Does Having a Day Job Mean Making Better Art?
By Katy Waldman
ONCE UPON A time, artists had jobs.
And not “advising the Library of Congress on its newest Verdi acquisition” jobs, but job jobs, the kind you hear about in stump speeches. Think of T.S. Eliot, conjuring “The Waste Land” (1922) by night and overseeing foreign accounts at Lloyds Bank during the day, or Wallace Stevens, scribbling lines of poetry on his two-mile walk to work, then handing them over to his secretary to transcribe at the insurance agency where he supervised real estate claims. The avant-garde composer Philip Glass shocked at least one music lover when he materialized, smock-clad and brandishing plumber’s tools, in a home with a malfunctioning appliance. “While working,” Glass recounted to The Guardian in 2001, “I suddenly heard a noise and looked up to find Robert Hughes, the art critic of Time magazine, staring at me in disbelief. ‘But you’re Philip Glass! What are you doing here?’ It was obvious that I was installing his dishwasher and I told him that I would soon be finished. ‘But you are an artist,’ he protested. I explained that I was an artist but that I was sometimes a plumber as well and that he should go away and let me finish.”
What is an artist supposed to be? The figure this anecdote suggests — holed up in an airy turret with her materials, descending only to glissade through parties and openings — may be the one of popular imagination, but she is also a recent phenomenon, a product of our fetishization of genius. She doesn’t work, likely because she makes so much money she doesn’t need to. As a consequence, her talent can start to feel corruptible, like easily torn silk, or larger than life. (Either way, all the more reason to avoid the office.)
But even the celebrity painters of the past half-century had to hustle at one point. As David Salle — who was financially insolvent at the time of his first show, held at the loft of a young dealer named Larry Gagosian in 1979 — admitted in a 2005 lecture, “It was common not to expect to be able to live from your art” in 1970s New York. Inclusion in the city’s top exhibitions during the ’80s brought Salle the fame that allowed him to spend “most days in my studio, alone,” no supplementary income required. Artistic success, it can often seem, means earning enough money from your art not to have to take a job.
And when contemporary creators do seek additional employment (which they frequently must), they mostly hew to work that falls within the range of their skills or talents. The novelist goes into screenwriting, like Dave Eggers or Ray Bradbury. The poet becomes an ad man, like James Dickey, who crafted slogans for Coca-Cola. (“I was selling my soul to the devil all day … and trying to buy it back at night,” he said, after getting fired for not meeting deadlines.) Stephen Dunn viewed corporate copywriting as a wan reflection of his real calling, the moon to poetry’s sun, albeit in a zero-sum universe in which the moon gobbles up the sun’s radiance. Meanwhile, the painter paints walls or signs (as did Willem de Kooning, who also worked as a carpenter) or — like Barbara Kruger, subbing in as a graphic designer for Mademoiselle magazine — illustrates text. The sculptor builds sets, à la Alexander Calder, who lent an eerie sensibility to Erik Satie’s 1936 voice and orchestra piece “Socrate” with his simple backdrop: a red disc, interlocking steel hoops, a black-and-white rectangle and a turquoise screen.
But then there is another category of artists-with-jobs: people whose two professions play off each other in unexpected ways. For these creators, a trade isn’t just about paying the bills; it’s something that grounds them in reality. In 2017, a day job might perform the same replenishing ministries as sleep or a long run: relieving creative angst, restoring the artist to her body and to the texture of immediate experience. But this break is also fieldwork. For those who want to mine daily life for their art, a second job becomes an umbilical cord fastened to something vast and breathing. The alternate gig that lifts you out of your process also supplies fodder for when that process resumes. Lost time is regained as range and perspective, the artist acquiring yet one more mode of inhabiting the world.
THE ACT OF producing art can be anything but romantic. To escape the blank page, the only thing on earth as passive as yourself, you cast about for distractions, half-convinced that avoiding your project will shower some sort of mystical growth hormone on your ideas. Yet for some artists, such as William Carlos Williams, life and art were more than each other’s palate cleansers. The poet doctor saw his dual vocations as mysteriously fused. “They are two parts of a whole,” he contended in his 1967 autobiography. “It is not two jobs at all … one rests the man when the other fatigues him.” As a physician, Williams developed an antenna for the “inarticulate poems” emanating from his patients, even as he resolved to “use the material I knew” from practicing medicine in his writing.
What, then, is the real relationship between art and trade? Agonistic? Complementary? The question, suggesting something like a creative sanctum shimmering a few meters above the room in which you punch a clock or schedule a meeting, supposes that aesthetic experience is categorically different from everyday experience, and that muse-fueled invention floats apart from earthier forms of productivity.
But those borders have a tricky way of dispersing. Frank O’Hara’s 1964 “Lunch Poems,” a set of imagistic, peripatetic musings on a city in motion, are beloved in part because they manage to articulate the balance of work and life. Written on his breaks, their title an invitation to us to read them on ours, the seemingly dashed-off lines celebrate the pleasure a mind can take in wandering through its own busyness: Creative practice can be meditative flow, but it can also be worthy of a Ricky Gervais punch line. The author Sujatha Gidla, whose recent memoir, “Ants Among Elephants,” examined India’s caste system, has been a conductor for the New York City subway since 2009. “I’m very disorganized,” she told me immediately, before I could frame my first question. “You must factor that in to how difficult it is to manage work and writing.” But for all the stress of brainstorming ideas during her commute and transcribing interviews in the M.T.A. break room, Gidla would never quit her day job. “It’s masculine; I fancy it,” she said. What’s more, Gidla fervently believes that the individual “should be participating in social production, something useful for society.” She has met people from all over the world (“even Liberia”) at the M.T.A., drinking in their “cosmopolitanism and openness.” She enjoys their company. “Writing is kind of lonely,” she said. “It doesn’t make me feel like, this is my environment. At work I have no choice but to talk to people.”
