I’m a writer, and sometimes I feel like an artist. But most of the time I feel like I’m crawling through the trenches, dodging enemy bullets, doing everything I can to stay alive. If I were to give up art, I’d be given a ticket home and set up with a job, a car, a house, and a retirement. But somewhere on the battlefield would be my heart. So instead, I keep fighting. Some people call this the creative process.
In a culture that favors specialization—and in a city that deifies industry—it can be difficult for artists to make time (and find support for) the creative process. There are no more rich aristocrats or landed gentry looking to fluff themselves up by funding painters or bards. Rather, ours is an age of pure social mechanization, obsessed by a drive to produce, consume, and repeat. There’s no room for the flagrancy or anarchy of artistry. It’s all business—especially in ‘the City That Works.’
As with all sectors of society, there is a small percentage of (often myopic) artists privileged with expendable income. But most of us—especially in the Millennial generation—spend our waking hours working to stay in front of rent payments, student loans, insurance, and adulthood’s other banal necessities. Whatever time we have left after errands, commuting, and dealing with idiot managers goes towards our art, which is often thankless, unpaid, and, if you’re lucky, appreciated by a select few. It’s an exhausting double life. On one hand, the artist—an idealist and a romantic—who aspires to create freely and uninhibited. On the other hand, the citizen—a statistic—which does as it is told, or else it will face firing, late payments, excommunication, or incarceration.
I’ve seen the attrition from this exhaustion firsthand. I graduated in 2009 with dual and equally ‘useless’ degrees in the humanities. It was the height of the Great Recession, and my graduating class was forced with the immediate choice of trying to continue with our art, or find a job (or go back to school to put off the choice a few more years). Many rightfully tried to do both. This was Chicago, after all. Full of possibility.
But the economy was unforgiving. Most attempts to make professional ground were met with rejection. Fortunately, many found footholds strong enough to allow them to continue their creative work—even if their time was limited. Problem was, much of this work still stunk of naïveté, and was met with more rejection. Rejection from the economy was tough, but inevitable. Rejection from the artistic community was brutal, but voluntary. It didn’t take long for most to believe that the potential reward of the artistic life was not worth the effort. Chalk your artistic dreams up to be youthful idealism. Punch the clock. Welcome to the cubicle and the rest of your life.
But a select and stubborn few make it work. They’re as tough and resilient as foot soldiers, as uncompromising as tanks, and as ruthless as assassins. They recognize that the battle between artistic integrity and responsible citizenry in modern society is not just theoretical noise, but truly a matter of life and death. They refuse to be defined by their LinkedIn accounts and remain committed to their art—even when the rest of the world sees lunacy.
As a member of this growing faction—framed by middle-and lower-class economics, and driven to create despite these constraints—I recognize that this life cannot be had without some death. Every battle has its casualties, and for those suiting up to save or reawaken your artistic dreams, I suggest you put the following enemies in your sights:
Kill Your Paradigms: A paradigm is a pattern. It’s the status quo. It’s the way things are done—until the paradigm changes. For example, an Earth-centered universe was the paradigm until it changed with Copernicus. And just as the sun-centered concept of the universe began to govern scientific thought, our suppositions in society are governed by similarly entrenched paradigms. Homeownership is a paradigm. Professional specialization is a paradigm. Devaluation of the arts is a paradigm. To kill your paradigms, begin learning the difference between concepts natural and manufactured. That which is built can be destroyed; that which is natural is permanent.
Kill Your Passivity: No matter how you define success, it takes constant work to be a successful artist. Especially if you live in a large city with high costs of living and you’re anything under upper-middle-class. If you’re pinned by student debt, rent or mortgage payments, or other inescapable financial obligations, you need money. And if your art isn’t making you money, you need to find other means. Most of us weren’t born with well-connected parents, and most of us will not win the lottery. Most of us, in other words, don’t have good luck. Get off your ass and make your own.
Kill Your Pride: Whether you’re a writer, painter, or performer, chances are that most of the world finds your passions useless at best, and ridiculous at worst. But if you spend your mental and physical time cooling the condescension of others, you and your work will become lost in the wavelength of monotony that defines the herd. If you value your pride, you’ll stoop. If you kill your pride, you will let your work speak for itself—louder than anything else.
Benjamin van Loon is a writer and researcher currently living in Chicago. He is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of Anobium (www.anobiumlit.com), an experimental literary publisher. He has won multiple writing and research awards, including two consecutive Individual Artist Program grants from the City of Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events. He holds an MA in Communication, Media, and Theater from Northeastern Illinois University. @benvanloon