Some wise suggestions for artists from Neil Gaiman’s 2012 address to the University of the Arts

Neil Gaiman addressing the graduating class at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia in 2012
For those who are dismayed, as I am, at the recent turn of events, and the likely devastating effect it will have on the state of the arts here in the U.S. (see my before the fact storm warning to that effect), I offer some insightful suggestions about art in the face of adversity from writer Neil Gaiman.

This is a video of his remarks as he addressed the graduating class at the University of the Arts here in Philadelphia in 2012.

He doesn’t really get to the point until about 6 minutes in, but do yourself a favor — set aside 20 minutes, pour yourself a hot (or cold) beverage, relax, and watch the entire address. It’s amusing, well crafted (he’s a good writer), and will leave you feeling better about your course as an artist in troubled times.

It’s also — as it was intended to be — sage advice for those who are starting out on a life in the arts, as well as a reality check for those who are already achieving success in their field.

 
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14 Replies to “Some wise suggestions for artists from Neil Gaiman’s 2012 address to the University of the Arts”

  1. Charley. This brings some good fresh oxygen in the atmosphere.
    Sage advice sometimes so difficult to follow. An excellent reminder. Thank you.
    Eric

  2. I always make a point of never commenting on the affairs of nations to whom I am a foreigner, nevertheless, my sympathy goes out to my American Art cousins who are suffering from the crisis you define.

    I loved the Neil Gaiman video, thanks for drawing our attention to it.

  3. I don’t think you need to worry about Trump. About education, he has said, “Critical thinking skills, the ability to read, write and do basic math are still the keys to economic success. A holistic education that includes literature and the arts is just as critical to creating good citizens.” There is no reason to think he will cut funding. He probably couldn’t anyway as arts funding is mostly left to local governments and private citizens. As for today’s post, in spite of Neil Gaiman’s advice to not make work about money, artists do need to eat and pay bills. Money frequently follows when you stay true to yourself, but it is more likely to follow if your audience has money to spend. Did you know the median U.S. income is lower than it was in 1999? If Trump’s economic plan works, and the post-election jump in the stock market is an early indicator it will, then more people will have more money to spend on luxuries like art. The object is not to make sure artists are granted a piece of pie by the government, but to increase the number of pies everyone can make for themselves.

    I’ve been looking at your blog for more than two years, and I give you a lot of credit for re-kindling my desire to paint again. Because I had an open mind, I am aware of, and like many more styles of art because of you. I’m sure you will disagree with my comment, but I’m asking you to look beyond the rhetoric surrounding this election and to keep an open mind. Trump is highly successful and extremely rich. He could retire now and live out his life in luxury. He went through this campaign with everyone hating him because he wants to increase prosperity for everyone, and his ego will not let him fail. Maybe you should give him a chance.

  4. Hi Nancy. Thanks for your thoughtful comment, and for the nice words about Lines and Colors.

    You’re correct that I will respectfully disagree with you, though I thank you for your thoughts. I usually try to avoid these kinds of politically charged topics, but there are times when it becomes a matter of circumstances important to the arts community, and relevant to the topic of the blog. My opinion is not based on the rhetoric of the election, but on years of observing how things work in this country.

    It’s not actually Trump himself I’m worried about in terms of the state of the arts, it’s the right wing of the Republican Party, who have a well established anti-education, anti-teacher, anti-intellectual, anti-arts agenda, and will soon be in unchecked power in all three branches of the government.

    Unfortunately, Trump’s “economic plan”, as unspecific as it is, looks essentially to be the same as right-wing economic plans in the past — deregulate everything, give those at the top more tax breaks, and somehow prosperity will “trickle down” do those of use who work for a living instead of moving money around. “The Free Market”, in its infinite wisdom and compassion, will take care of everything. It’s been shown countless times to be ineffectual, but that will be their plan, along with privatizing every possible aspect of government that they don’t eliminate (including Social Security and Medicare). Federal funding for the arts, and federal agencies that facilitate efforts within the creative community will be on the chopping block short list.

    The rights of freelancers will be imperiled and eroded (as is already happening) in favor of the rights of big corporations. It will become even more widespread that illustrators and commercial artists will be be forced to give up their copyrights and do “work for hire”, in which the corporations own what you create, and you’re supposed to consider yourself fortunate to get their table scraps.

    The policies are nothing new, and Trump’s “outsider” image won’t change what Congress does — they certainly haven’t changed. For all of the talk of people being tired of political establishment and rebelling against Washington business as usual, they keep voting the congressional incumbents back into power, again and again and again — in spite of the worst unfavorable ratings in the history of such ratings.

