Most artists in this country are greatly under-appreciated. When I refer to most artists, I am not talking about the musicians and actors who are bringing home multimillion dollar paychecks each year. No. I’m talking about the artists who are barely getting by and if they’re lucky, still living in their parent’s basements. These artists are hanging onto their last thread of identity, uselessly dragging their fingernails through the sand as the undertow of conformity threatens to pull them in at any moment. They are almost drowning, almost. They are tired. Tired of rejection, tired of trying, and most of all tired of fighting the culture of conformity; an entity that berates their life’s choices at every opportunity. Most give up, some drown, but a small percentage hang in there, hoping that each new day might be the day that they get their big break.
The pressure to conform is immense. It does not just come from “well-meaning” friends and family who think the solution to the artist’s problems is to get a regular 9-to-5 like everybody else. These people do not understand the call the artist is pursuing to begin with. What they’ve noticed is that the artist in their life is struggling; that they don’t have health insurance and barely enough money to pay for gas. In their eyes, these dilemmas are reason enough for the artist to give up on their unrealistic pursuit, their dream, and get a real job. And they view the artistic pursuit as just that: a dream. To them, the artist’s goal of sharing their art with the world is an unattainable fantasy.
Those friends and family members aren’t so much a threat as society. Society loves talented artists (when they’re rich and famous), but does not tolerate or make room for the rest of them, and it is the undiscovered talent that makes up the majority. The way American society views art and artists is evident by the nation’s public school curriculum. Not a fraction of the endless dollars school districts pour into sports programs ever goes into art programs.
None of this, however, is as bad as the judgment artists endure on a daily basis; during the entire lifespan of their pursuit of dream. They are often judged as lazy, odd, and different. Behind their backs, outsiders wonder why they don’t just go out and get a 9-to-5, any 9-to- 5, just to pay the bills? They cannot comprehend why artists choose to live at poverty and near poverty levels to pursue their goals when they could just get a real job that pays real money. It is not that simple.
Most artists don’t work 9-to-5s and usually have no intention of doing so because it is the very thing they spent their entire lives avoiding. Artists prefer poverty level pay checks and driving beat up old Geo Metros to the luxuries a steady 9-to-5 would provide. To them, it is not about money but spirit, freedom. Those seemingly omniscient outsiders, who just don’t understand why an artist won’t buckle down and join the real world, have given up their freedom long ago in favor of maintaining a homeostasis they like to refer to as reality. They have sold out and likely subscribed to this realism through the ill advice of others; advice that kept them from pursuing their own dreams. And sometimes they encourage artists to ignore their call in order to validate their own choices.
Pursuing the goal for an artist is not only a spiritual pursuit, but an unquenchable call. It is a pursuit that can never fully be abandoned, not without a sense of dread or regret that fills the space where the realized dream would’ve been. Nothing could kill an artist’s spirit faster than throwing away their passion in favor of a 9-to-5 position with a nicer car or apartment. The artist would rather retain their freedom and go without.
Some get tired and drop out of the race early never realizing that success may have been just around the corner. It takes endurance. The race is more unsteady and unpredictable than a field with a more structured career path (any field really). At times, the rejection seems never-ending. And what’s even worse than the unpredictability and the pain of rejection is the money, if there is any. Most of the time it takes years for an artist of any genre to make a dime off the years of heart, time and money they already invested into learning and perfecting their craft.
In my memoir, I Know Why They Call a Shell a Shell: Tales of Love Lost at Sea, I focus on the time I spent on Rhode Island beaches; beaches that were littered with thousands of stones. Regardless of color or rock origin, every single stone somehow became shaped into a smooth flat oval.”Soft to the touch, these oval jewels looked like small candies. Each and every one, more perfect than the last; their uniformity took on a manufactured feel.”
On one particular day, I picked one up. This oval stone was too light in weight to be made of rock. Was it a rock? I examined it and tried to determine what it was until I noticed that the material of which it subsisted had mother of pearl like quality.
“I squinted at it, then looked at it from different angles. I held it in my hand trying hard to figure out what it was. Suddenly I knew. Though it no longer resembled it, it was not stone, but a shell. Lengthened and now only a few centimeters wide, it had been beaten down. What was once a beautiful shell somehow became pummeled into the exact shape of the millions of stones strewn across the shoreline. Was it the destiny of anything that neared this water; to be shaped and molded into an oval form?”
For some, conformity is not an option; it is a death sentence. The harsh judgments are often more painful than all the challenges all artists face because when it comes down to it, these judgements are personal and based on the fact that the artists are just being themselves and following a direction paved by their pulse. It is them against the critics, the squares, labeled so because of their carefully defined boundaries. They know boundaries while artists know no limit.