Chances are that you have heard this phrase or some version of it at some point in your life if you are a performing artist or a student in the arts, and you may have even been encouraged by teachers in school to pursue this as a guiding principle. “If you are interested in other areas and have skills there, change course! This career is too demanding to expect that you will succeed if you give anything less than your total self to your artistic goals.”
While I think this aphorism is attempting to convey that a life in the arts requires a great deal of work, I believe it actually reinforces a harmful ideology and perpetuates myths about the arts that many people do not agree with, but nonetheless feel pressured to buy into.
What are we really saying?
“If you think you might want to do anything else in your life…” is a striking construct. It immediately presents a dichotomous choice between artist and not an artist (i.e. that ‘anything else’ you might want to do). When we flip the saying over and reorder it, this inherent message not only sharpens, but it also takes on a different hue: “If you want to be an artist, do not pursue other areas of interest or possible career avenues.” That’s a strong and to my mind, questionable directive.
Now, this may not be the intended message of those saying the phrase to young artists, but I think far too many people come to understand this secondary idea to be the true meaning. This can quickly morph into something like “If I want to pursue the arts, I must direct all of my life’s activities toward this career. Not doing this will make me less likely to succeed. I will not be an artist if I do other things.”
I encounter this attitude in young performers pretty regularly, and many singers over the years have spoken with me about feeling pressured to feel this way even when they want to devote time and energy to other interests and parts of their lives. Some have expressed feelings of guilt for wanting to do things outside of their field, as if this will somehow cause them to ‘betray’ their professional aims, or will cause them to ‘get behind’. Others have expressed feelings of personal failure or a need to explain themselves to friends and colleagues when they are not pouring all of their time into audition preparation or artistic endeavors that might get them a job. This dichotomous construct impacts young artists far more severely than I think people who use the phrase may understand.
Beyond the stark choice presented by this phrase, other elements jump out to me that deserve more reflection. One is that this saying implies that the life of an artist is so difficult that if you have other talents and interests you should surely pursue them instead. By indicating hardship, this idea suggests a kind of noble suffering that awaits the young artist if she is willing to devote herself to her art. [Ian McKellan voice] “If you choose to go down this path young artist, you must commit yourself, because the work and the life will be so challenging that you will need to dedicate your full self to it. You may suffer along the way, and others may pay you terribly or treat you badly, but you will be rewarded by being able to take part in the arts.”
There is a great deal to unpack here, which I will continue to do in future posts, but for the moment I only want to ask: Why are we perpetuating these ideas? I think it is a problem that we speak a cultural language that tells aspiring artists to narrow their vision inward, expect lives of hardship, and then be grateful for opportunities to participate no matter the conditions. We should be able to teach young people that discipline, effort, technical development, and commitment are needed to do well in most fields and the arts are no different in that regard. We should dare to discuss the idea that artists are no more special than other human beings. We live mundane and sometimes exciting lives, just like other people, even if our social and professional norms and creative processes are quite different. Our career paths and goals may be non-prescribed when we compare them with other professions, but this does not guarantee difficulty and pain, and it certainly is no mandate to order our lives around the relentless pursuit of our goals. If anything, our complex interests and unbounded human experiences make us more interesting people, hopefully better citizens, and ideally excellent artists. Artists can both work hard and enjoy rich lives enhanced by curiosity and interaction with others who have absolutely nothing to do with the arts.
It is concerning that we continue to present ideas that convey that there is something righteous in myopic dedication to a goal and in suffering for creative work. It makes little sense that we valorize hardship when we could instead use our energies to hold institutions to account and redesign how we do business. Instead of instructing young artists to devote themselves to their field with a near religiosity with the expectation of low wages, we could redirect our efforts to demanding fair compensation and livable conditions for artists across a wider range of creative fields. The idea that ‘if you can do anything else…’ may seem like nothing significant, but I think it is one of the small yet regular ways in which we indoctrinate each other to expect little and accept even less in the arts.
I think one of the reasons we collectively perpetuate this ideology is not only because it is easy to fall into the habit of not reflecting on the little things we say, but also because enough of us have something to gain by saying things like this that we don’t consider doing things differently. In my experience, this phrase is often invoked as a kind of scare tactic to reinforce a teacher’s authority while trying to make students work hard. It immediately equates a single-minded kind of diligence and committed caring with success in the professional field and reinforces a teacher's eminence as a person who has suffered the slings and arrows and come out on top, outrageous fortune or not.
This idea is deeply misleading. If working hard and being committed to an artistic endeavor are all it took to have a sustained career in the arts, the professional field would look very different than it does. This is not to say that successful artists do not work hard or that they don't care a great deal about their work. However, there are many elements that make an artistic career possible, and even more that go into sustaining one over years. But these variables are difficult to talk about, sometimes a little scary, and perhaps even ethically worrisome when held up against the cost of an arts education in the US. Yet, I think those topics are the ones we should address in depth with each other and with young artists more than we do. We should stop relying on pithy phrases that tell the wrong story about the lives we lead and the future that might be possible for the next generation.