small-talk, it all felt very normal. I had a label and an identity. Now, I feel like someone who isn't doing anything productive. Am I merely self-indulgent?
I feel it in meetings. I often hear, “Uh-oh, the ARTIST is talking,” when I speak up. When I had a more serious title, there was a tacit respect. Now, people don't know quite how to hold my opinions. They often don't know from where I come. I've lost my rootedness. I'm an enigma, an unknown. Am I semi-retired, crazy, or just self-absorbed?
The artist is the post-modern world's shaman. We bridge the gaps of the various layers of consciousness. Those layers, once known by all, are now lost in the din. Society, confused by what we really are, would prefer to label us in more simplistic, maybe even romantic ways. We start out as “tortured artist” or “starving artist” or "anti-social artist" and end up as “celebrity artist,” if we are lucky. Our work goes from unknown to commodity, it's value only appreciating after we are dead. We cut our ears off while alive, become immortal after death. So goes the myth.
Back on the earthly plane, we exist in some sort of dazed limbo. There really is no honored place for artist in America. When we push the envelope of convention we are seen more as charlatans than visionaries. I hear scorn for misunderstood art all the time. It's usually part of the chit-chat conversation. Rather than allowing for the mystery of art, people get angry when they don't understand, as if the artist were thumbing her nose at them, insulting their sensibilities, mores, and intelligence.
This struggle is mirrored by my battles within. Maybe all of this is because of the battles within. Perhaps respect for the artist starts with self-respect. It does sometimes seem decadent and frivolous to declare that I am an artist. It is hard for me to talk about my work. It is even harder for me to put a price on what I do. Maybe I was more comfortable in my formal role. It certainly seemed easier.
It is hard for most to realize that making art is work. It requires a schedule and discipline. It means denying oneself. We artists question ourselves constantly. It's part of the awareness that we cherish. It's hard to imagine an investment banker or a dentist questioning his or her worth the way we artists do. Who knows? Maybe we all question everything beneath our chit-chat facades. Maybe this angst is universal. Perhaps it is up to me to simply illuminate and show it the light of day.