Sunday, October 11, 2009

Artist Myth #2: You have to live in LA or New York to be a real artist

I often think of my career as a lottery ticket. Each time I write a goal, I’m buying a lottery ticket. Most of my lottery tickets come up bunk, but many more come up winners. People who look at my career from the outside may see a lot of accomplishments, a lot of winning lottery tickets. What they don’t see is that for every ticket that comes up a winner, there are a hundred left on the sidewalk.  

Making statements about what a “real” artist is or what constitutes “successful” for an artist is, for lack of better words, “unreal.” True success can only ever be measured by your own individual goals and objectives. Besides, true success exists in any number of areas, not just your career, your bank account or where you live. 

When I went to grad school at Columbia College, renown for its arts program, on any given day there were a number of students hanging out in front of the arts building on Wabash Avenue, smoking cigarettes, playing hackie sac, and looking like “real” artists. If you pulled up you’d probably think, “Wow, this school has a really cool art scene.” The reality is, the “real” artists aren’t ever hanging out in front of a building, they’re in the music rooms practicing scales, in a dark room developing film, or locked away in their apartments writing.  

A lot of artists fool themselves into thinking they know what it means to be a “real” artist. But what about success in you finances, your spiritual life, your family, or your love life? Are you successful if you’re a world re-known jazz musician with tons of acclaimed work (as was the case with jazz bassist Charles Mingus) but because of tax problems you’re evicted from your home and living on the street? Are you a real artist if you were a pop icon living on top of the world, (as was the case with Brittany Spears), but because of a series of addictions and unfortunate decisions find yourself living a less than artistic life? 


  1. Slash:
    Cultural economists use the term "agglomeration" to describe the high cluster of artists, cultural spaces and opportunities (across for-profit, nonprofit, and community entities). Some folks just use the term "market centers." Many an artist working in one particular industry that is centered in one area - commercial theatre in NY or film in LA, for instance - would say that you "You have to live here to work here." But the geographical argument only holds insofar as it describes one person's experience of one industry. To work broadly, one has to travel, but one can also locate his/her career locally.

    The term "real artist" is too broad, too loose to have describe much of anything. It begs for further definition. Nevertheless, there are flows of credence give to certain artists of certain locations. I have often been on grant panels and felt that artists doing similar work in market centers and non-market centers were not regarded equally. Often panelists considered the costs of doing such work in a market center, and bucks appeared to flow accordingly. I often feel that way when I read grant announcements and see the same cities appearing regularly. Perhaps what's missing are measures to express personally and equivalently the costs and benefits of artists anywhere in the U.S.

  2. Thanks Paul,

    This reminds me of my thoughts on grants. It always seems like those who get the big ones are the ones that don't need it. Why give a MacArthur foundation grant to someone who's already gotten a Guggenheim half a dozen times. I mean can't Matthew Barney do what he wants to do without the support of a large foundation these days?

    Living in a smaller community, allows artists to see that real, live people whom they may have some acquaintance with are getting these grants. Which was inspiring for me to see.

    Also, living in a town with fewer artists, inspiration is often left to an internal clock rather than an external influence. The e-world is global enough that we don't need to live in art centers to receive that influence like we used to.

    And so, I agree with you that the term "real" artist needs a further descriptor. Yet, the mainstream continues to use the word "real" artist and it's a part of our vernacular. For many, if you still have day job, you're not a real artist. Hence the ongoing perpetuation of all the artists myths, hence the reason for me to keep blogging.