These interactions make me seriously consider my life choices, and my career path. Nobody but my future self could have told me not to go to art school, or that I’d spend some strange years wandering the east coast trying to find a way to stop feeling uncomfortable in my own skin. No career counselor would have said, “Look honey, the art world’s skrewy. Don’t get mixed up with that stuff. Go to school for marketing and then surprise them all by being decent at design and writing, too. Go to college to learn how to be mad genius.” Although, I wish someone had.
Because we live in The District, aka That Swamptown Where People Judge Your Self-Worth Based On How Many Degrees You Have, the first three questions people usually ask each other upon meeting are, “Where did you go to school,” “What do you do,” and, “Oh yes, what’s your name. I suppose I should know what to call you.”
I have learned to effectively dodge the, “What do you do,” question by beginning my answer to the “Where did you go to school question,” with, “Well, I dropped out of art school. Twice.” People tend to assume that the answer to “What to you do,” is “I live on the streets, and mostly tend to the many diseases that I contracted while doing all the drugs. All of them.”
I once thought that I was going to grow up to be a great Artist who through linseed oil and paint would speak truths about the disparate human experience and reflect a broken and romantic portrait of modern pain into the eyes of thirsty audience. My career counselors in high school told me no differently (and the computerized career placement exams we took in late high school actually gave me a result that said, “Buy a wardrobe comprised entirely of black garments, we know you already own a beret, now… move to Paris.”)
Even as a teenager, I knew that I was living inside the walls of a stereotype, but I felt so at home in my box that I convinced myself I built it on my own. The quintessential artist-failure is a widely popularized canon, much like the manic-pixie-dream-girl, or the classic nerd. This character, the Artist is incredibly hardworking and tragically talented, yet their work is underappreciated, but may acquire value after their (also tragic) death. It is seemingly common knowledge that only the reckless or borderline psychotic actually brave the fickle creative world.
After dropping out of art school for the second time, I made ends meet for a short while by selling portrait commissions to rich folks. I survived on Cheetos and lost dreams. I wandered the streets of New York City looking for my soul and spent far too much time sitting in subway stations drawing pictures of the underground musicians hoping to find a piece of humanity in their covers of “Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” The only thing I found was a desire for a steady paycheck.
I wrote this less than a year after moving to New York City to be An Artist:
I want to scream. I want to climb up a fire escape and scream at Brooklyn, and at New York City, and at the whole world. I want to scream long and cruelly like a child, an animal, like radio waves ripping across the universe, teetering around planets, and careening back at the earth light years older but still loud as hell.
I don’t want to be an artist.
Nothing happened, I just came to the sharp and complete realization out of nowhere in the subway on the way home from work that I hate the art world. I hate New York. I hate it all. No one is as unique as they imagine. I hate the fashion, I hate the attitude. I hate the genuine ingenuity.
I want to scream forever. GET ME OUT OF HERE.
I stopped painting and became a paralegal.
It wasn’t so bad being a
n artist failure. I had a lot of adventures. While I have never been able to afford to leave the country, or purchase a home, or consistently retain health insurance, I have also learned such skills as how to dodge scurvy while surviving on nothing but the kinds of food you can afford on a barista’s salary, and the diminutive white girl in the inner-city glare which saved me from being mugged all the times except once.
I burnt myself out while trying to be an Artist, and during those years as a paralegal, I stopped creating art. I rarely picked up a brush, and the doodling fell off. Somehow, I didn’t stop writing, but perhaps that’s because it – to that point – was never my job. A few years ago, after moving out of New York, I started painting again. My house is full of unfinished pieces that watch me while I sleep. Recently, I funneled all the writing that I have done “for fun” for nearly eight years into a career path.
The Artist, The Writer, the The Anything is a farce. Creativity isn’t a race, and greatness isn’t an agreed upon value. No one wins, no one comes in first place. In a world ravaged on the one hand by pop culture and completely incomparably, on the other hand by war and unspeakable degradations of the human condition, I am at more and more of a loss for a way to create authentic art as an expression of modern times. Does that mean that I have given up? It might. Perhaps I am saving my energy for one big brilliant project that will truly encompass the tragedy and wonder of the world we occupy today. That’s what my childhood self would say. But then again, 7-year-old Michele The Artist also wore skirts made out of tablecloths.
*Article updated to correct errors in article made by Gather Staff