On Experience
Is it worth attempting an art career if the chance of success is slim? ...

On Experience

June 5, 2022

Having just read Montaigne’s “On Experience” essay for book club, I was inspired to write a little essay. Today, right after I read Montaigne, I had an unexpected conversation about life experience. A young photographer came to the art gallery and asked me and some fellow painters how she could “make a career of art” like us. She was concerned that she wouldn’t make enough money to live on, and she wanted to hear more about our experience, as we seemed to have succeeded as artists.

I and the other painters broke into bittersweet laughter. No one at the gallery makes real money, we explained, and most of us have given up thinking we will. Few of us have reached the magical, fabled heights of fame we dreamed of when we were younger—a solo show in New York, six-figure sales, or rapturous attention of critics. Yet, still, we labor on, because art makes us happy.

We explained to the young photographer that pursuing an art career, even as a side hustle, might never pay the bills but it does lead to respect, somewhere down the road. Regardless of sales, if a person does art long enough, people eventually begin to see that person as “an artist,” and, as artists are rare, they accord respect. Many times, people have said to me, in excited tones, “Oh, you’re the artist! I love your paintings!” Little did they know I was thinking, “well, I’m not famous and I don’t live off my art, so am I really an artist?” After having this conversation so many times, I concluded that the world views me as an artist, whether I do or not. Pingo, ergo sum. I am an artist.

Few of us have reached the magical, fabled heights of fame we dreamed of when we were younger

All of us in the studio have questioned whether our efforts were worthwhile, I explained to the young photographer. Once, I was part of a conversation about whether an artist could justify having a studio if they weren’t selling enough paintings to cover the cost. I and the other artists, while sharing a growler at the common table, determined that what we were doing could be called a “ lifestyle.” To do the artist’s lifestyle, one has to make enough money to pay for a studio and supplies, regardless of whether one sells any work or not. From an outsider’s perspective, this might look like a vain, pointless effort.

What is the value, then, of essentially paying to be an artist? Is it worth attempting an art career if the chance of success is slim? Looking back, with experience, I can say that the act of imagining what to put on a canvas, done hundreds of times, produces a boundless skill for problem-solving. Creativity in other areas of life becomes effortless. I am easily the most creative person in any of the careers I have had. Why is that? So many years of painting. (Though, as a word of caution, I must acknowledge that creativity is not necessarily the best response to every work situation!)

IRL, I work as a software developer. I spend many hours thinking in patterns and adhering to a set of rules. To solve some problems, I have to shut out everything and narrow my thoughts down to a pin-sized laser beam. While the thrill of solving a difficult issue is palpable, I often feel dried out afterward. I can tell I have done too much left-brained programming activity if I literally have nothing to say to my family at the end of the day.

In contrast, when I paint, my mind shifts to the right brain (easy for a left-hander) and I feel completely open. After the first hour or so, I begin to ponder many things while I paint. I talk to myself and argue over situations I have encountered. I think about my whole life and the reason I exist. To solve a composition issue, I have to use the animal brain underneath the frontal cortex. Something in the environment needs adjusting. Something in the underbrush just moved. Ah, there it is. The problem spot. Who can say how I come to a decision? How does a frog zap a fly? How does a hawk dive for a hare? Some internal cunning tells them.

So, in summary, I would advise the young photographer to pursue an art career, even if obscurity and waste of money were the guaranteed result. The result of my long experience has been wisdom and pleasure, rather than fame and fortune. I have no complaint.

Michel de Montaigne, French Philosopher

Michel de Montaigne, French Essayist and Philosopher