Are You a Real Artist?

I generally hate going to parties.  First, I’m an introvert.  Besides that, people always ask what you do for a living, and there’s no polite way to say “I get naked for art.”  However, a friend was hosting a Prohibition themed party, so I strapped on my suspenders over a stained wife beater, tucked my hair into a pinstripe fedora, and prepared myself for some serious corn whiskey drinking.  I knew that the attendees at this party would be younger and more liberal, so I wasn’t worried about having to explain the morality in my choice of careers.  What I wasn’t expecting was how stringently I would still have to defend myself.  

What’s your real job? How do you actually pay the bills?

At least as of this writing, I make my living as a full-time, professional art nude model.  I bring this up because it seemed to be a particularly important fact to the people at this party.  “I don’t want to know what you do part time,” they would protest when I told them I was a model.  “What’s your real job?  How do you actually pay the bills?”  When I assured them that modeling was, in fact, my real job, I suddenly became very popular.  I wasn’t a hobbyist in their mind anymore; I had ascended the ranks to “real artist.”  

Their response illustrates what I think is a really common fallacy; people think you’re not a real artist until you’re making a living from your art.   As a model, I work both for photographers who make their living from their images, and those who pursue their art on their own time.  I have never been able to tell which a photographer is from the quality of their work—as far as I can tell, there is no correlation between the quality of work and whether the artist is professional or not.  Yet, even worse, I’m seeing the “real artist” idea infect even other artists.  From my experience, photographers often prefer to hire “full time” models for pay, and are willing to pay them more.  I have been told many times that they think I am more skilled than other models who are going to school or have a day job.  And it’s not only photographers—I hear the same thing from traditional artists and musicians as well. 

I think that working at something full time doesn’t make you a better artist. The only difference between a professional artist and a devoted hobbyist is that the professional puts more hours a day into their craft, which means they can improve more quickly.  It links back to the popular “ten thousand hours” rule of thumb.  The more you practice something, the better you get.  

However, being a “pro” artist has another drawback.  Because professional artists make their income from their art, they have to cater to their clients.   This means that they’re often not working on what they love—or improving what they actually care about.  Photographers rarely make a living selling fine art nudes.  If that’s their passion, and they are a professional photographer, then they still have to pursue it “after work.” 

It doesn’t matter what you make your living at—what matters is what you do with your time.

So why is it important to people at a party whether I work full-time as a model or not?  Honestly, I don’t think it should be.  It doesn’t matter what you make your living at—what matters is what you do with your time.  It shouldn’t matter if I’m “Katja the Art Nude Model” or  “Katja the Office Worker” on my tax return, as long as I’m working on something interesting.  I think an artist’s goal should be to work on what they care about while keeping a roof over their head in the process.  What does it matter if rent money comes from your art or your day job? 

Besides all of this, I now know something small and easy that we all can do to make this just a little bit better.  It will probably even lead you to have more interesting conversations at parties.  Next time, just ask other people what big goals they are trying to accomplish, not what they get paid for.