Some cultivate their art because it sustains their work, or because it fulfills a sense of civic responsibility. Writing children’s literature “has helped me grow in confidence as a person, which in turn has helped me develop … as an officer, too,” said Gavin Puckett, a U.K.-based policeman (it remains his primary income source) and author of the prizewinning 2013 “Fables From the Stables” series. Puckett, who joined the service in 1998, sketched the rhyming adventure “Murray the Horse” after passing a horse in a field while listening to a radio announcer report on “sports and activities you can only complete backwards” — he imagined a story about a horse that runs in reverse. He admits that telling stories still makes him feel as though he’s “stepping out of character.” “My role as a police officer came first,” he told me.
Others are pulled, almost involuntarily, the other way. Edi Rama, the Prime Minister of Albania, sometimes feels his hand doodling as he contemplates a political decision. The art pours out to center and steady him. In 1998, Rama left a promising career as an artist in Paris to become Albania’s minister of culture. Now the country’s leader, he shows his loose, improvisatory drawings and sculptures in galleries around the world. “I found myself drawing almost all my working time whilst interacting with people in my office or on the phone,” he said in a 2016 interview. “I began to understand that my subconscious was being helped … by my hand to stay calm while my conscious had to focus on demanding topics.”
Art, so often the wild or ephemeral factor in this equation, stabilizes the politician. Do politics abet the artist? Unlike Williams, Rama does not borrow directly from his waking life for subject matter; he aims to explore automated and preconscious processes. But perhaps the day’s noise makes the quiet of drawing more numinous and clarifying. A year ago, Rama papered the walls of the Kryeministria, Albania’s main government building, with his own compositions. He wanted to remind himself of spaces in which “politics, with its characters and struggles, has evaporated” — to appreciate a freedom he might otherwise forget he had.
BACK TO THE artist in her turret. Though ethereal, she possesses monomaniacal focus. She can barely cook for herself, let alone pursue other hobbies. Her cultural ascent coincides with the waning of another figure: the renaissance person, who is allowed to excel at multiple things. At the risk of overliteralizing, one of the West’s foundational creatives, Leonardo da Vinci, held down at least a dozen occupations, from cartographer to engineer to painter to architect. But today, we ridicule Tom Hanks for composing short stories, Steve Martin for trying his hand at a novella, James Franco for making a run at poetry. Why do we rain down suspicion on those who seem ruled by competing creative impulses? In this moment when our pieties about identity are unraveling to admit more nuance, what’s wrong with letting people do two things at once?
Some artists may try to simultaneously grow both of their undertakings — and yet the balance shifts from year to year. Tanwi Nandini Islam launched Hi Wildflower, a line of perfumes, candles and beauty products in 2014, 12 months before her debut novel, “Bright Lines,” arrived in bookstores. She needed a space for her “olfactory experiments,” she told me, referring to the fragrant projects she’d started as a species of “method writing” while crafting a story about an apothecary. At first, Islam imagined the two endeavors — the company and the writing — as “sisters,” more similar than different. She inscribed lines of poetry on the candles’ packaging and enmeshed herself in every aspect of design and production. Hi Wildflower also became a form of introspection, “a space to rethink my values,” Islam said. The business was separate from the work of book-composing, but not conceptually distant from it: Islam envisioned her aromatherapy and skin-care artifacts moving through the public sphere in the same tender way her sentences did.
Yet as Hi Wildflower developed into the author’s main source of income, morphing from an alternate expression of the energies that drove her fiction into “a way of keeping afloat in a society that doesn’t pay artists to do their work,” its meaning mutated. The company now has three employees, 70 products and distribution ties to boutique retailers. Business is where Islam works; writing is where she dreams and roams. She no longer notates individual candle wrappers with poems, and she’s delegated some of the more menial production tasks. When I spoke to her, Islam was at work on a collection of poems and a second novel. Meanwhile, Hi Wildflower, an erstwhile extension of her aesthetic self, has clumped off into its own entity, an enterprise that props her up materially and gives her space to write.
Financial security (for now, at least) is not the only thing the business has bequeathed Islam. “When I create, I want this sense of quietness and wisdom to seep in,” she told me, echoing Rama. “But leading a company has made me tough on myself as an artist. You experience so much discomfort [in writing]: pitching articles, revising, building your brand. Having a business primes you for that kind of grind, that hustle.”
In “A Room of One’s Own” (1929), her famous, passionate argument about the material conditions necessary for writing, Virginia Woolf compared fiction to a “spider’s web, attached ever so lightly perhaps, but still attached to life at all four corners.” It is a lovely vision of art hanging from the beams of reality, only people are not spiders — they don’t generate just one thing. The trope of the secluded creator has echoes of imprisonment and stasis. (After all, who wants to spend all their time in one room, even if it belongs to them?) Sometimes the artist needs to turn off, to get out in the fray, to stop worrying over when her imagination’s pot will boil — because, of course, it won’t if she’s watching. And regardless of whether the reboot results in brilliance down the line, that lunchtime stroll isn’t going to take itself, those stray thoughts won’t think themselves, the characters on the corner certainly won’t gawk at themselves. Artists: They’re just like us, unless they can afford not to be, in which case they still are, but doing a better job of concealing it.