Mom wants me to have a good job. And even though I go to art school, she still thinks that someday I’m going to be a great doctor. I know that it’s not likely that I’ll ever make the money a doctor makes, but like most artists, I didn’t major in Interarts Performance for the impressive starting salaries. In fact, a non-profit called BFAMFAPhD reports that only 10 percent of arts graduates are actually making a living as artists.
I’m here because the University is a sort of utopia — a sometimes fractured one — that values complex ideas, nuanced views, hard/boring work and strangeness.
I’m here because artists are taught to be a little reckless, a little sloppy, but hopefully smart.
I’m here because I get to work with genius professors.
I’m here because my peers are geniuses, too.
I’m here because I believe in a community of artists who are interested in asking big and foolish questions.
But I’m not here for job training.
I know that the rest of my life is probably going to be an absolute pigfuck. And I’m happy about that. Excited, even. I knew that when I signed up for a degree in performance art (or whatever).
I didn’t always know I wasn’t here for job training. But a class I took in the fall helped me find out.
Six credits of my schedule each semester are devoted to thesis work. It’s split between independent studio time and class time with seventeen others also working on their theses. And during the fall, one credit is spent in a Professional Practice lecture.
The idea is that Professional Practice will teach the young artists and designers how to get out there and get jobs. The course exists because past graduating classes felt that they were left unprepared in terms of job-hunting. Professional Practice is the Penny W. Stamps School of Art & Design’s way to help fill in those blanks. Faculty, alumni and other guests give presentations on topics like “Interviewing Skills,” and “Resources for Finding Employment Opportunities and Resources About the Materials You Need to Apply for Them.” You know, the sort of classes they offer inmates.
While incredibly useful for students planning to enter the design field, Professional Practice is where a young artist might get a little queasy. The conceptual sculptors and installation artists and performance artists amongst us have their dreams squeezed by notions of “startups” and “clients” and “internships.” For an hour a week last semester, the sad cloud of employability hung so large over the Stamps School of Art & Design that its shadow blotted out the “Art” part.
If you’re a designer, you can get paid. If you’re an artist, you can become a designer.
A guy I will call Mr. Employer visited Professional Practice one day. Mr. Employer is a vice president at a Big Company. He is Important. He spoke with a deep voice in a kind, Midwestern cadence and he offered advice about how to get him to give you a job. Don’t be too early. Don’t be nervous. Don’t make any spelling mistakes. Do take an interest in him. Do look good when you show up at the office for an interview — “I’m judging you as soon as you walk through that door.” Do give him a firm handshake. Do send him a LinkedIn invitation soon after your interview — “I think that’s cool.” Don’t send him a LinkedIn invitation while you’re still in the parking lot — “I think that’s too much.”
It’s nice of Mr. Employer to share his time with us.
But Mr. Employer is not the boss of me.
I don’t want someone to talk at me about how to become presentable for a job interview, because I want to work at a place that is going to hire me for the big dumb idiot that I am. I don’t want to hear about having a firm handshake, because maybe someday I won’t have arms. And LinkedIn is for the birds.
I do think it is important to talk about jobs. Making money is important.
But the artists in the room know that being an artist is just like being anything else — you might work so hard you accidentally become a millionaire or you might die in a fire. So talk to us about how to make lattes or how to steal supplies from Jo-Ann Fabric or how to cry silently in public without disturbing others. Because having a job is not the important thing. We’ll find jobs.
It’s a tough beat if a brilliant artist is going to be invited to the Venice Biennale because they gave Mr. Employer a very firm handshake. Artists are after something different, and it’s OK to talk about how messy and terrible that might be. Talk to us about how for three years we’re going to be frustrated because it seems like nobody cares, but if we keep at it, something will finally give. Talk to us about how after spending a year trying to be a Real Artist we might find out that all we really wanted all along was to be a social worker. Talk to us about the 90 percent of art grads for whom it just doesn’t work out. Or talk to us about how a young Robert Rauschenberg made some of his most important work out of garbage he found on the street because he was too poor to buy canvas.
But don’t ask Robert Rauschenberg to create a LinkedIn profile. (Note: I’m not the Rauschenberg in this case, but our Rauschenberg was there for Mr. Employer’s lecture too.)
Job placement rates aren’t really that important. Good art doesn’t happen because you read Mr. Employer’s memos.
And you can make good art without making a good career.
Willie Filkowski can be reached at email@example.com