There’s a popular and semi-viral video circulating on the Internet under a few different titles, all of which are basically variations of “A must watch for every artist.” When you click play, you will hear a voice that sounds a lot like the mid-century philosopher, Alan Watts, who I happen to think is a sort of interesting guy. In the three minutes that follow, the narrator extols the virtues of college graduates becoming painters or poets or even horse riders (I’m not kidding). “Forget the money,” he says.
“If you say that getting the money is the most important thing, you will live your life completely wasting your time… Better to have a short life that is full of what you like doing, than a long life spent in a miserable way.”
I admit it’s an attractive message. It’s one of those thorny fortune-cookie pieces of advice that is obviously very deep and jabs at you to remember that you’re a good person on the right path and not at all like those other people. You know, “The 1%,” The Illuminati, British Petroleum, etc. As the voice-over continues, you’ll watch inspiring images of adventurers really enjoying a full and meaningful life, traveling and doing nature sports (all of which cost money to partake in, however). And by the end of the clip, you’re back to your carefree, vivacious and rebellious teenage self, having firmed up your dedication – to being broke.
[Cue grating sound of needle shredding across a vintage LP.]
F***ing fantastic. Question: Does the artist population that generally already has a very poor relationship with money, i.e. no money and no money skills whatsoever, really need more messaging about why they should reject money? Really, now, uh uh. Moreover, this belief is especially inviting, unfortunately, and most damaging to artists who come from working class backgrounds and who literally cannot afford to repel what little income they are already only barely making.
Now, are you prepared for the grand reveal? This freedom-from-money ideology is one of the most prevalent and most treacherous deceptions in the artist community and it is itself, at its core, a money trap. Sermons like these help guarantee that artists remain underpaid and struggling and worrying about money, except for the few minutes of relief they get when watching a web video that lulls them back to sleep and temporarily medicates the pain they undergo from being impoverished.
To compare the obsession with making money of modest-income individuals to that of mega-zillionaires is an outright sham. Their motivations are so entirely different. The former wants sustenance and the latter wants world domination. Maybe the big shot at Bechtel Corporation could use more Alan Watts in his life, but not artists. Why would penniless creatives really need more reminders not to be materialistic? It sounds like an awfully twisted joke, if you ask me. Suggest to your favorite charitable organization that they do the right thing, “forget the money,” and take more cuts. Outrageous.
So, how are videos like these really “a must watch for every artist”? After all, money is important, everybody. At the risk of sounding redundant, allow me to say this. Money is important in the cases where money is important. And not so important where money isn’t so important. Get it? Money pays for sanitary living conditions, education, and those fabulous nature sports, among many other things. It helps you get paid fairly and it helps you pay people fairly, unless you count yourself among the miserly rich that you supposedly despise. On the flipside, money has no effect on finding love, aligning your moral compass, or maintaining good relationships with friends and family.
It’s true that many toil too much in order to make a buck. However, it is not because they’re not conscious or virtuous people. It’s because they HAVE TO, precisely because they are NOT rolling in dough. These are good folks that grind and do the best they can with the skills and circumstances they’ve acquired. Should we consider them robots? Slaves to the dollar? Should we convince them to “forget the money” too?
There is this underlying notion that one must choose either what’s commonly referred to as a “straight gig” or a life in art. That you can either be paid or principled, but not both. As if the two are diametrically opposed. As if we could dispossess ourselves toward a more just and equitable world – “If only more people would just choose poverty, many of our problems would be solved.” Sorry, what?
Fact-check time. I’ve personally met individuals who could be deemed successful artists that also doubled as designers, restaurant workers, teachers, and business owners, and had equal promise in their two fields. As it happens, one of the most influential English-language poets of the 20th century had a full-on career at a bank. Betcha didn’t know. That would be TS Eliot. And he was good too, observed by novelist Aldous Huxley as “the most bank-clerky of all bank clerks.” Shall we break it to him that, boy, he really screwed it up for himself? Then slap him on the back and say, “Should’ve really gone all out with that writing thing, old buddy!” Ah, a life wasted. So sad. He could have been somebody.
“See, what we’re doing is we’re bringing up children and educating them to live the same sort of lives we’re living, in order that they may justify themselves and find satisfaction in life by bringing up their children to do the same thing,” the sage monologue continues.
In this regard, the old spiritualist is right. We are raising generations upon generations of artists to need money (more accurately, to be needy of money). Sure, it might be from a pseudo-holy point of view, but it’s a paper chase just the same. Everywhere an artist turns, we are manipulated to submit ourselves to being destitute. And it’s unquestionably wrong. To quote Chris Rock, people “love to keep it real… real dumb.” The next time some fraud should question your righteousness because you’re done being a starving artist, kindly tell them to drop dead. I know, not very sweet. But is it any more darling that someone should intend to enslave you with a tired old paradigm that doesn’t serve your best interests?
Not that you need my permission, but because I care and no one else seems to have the guts to tell you: ARTIST, YOU ARE ALLOWED, GUILT-FREE, TO ACCUMULATE WEALTH FOR YOURSELF. Train yourself in the ways. Develop your money skills. Mind your financial strategy. As you advance, spread the love and make sure the people that constitute your various communities come up too. Reward them adequately, share the keys to your success, and cheer them on for their efforts. This is the only way we will survive and reach new heights as artists and as a class of workers.