From earliest times, becoming an artist has been a socially difficult choice. In the first place, one’s family might not approve: “How are you going to make a living with that?” “I don’t know—it’s just something I have to do! It’s my vocation.” The grouchy, skeptical dad worries, possibly quite rightly, that he’s going to be supporting his artistic offspring a lot longer than he would a more normal child. It can be a cause of friction and even of estrangement.
Then there is the wider society, which often regards artists with suspicion. Artists have often lived bohemian lives, flouting conventional morality and criticizing the society that has bred them and from which they seek to make their living. I remember being struck by something Adam Smith says in his The Wealth of Nations: that the great fees paid to certain actors and opera singers were to compensate them for practicing a profession that is viewed as a kind of public prostitution. He believes that artistic talent is actually quite common, and that it is only the disrepute that accompanies the professional exploitation of it that keeps people away from it, and thus keeps the fees high for those who succeed in practicing it.
Who knows, he may be right. But perhaps we should distinguish between talent and vocation. Talent is a gift of nature, which one may choose to use or not; vocation is a calling—the conviction that one, regardless of one’s talent, has been called to the life of an artist, come what may. If one answers this call—and surely many don’t—then one is “all in” with art and the artistic life, win, lose, or draw. Now you’ll be taking whatever that life dishes out, usually a lot of rejections and criticism.
You’ve chosen as life, but that’s not the same thing as choosing a job, for art is not a job. Your dad was quite right to ask “How are you going to make a living with that?”, for, chances are, you’re not going to make a living with it. Most often, you’ll have to make a living some other way, and then work the art in around that. Your vocation is worked into the time when other people practice their hobbies or recreational sports.
Notice how different that is from economic vocations, even relatively idealistic ones like medicine. A doctor trains hard for years and spends a fortune on his education, but then, when it’s time to practice medicine, he goes at it full time and more than full time. He might be able to pour every available hour into his work, which is also his livelihood, and thus increase his earnings even as he is pushing harder at his vocation. The artist is the inverse case: the more time he puts into his livelihood, the more time he steals from his vocation. In providing food, shelter, and clothing for himself and perhaps his family, he starves his vocation.
But wouldn’t he have a livelihood if his art were any good? What about those lavishly paid actors and opera singers, or, in our day, movie stars and pop singers? Doesn’t the market dictate the monetary fortune of artists as it does for everyone else—yes, including doctors? It’s a jungle out there for everyone; why should artists be exempt?
Here’s where we reach a ticklish point. There is a commercial demand for art, which does allow some artists to earn a livelihood and even to become wealthy. In some cases this happens because the artist decides to produce saleable work, and then we are talking about an activity that is indeed fully commercial. But other times an artist sets out to realize his individual vision, without any thought of the market or how the public or critics will receive it, and that work takes off. For an artist, this is a true lottery win: he has achieved commercial success without making any compromises to his vision.
But then we have other artists, who have stayed true to their vision but who have not—or not yet—connected with a large audience. These are the struggling artists, those trying to realize their vision while their material circumstances are not necessarily favorable. I venture to guess that most artists—maybe a large majority—fall into this category.
Many of these artists, perhaps most of them, are not very good. Many people, drawn by the romance of an artistic life, pursue it when the talent is not really there. But some of them are good. Consider the case of Vincent van Gogh, for instance, who never sold any painting during his own life, but is now generally regarded as one of the greatest painters of all time. Or, from the literary world, James Joyce, who struggled to get published, and, when he did, was more of a critical than a commercial success. What about artists such as these? What are their options?
Enter the patron. Since ancient times, artists have been helped and supported by patrons, private individuals who, impressed with an artist’s work and vision, have felt moved to help him continue on by providing some or all of the financial support he needs in order to live and work.
James Joyce, for example, had a patron in the person of Harriet Shaw Weaver who supported him while he was writing Finnegans Wake—a book that was never going to be a commercial proposition. Michelangelo and Beethoven had patrons, as have had many other excellent artists, and perhaps not so excellent. For the question of taste comes into it. And if a patron sees merit in an artist and his work, then that’s all that matters; that’s enough to let the art be created. What the rest of the world thinks doesn’t make any difference. It’s an excellent, voluntary arrangement, and I believe that patronage is in fact the true and best livelihood of the authentic artist.
I have had the privilege of enjoying some patronage in my life, both from generous family members and also from friends who believed in me and what I was doing. It’s a fantastic and uplifting feeling to have people show faith in you in such a concrete way, and I thank them all.
But now there’s a portal that opens the way for patrons to connect with creators on a bigger scale. The American-based website Patreon.com exists for this purpose. At Patreon, artists can put up a page and invite patrons to contribute to their ongoing work for as little as $1 a month. This is a fantastic thing, in my view: the advent of the micropatron. Patreon debits your credit-card or Paypal account once a month, and passes the funds on to the artist, less a modest fee.
I have set up a Patreon page myself. I’ve made a little introductory video of myself and have offered a number of thank-you rewards to patrons pledging contributions at different levels. I will be making updates there on my progress in writing and publishing my work. I warmly invite you to come on over and take a look. Watch my video, look over my rewards, and think about whether you might want to join my small but growing band of patrons, whether as a micropatron or—who knows?—even a macro one.
As a writer and as an artist I am not typical. My work is deep, complex, and not geared to a commercial format. It is taking me a long time to realize it. If you think you might be willing to help me bring it to fruition, then wonderful! Come on over to my page, sign up, and get a thank-you reward from me–as well as my heartfelt appreciation. They say it takes a village to raise a child; the same may well be true of raising an artist to his potential.