Are you a failure?
I’m a moderately unsuccessful writer and artist whose documentary-style work has mainly been shown in art galleries, but also on television, radio and in various public places. I’ve published short and novel-length fiction, and I’ve written for the stage as a writer and as a performer. Doing all of the things I’ve just described has added up to me mostly keeping my head above water. In 2010 I self-published a somewhat popular book titled Career Suicide about the mid-to-lower echelons that are home to most creative individuals, if they can exist at all in those occupations. People like me, in other words. I’m firmly in these mid-to-lower echelons and I’m quite happy there. This statement isn’t false modesty or a deficit of ambition. I’ve worked consistently in the arts throughout my entire adult life, and that means I’m already doing better than 90% of the people who aspire desperately to do any one of the aforementioned jobs of which, very often, I’ve successfully carried on at least two simultaneously at any given time.
Unlike most artists my family background was just barely middle class, at the point where it blurred into the upper reaches of the working poor. Both my parents worked full-time jobs – often more than full time, and usually very shitty jobs – to support us, and still only just made ends meet, except on the occasions when they disastrously didn’t. My formal education ranged from barely adequate to disgracefully inept. I’ve slogged my way up to the pinnacle of Mount OK with no particular starting privileges apart from the intelligence I was born with. Difficult as it was and continues to be for me, it now seems exponentially harder to break in for the aspiring creative people of the next generation.
Many people might somewhat justifiably say, “Ooh, she can’t be a film director, he can’t eat paint in his studio all day, cry me a river.” An even more extreme version of this view is perhaps even more prevalent: “I don’t enjoy my job and I didn’t get to do what I wanted with my life” goes the bitter reasoning, “So why should you?”
Of course there are also people who just fervently believe that some things, most things or everything should stand or fall based upon its market value or its mass utility. To many self-appointed arbiters, artists who complain about not making enough money and not being supported or valued properly are whiners or losers whose work must obviously be bad or worthless if it isn’t selling, irrespective of the fact that the list of now canonical “proper” artists who got critically shit on or were commercial failures in their lifetimes is very nearly as long as the list of known artist names in its entirety up to the YBA era. Those who keep quiet as they think they should and just go along with every screwed up thing that’s asked of them, very soon find themselves in a downward spiral that usually also ends with the exhaustion of their own finances. It seems we can’t win.
In any case, nothing will convince all the Muppet Baby versions of Ayn Rand and Milton Friedman out there that some things are far too important to be run only or primarily for profit; not even the delicious schadenfreude of Rand spending a large chunk her life on the very welfare that by her own philosophy should have been withheld as punishment for her weak-minded failure to ‘work hard enough’ or be sufficiently ‘hungry’. Contrary to what some people on both sides of the argument like to imagine is a gulf between commerce and art, very often the biggest commercial or popular successes are the result of somebody – or a bunch of people – having lots of unstructured time, space and/or money to do stuff that nearly everyone else thought was pointless and unpopular at the time. The same can be said for a good proportion of truly groundbreaking scientific research. Creativity can sometimes be monetised, but the best way to kill creativity is to cram it into a commercial workflow pipeline, head first. Creative people could and would carry on without capitalism, but capitalism couldn’t continue without creative people to feed on.
Alistair Gentry is a writer, artist and performer. According to a passing stranger who recently shouted out of a car window, he is also a fucking weirdo. He is based, divides his time and works.
This interview features in the Autumn 2016 edition of the Sluice_magazine.