Moody, Minimalist Landscape Painting

Is Making Art Work?

Is making art work?

This question has come up several times lately in discussion with artists, often as a question put to them by another party.

What immediately comes to mind for me is to reject the notion that conflates work with suffering. Of course, there are all kinds of work, and some is grueling, but work and misery are not the same thing.

Here is a definition of work (as a verb).

 Exertion or effort directed to produce or accomplish something; labor; toil, productive or operative activity.

 Making art is, without question, a productive activity that accomplishes something. Creating an object from materials, often formless (such as paint or clay), where no object existed before is a kind of magic. The process of creation often grounds the artist and thus sends positive energy out into the world, and the object itself can have emotive, soothing, and/or thought-provoking impact on its audience.

But is that work?

What if the artist is making an object that has a market, and that hours must be spent at this work (hmmm) to make a living?

Is the difference between making art that is work and making art that is pleasure that the first generates income and the latter does not?

I seem to be coming up with more questions than answers, but I will say that for myself making art is both work and play. It differs from a job in a few ways—-that I don’t get paid until I make a sale: and that I have to please myself first with what I paint, rather than pleasing a boss (though in the end, if what pleases me does not do so for others, I will not be able to sell anything).

Other things that often (but not always) apply to a job—-stressful, boring, repetitive—exist much less in my work day than with most jobs. And some attributes of work that would apply to all of us are that it requires discipline; builds skills, and can, over the years, be hard on the body.

If making art were not hugely satisfying, certainly no one would choose the uncertainty of being an artist as their livelihood. So I will venture to say that making art is both more stimulating and more soothing than other work, in different degrees for different artists.

Clearly, however, I find that I cannot even discuss this topic without applying the word work to artmaking, especially for the career artist. If you reread the above, you can see that I would have had to jump through hoops to avoid it, and the discussion has ended up being more about the kind of work.

I put the question to a handful of my wise artists friends, asking for a short commentary, and am including their thoughts, unedited.

Loren Scherbak:

“I am going to respond quickly before I have a chance to edit myself, and to all of you, in the hopes that we can all share our ideas.

 I have been struggling with this word “work” associated with my art making for a very long time. I remember, years ago when I was in my twenties, I worked for lawyers on a part-time schedule. When I left to go make art, the lawyers used to smile and say “you’re off to play!” I bristled every time I heard that because I was struggling in the process of learning the craft of my medium for art, ceramics. It took me many years to become facile in my craft so I could see my art making as play. Even today, I have a lot of physical labor, repetitive tasks, and losses due to factors beyond my control, in my art making that cause me to think of it as work, and sometimes question whether I am crazy to be doing this work at all.

 I think of my art as my life partner. I also have a non art job, which I love, which I am married to. I have the formal relationships with my job that keep me from abandoning it when it gets hard to do. My art is easy to abandon as I have no formal ties to it (galleries, patrons etc.) like you do Christie. I am now in a bit of a fallow period. I have had these in the past and worried if I would ever return to my art. Of course I do, eventually, because I miss the relationship. I miss all the hard work, and I even miss the failures, because generally they spark my mind to go in new directions. So, yes I think it is good work because it stimulates me. I don’t, fortunately for me, define this work based on whether I earn a living at it or I’d drive myself crazy. I am old enough now to understand that I have to make art alongside my paying job. They feed off of each other. I need them both to be the kind of person I want to be. Hopefully, I will replace the job with something else when I retire, but it will not be art. I can’t make art all the time. My body and mind can’t take it.

 So, although I think I got off topic a bit, I think I can now say to those lawyers, “Yes, I am off to play to make my art work!” ;-}”

John Wellington:

“Without the work there are only ideas.  For me to make a painting takes great work.  And then, more work.”

Lisa Pressman:

“I am away teaching  so I will l answer quickly and intuitively. The answer is yes!!

That doesn’t mean that it can’t be fun, full of play and exciting but it is challenging, frustrating and just plain hard at times.

There are those moments  in the studio when  i just feel that i am in the right place doing what I am suppose to be doing..then it isn’t work!!

Polly Law:

“John- I really like what you wrote: Without the work there are only ideas.

I have 2 brothers who were both gifted with a fair amount of natural talent but neither of them pursued their talents. They have also expressed a bit of envy of my abilities. I point out to them that I work- and work hard- at my art and that they always gave up when the first attempt to express themselves artistically didn’t yield the result they wanted.

Do I enjoy doing the work? Yes!! With every fiber of my being. I love getting myself into a tough artistic corner and finding the way out. I exercise my art muscles as often as I can.

Your thoughts?

5 responses

  1. Christie, there’s not necessarily a dichotomy between work and pleasure, or work and play. In my former life, as you know, I was a NYC lawyer. I almost never spent less than 50 hours a week in the office, usually more (I once did 56 hours straight, no sleep). My job was grueling, demanding, extraordinarily stressful – and I enjoyed it almost all the time.

    Is making art work? jeez, I’d love to go back to being a lawyer so I could do something easy!

    Maybe it’s just that I knew what I was doing when I was a lawyer and have so few clues now when I’m trying to make art. It’s a constant struggle, trying to draw an idea up out of my subconscious and make its actualization either compelling – something I know I can sometimes achieve – or at least just interesting and attractive. That transformation of vision into actuality is excruciatingly hard work, and I imagine that’s true to some extent for most creative artists.

    July 24, 2012 at 1:46 am

  2. For me, I would rather think less, breathe and create more, and be in the flow. It helps to have a form of support that is not art, so that worry takes up less psychic space. Work and play, it is both.

    September 4, 2012 at 2:23 am

  3. Is art work? I don’t know, have you ever worked so hard on something that your hands bled? I think art is work and more. They certainly wouldn’t let me work for twenty two hours straight, sleep one hour and then work another six at my day job! That’s exactly what I did for my last art installation though. Pleasure in art has it’s limit when deadlines – and other facets of reality – are in the picture, just like anything else.

    March 7, 2013 at 6:12 am

  4. That is a rally good point, Hannah–deadlines create pressure no matter how much you love you do. And the first one–that we put crazy amounts of time and effort into making art.

    March 8, 2013 at 1:28 am

  5. Pingback: Who is an artist? |

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