    If you sell your art in New York galleries to the moneyed elite, you may do great because they’ll have even more money. If you sell small paintings to working people, you’ll be out of luck, because they’ll get the shaft as they always do when the right wing is in power (in any country). Sadly, I don’t think they’ve learned anything from the economic debacle of 2008, which was the direct result of deregulation and “The Free Market Knows Best” policies.

    One of the other things that will fall in the rush to deregulation is Net Neutrality, and the big telecoms and content providers will do their best to shove small players to the side and make the internet more one-way, like TV. They want you to consume, not create. Things like Lines and Colors may not be around for very long — or they may be deathly slow to access, while content from the big companies will download like lightning. Look up the history of how the original right of the public to broadcast radio was effectively stolen and given away to big corporations in the early part of the 20th century, in a well documented case of bribing congress.

    I do hope that Trump’s ego will, in fact, cause him to do unpredictable things contrary to the usual right-wing agenda. He hasn’t been shy about going against the party establishment, I even entertained the thought that his ego might make him actually want to be a genuinely good President once he’s in that position of responsibility. Sadly, that seems a small chance, more likely I think he’ll let Pence and the usual suspects run things while he showboats and tends to his personal fortune. From what I’ve seen and heard from him, I’ve seen little evidence that he cares about anyone or anything but himself.

    The point I take away from Gaiman’s talk was not so much about not making art about money, though there is something to be said about keeping what you love separate from what you are forced to do to survive, to prevent it from becoming a chore instead of a joy — the main thing I take away is the insistence on making art in the face of adversity, and as a response to adversity.

    I hate to say it, but it’s hard for me to imagine the next four years (and I hope to God it’s only four) are going to be anything but difficult for the arts community in the U.S.

    (I apologize if I’m ranting, I don’t mean to, but I’m shaken and upset by what I see ahead.)

  5. Many artists like myself, had to earn their living at other professions and were not able to completely devote themselves to making art until they retired. This is true for many of the artists in my urban sketching and plein air painting groups. I was an RN for 40 years and studied music and art in my spare time. Since retiring in 2013 I have been able to become a full time artist and it is wonderful. The ONLY reason I am able to do this is because I have a small pension and Social Security which I have paid into since I began working at age 15. Without Social Security I would have to work until I literally dropped and artwork other than a bit of sketching would just not be possible at my age (67) if I was still working as a nurse. If it was not for my nurses’ union I would never have been able to afford other artists work which I have collected over the years. I believe our senior years are when we should finally be able to give the gift of making art to ourselves after working for others all those years but without Social Security most of us would never be able to do that. I believe the right wing Republicans want to destroy Social Security. Privatizing it will destroy it. Social Security is there to keep elderly people from starving. If one prudently saves and is lucky enough to stay healthy or lucky enough to have a small pension one can live with dignity in old age with some money for art work and supplies. Without Social Security, for common working people, there will be no art in our senior years.

  6. Thanks for the comment. Pat.

    Yes, the right wing does want to eliminate Social Security and Medicare; they’ve said so in so many words for years. They call the programs “entitlements” and treat them like an undeserved hand-out from the government, even though we’ve paid into them for our entire working lives. “Privatization” will certainly be a disaster. Imagine if the amount of your Social Security income had been tied to the value of the stock market in 2008. Not to mention that Wall Street would most certainly take a generous cut of your money to “manage” the system. A nightmare for those who depend on it. Retiring to paint would be a thing of the past except for the wealthy.

  7. I was ‘forced’ to give up a career in aviation to become a ‘professional’ artist in 1983. My forte was pen and ink. From drawing the ‘things’ I loved to draw – mainly ships and architecture – I found myself drawing, for example, offshore Oil Rigs for Shell, aircraft, Philatelic First -day covers etc. etc.

    In short, as a jobbing artist I produced whatever the market – and my agent – dictated. One can’t subcontract the work out and becomes the victim of one’s own success. I found I was getting 4-5 hours sleep each day and only had one day off (a Christmas Day) in two years.

    No longer did I produce art for my sake. Life became all about deadlines and other people’s demands. It had little to do with art and rather more about manufacturing ‘pictures’ … I quit!

    The moral of the story – be careful and consider your options before prostituting your art.

    Neil Gaiman knows exactly what he’s talking about. The mountain certainly never got closer for me once I stepped into the cyclical life of a jobbing artist, and had quit the linear path of an artist seeking to reach the ‘mountain’.

    Stay true to yourself, and – as the man said – make good art.

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