Day Jobs

Day jobs, real jobs, money jobs. If you are an artist, then it is likely you have one of these. The job that ostensibly supports your art. Whether it is helping to buy paint, make rent, pay a voice teacher, or rent rehearsal space, the other job might feel like a distraction. It is not what you really want to be doing, but it helps you do the work that fulfills you. In the March 25, 2018 print issue of T: The New York Times Style Magazine (the glossy insert that makes the weekend editions thick and heavy) Katy Waldman’s article “Working, Artist” raises an interesting question: “Might having a gig mean making better art?”[1] In the article, Waldman cites some fleeting examples of famous artists working: Philip Glass as plumber, T.S. Eliot as banker. The rest of her article tends to look to people who are artists and successful something-elses. In her examples, the artists tend to be working in related or closely aligned fields. Painters are painting, writers are writing.

It feels like the critique Waldman wants to offer is why do artists now bemoan having the day job, the second job, the paycheck? Historically, the financially stable artist (of any stripe) was the anomaly. It seems today that the financially stable artist correlates to celebrity. To be sure, this celebrity is relative. There are the film celebrities. There are stage actors who might be recognizable to aficionados. Perhaps, there are some names of visual artists that ring familiar when you see their names in print or on the news. The point is, we tend to conflate celebrity with success. We likely assume that if these people are knowable, then they are successful.

There is also an assumption here that art has to be marketable – part of the market – to be successful. Without going into a discussion on aesthetics, an easy comparison between say Hamilton and Rosalie proves the point. Don’t know what Rosalie is? It is a semi-autobiographical contemporary dance piece created and performed by Marion Spencer. It was workshopped at Gibney and presented later by Triskelion Arts. Don’t know what Gibney or Triskelion are?  Exactly. The distance between Broadway and the experimental dance world is financially immense, but only a subway ride away. This uneven comparison also brings up basic ideas of cultural capital: what does one gain by knowing (or profess knowing) who or what certain cultural products are?[2]

It is definitely worthwhile to continue the conversation on what our society values as culturally significant, but I want to come back to the idea of work. To me, what Waldman’s article doesn’t quite do is look at how we as a society value artistic labor. It is an uncomfortable truth that almost every artist you know has decided to work for free at some point in their careers. It is a curious norm. The community theater likely doesn’t pay its actors. The young dance company in Brooklyn asks its dancers to work for free. The free labor goes both ways: we are taught that it is culturally acceptable to work for free for the exposure and experience it can (and sometimes genuinely does) provide and our larger culture tells us that art only demands compensation when it is presented in specific places. Like celebrity these places are relative: the cineplex, the art film house, the museum, New York City (perhaps).

Waldman ends her article with the idea that getting away from one’s art is a good thing, that the non-art-making work helps provide distance and prospective. In principle, I agree. While I do not criticize Waldman for not looking at what kind of jobs the working artists hold now (T’s focus is on the highly commercial), I want to recognize that our day jobs now likely are not within the same sphere as our art and with the cost of living ever increasing, many of us cannot afford to step away from our day jobs to seek inspiration and invigoration. Our day jobs help to pay the student loans many of us amassed seeking undergraduate training and then graduate degrees in the hopes of making ourselves more marketable. Perhaps a way to combat this is to demand to be compensated for our artistic work and not just the work we do to stay afloat. 


[1] Katy Waldman, “Working, Artist,” T: The New York Times Style Magazine, March 25, 2018, 64 - 68.

[2] If you are unfamiliar with the idea of cultural capital, see Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction, translated by Richard Nice (London: Routledge, 2010).

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Todd Coulter