On being a Serious Artist

a photograph of my easel with a life-drawing on it, and in the background bookshelves filled with books on art

My studio (which is also my living room)

A lot of online advice for artists is framed around the trappings of corporate capitalism: building your brand, hitting self-imposed targets, maximising sales through targeted marketing, and so on.

If you do all this then you’re running a proper business, but if you don’t do this you’ve just got a hobby in the arts.

It’s not just aimed at artists, but also writers, musicians, and all other practitioners of the arts, but I’m going to use the term “artist” here, and you can substitute it with the term that best describes what you are.

I don’t see anything wrong with most of the aims behind a lot of this corporate-speak (apart, maybe, from “building your brand” which just seems like a desire to become famous, which I’ve never really had any interest in): I’d like to sell more artwork too, and have it seen and enjoyed by more people. There’s nothing wrong with that.

My deep-felt aversion to the call to adopt the trappings of corporate capitalism for individual practitioners is twofold.

Firstly, it presumes that capitalism — and therefore adopting capitalist practices — is the only valid way to be a “serious” artist as opposed to being someone who has a hobby (the latter always used in a pejorative sense).

However “serious” artists have existed for millennia before capitalism, as has the practice of buying and selling artwork (it should go without saying, but selling something you have made in return for other goods or money predates capitalism by several thousand years of human civilisation and is not a uniquely capitalist practice).

Secondly, a lot of the advice seems to be an adoption of the trappings of capitalism, by which I mean it encourages the naïve imitation of the behaviours of capitalist corporations in a belief that wealth and success will surely follow, presumably as a result of sympathetic magic, in the manner of what used to be called a cargo cult.

I mean, if you want to fully adopt the trappings of capitalism then hire a Human Resources consultant to give you a stern Annual Appraisal, demand that you go on a Performance Improvement Plan until you meet the Stretch Goals and Key Performance Indicators expected of you, all while smiling blandly at you as you realise that you’ve wrung every last drop of joy out of your artistic practice that you once professed to love.

It reminds me in some ways of those Elon Musk fanbois on Twitter who have “Founder/CEO” in their bio, but they’re the only employee of their “company”, and that’s unlikely to ever change. It would be more truthful to put “Founder/CEO/Middle manager/Junior Admin Assistant/Data Entry Clerk/Janitor/Intern/etc.”

So there has to be a different way of approaching being an artist where you don’t have to choose between adopting joyless capitalism or it “just being a hobby”.

Sure, there are things you need to do - I have to do my accounts and submit them annually to HMRC because my income from selling artwork is over £1,000 (the threshold for paying tax on an income in the UK), and I have to pay income tax on the difference between my income and my allowable expenses.

I do this firstly because it’s a legal requirement and fines, arrest, and imprisonment are something I would very much like to avoid, and secondly because I think that paying a progressive tax on your income in order to receive free socialised healthcare at the point of use and numerous other benefits is a much better alternative than being unwell or even dying because you can’t afford to pay medical bills.

I am an artist, but being an artist is neither my job — a role where I trade my labour, time, and energy to an employer in return for money, without which under capitalism I will inevitably starve to death without a place to call a home — nor a hobby (because I earn money from it, and pay taxes on that).

Besides the fact that I can completely understand the dream of earning enough from your artistic practice to enable you to give up your day job, I think perhaps the problem comes from people sometimes defining themselves by their job.

Essentially your job becomes your identity and is tied up with your self-worth, but your job is just something you do in the socio-economic system we live under to avoid dying of starvation or any of the other potentially fatal results of penury.

So this is the way I look at it:

I have no interest in building my “brand” or any of that other corporate-speak of late-stage capitalism, but yes I do want to make more artwork and have more people discover and enjoy my artwork, because it’s a form of communicating with others that I feel intrinsically and compulsively drawn to, and always have.

In other words: I am an artist, my job is something obscure in IT, my hobbies include reading strange progressive science fiction, watching dark surreal films, occasional walks in the South Downs, ranting in blog posts on Sunday afternoons, and so on.