Originally Published on Art21 on April 11, 2012
There is a popular meme floating around on the internet called “What People Think I Do / What I Really Do.” Most of them are images pulled from pop culture depicting the heroic and the mundane versions of the same job. But it got me thinking: what exactly does the public think an artist does?
“What people think I do / What I really do” meme
In a recent video chat with a friend of mine, who is a social worker, I got off on a rant about how nobody understands artists or validates what we do. I think I may have been channelling some latent teenage angst, or experiencing some full moon cosmic vibes. As a social worker, my friend has a very real impact on people’s lives every day, and can feel that appreciation tangibly. However, my daily experience paints (no pun intended) a much bleaker picture.
The Home Depot Paradigm
I think many artists experience public misperception on a daily basis, in however small a way. As a grad student, frequent trips to Home Depot are essential. But every artist loathes the conversation that might occur with the 19-year-old employee while staring blankly at the racks, trying to imagine which of these prefabricated parts can be exploited to fit into unconventional application. It goes something like this:
“Do you need help with anything?”
“Naw, I’m good, thanks.”
“What kind of project are you doing?”
This is the crucial decision point. Do you take the bait? You can either act like a jerk and walk away, or you enter the rabbit hole and try to answer. I often mistakenly choose the latter.
“Um…well, I need a wire that would be strong enough to wrap around a bundle of mattress pads in tension…”
“Is this a home decorating project?”
And into the rabbit hole we go.
Artists, you know what I mean. Sitting cross-legged on the floor of Party City comparing body paint, pacing the aisles of Target pondering over which doy toy produces the best sound effect for your video piece. We are out of our element. These experiences perpetuate the feeling of being misunderstood. The issue lies with choosing to center your life around your artistic practice in a world that was not designed for this kind of lifestyle.
Bad News First
In 2002, a study was done by the Princeton Survey Research Associates for the Urban Institute. The goal of the study was to better understand public perceptions of artists in America. The results are pretty amazing. In general, it seems that most people appreciate art in some capacity, but very few have any notion of what artists actually do, or how they contribute to society at large. 96% of Americans have been moved or inspired by a piece of art yet only 27% think that artists contribute to the general good of society. This question was compared to a list of other noteworthy occupations (82% think teachers contribute to society, and 76% think doctors contribute). When asked if artists’ lives were difficult, half polled think artists have about the same or less difficult lives than non-artists.
Meme to the rescue
Given these grim statistics, I turned back to the meme, and decided to ask my family about what they think I do. We know what society thinks, I know what I think, but what does my mom think? Her description of my daily studio routine was shockingly accurate. She described me searching online for ideas, testing out different types of fabrics and wood, following an idea in bits and pieces until it comes together, and getting lost in a process for hours. Pretty good, Ma! I called my brother next. He knew that I go into a “studio of some sort” everyday, and he saw my day as pretty open ended – I can do whatever I want all day. He compared me to a mad scientist, mixing things together until the final product is born. But, he also described me getting inspired by little things around me, and taking a normal idea and going over the top with it. Mad scientist aside, my brother described my day-to-day to a T.
So where does this leave us? The public has no idea what we do, only a vague notion that art is a pretty okay thing to have in the world. Yet, our families get it in their own ways. My husband’s parents send him clippings from the Wall Street Journal about art related topics. A friend’s mom sends her kitschy toys like fake fireplaces that she makes work out of. Our moms get how stressful critiques are. They are there to offer support even though there will always be a mystery to what we do that they can’t perceive.
Where do we stand?
Guerrilla Girls Poster
As graduate students, how are we supposed to feel about all of this as we go into debt to refine our beloved practices? Should we go on strikes for more public awareness of the arts? March to Washington? Call up the Guerrilla Girls? Send thank you notes to our moms?
Perhaps there’s not a whole lot we can do. In our convoluted societal structure, we are bound to end up on the bottom rung. Yet all artists must maintain an earnest hope that we can make some sort of difference in the way society values artists; even if our dedication to artistic practice only affects our families and close friends. Maybe our job is simply to share what we do with the world instead of closing ourselves off because we read a depressing statistic. My brother’s right: we can do whatever we want all day. There is freedom there if we can figure out a way to carve out our existence in a world that isn’t designed for us.