Some boring advice for young artists

I had no life
[One of my early business-card drawings, New York City, 1998]

1. New York, 1998. It was a moment of clarity, sitting at a bar in the West Village.

I was then making a pretty good living as an advertising copywriter. Even so, doing the math, I suddenly realized that after rent and taxes, I was only taking home about $100 a day.

A hundred bucks. That’s all I was getting.

And I had to do a lot of heavy lifting for that hundred bucks. I had pay to be in New York, for one thing. I had to work weekends, often. I had to spend hours and hours in boring meetings on a daily basis. I had to buy fancy clothes, for those afrementioned meetings. I had to kill myself day after day, trying to come up with an endless supply of increasingly tedious advertising ideas, better than the next guy. I had to kill myself day after day, trying to keep my New York adverting lifestyle on the rails.

That was a HELL of a lot of work, for a measly hundred. And what if I wanted a family? Or had big medical expenses? Or wanted to buy a nice house with a yard?

At this rate, I was screwed. Like I said, it was  a moment of clarity.

Then I thought to myself, what if, instead of working a ten-hour day in an ad agency for that hundred bucks, I found a way to sell one of my little business-card doodles for a hundred bucks? These doodles don’t take very long to make, and they’re pretty neat, besides. I’m sure I could find a market for them, if I put my mind to it.

In theory, if I used the Internet to sell two or three pieces a day a day for a hundred dollars apiece, I’d be making the same kind of living as I was in the advertising business, without having to schlep for Corporate America, without all the high New York overheads

All I had to do is figure out the business model. It seemed totally viable.

2. It was a great idea, it was totally viable, there was just one problem.

I didn’t actually like selling the pieces. I preferred keeping them. It pained me to part with them. I simply couldn’t do it.

So I had to go find another business to be in. That’s what gapingvoid became- my day job. The business card drawings would remain personal and private.

3. This actually turned out to be a good thing. For all the massive amounts of effort involved, I actually like having a proper day job. It gets me out of the house, interacting with grownups in an interesting and meaningful way. Just sitting in my cave all day, cranking out business card drawings would drive me nuts.

Yes, there were times when I tried “just doing the art thing”. Frankly, I hated it. It was awful. It meant spending WAY too much time inside my own head, going slowly mad. I found it all rather lonely and depressing.

4. So now my working life is happily split in two: The gapingvoid day job and The Marfa Project business card drawings. One is all about business and outcomes, the other is just about art and random personal expression. My external life and my internal life, separate but equal, both informing the other, both a refuge from the other.

5.  And it works beautifully. Because the business world is always changing, there’s always something to new to think about- that’s what keeps gapingvoid really interesting. And because I have to steal time in order to work on The Marfa Project, it never gets old to me. I’m only there because I want to be, because I had to make the effort to get there, it’s an absolute joy.

6. Every artist’s career somehow ends up splitting in two this way. In 2004, I christened it “The Sex & Cash Theory”:

The Sex & Cash Theory

The creative person basically has two kinds of jobs: One is the sexy, creative kind. Second is the kind that pays the bills. Sometimes the assignment covers both bases, but not often.

A good example is Phil, a NY photographer friend of mine. He does really wild stuff for the indie magazines- it pays nothing, but it allows him to build his portfolio. Then he’ll go off and shoot some retail catalogues for a while. Nothing too exciting, but it pays the bills. Another example is somebody like Martin Amis. He writes “serious” novels, but he has to supplement his income by writing the occasional newspaper article for the London papers (novel royalties are bloody pathetic- even bestsellers like Amis aren’t immune).

Or actors. One year Travolta will be in an ultra-hip flick like Pulp Fiction (“Sex”), the next he’ll be in some dumb spy thriller (“Cash”). It’s balancing the need to make a good living while still maintaining one’s credibility. My M.O. is gapingvoid (“Sex”), coupled with writing advertising (“Cash”).

I’m thinking about the young writer who has to wait tables to pay the bills, in spite of her writing appearing in all the cool literary magazines…. who dreams of one day of not having her life divided so harshly. Well, over time the “harshly” bit might go away, but not the “divided”.

As soon as you accept this, for some reason your career starts moving ahead faster. I don’t know why this happens. It’s the people who refuse to cleave their lives this way- who just want to start Day One by quitting their current crappy job and moving straight on over to best-selling author. Well, they never make it.

Anyway, it’s called “The Sex & Cash Theory”. Keep it under your pillow.

7. Like any job, being an artist is not about how much money you make, or how famous you are, what the critics think, or even how good you are. What matters is how well you make your chosen profession work for your life, of which you only have one. This is a process that can take decades to figure out, and only you can decide if it was worth it. Good luck to you.