Real Talk

Disrupting the Narrative of the Struggling Artist

Home Safe by Ernel Martinez and Shira Walinsky. Photo by Steve Weinik.

If you ever have daughters, you would want them to grow up to be like Jenni. Jenni is whip-smart and doesn’t hide it away. She is good at all the things she aspires to do, but doesn’t feel the pressure to pursue things she doesn’t want to. She is honest, and steadfast, and absolutely hilarious.

Granted, I might be biased because she was nice enough to come see Pirates of the Caribbean 5 with me, in theaters, and then make me mushroom risotto afterwards.

I’ve known her as an actor, a director, an LOTR fanatic, and a secret gourmet chef. She is also a writer, and an event planner, and sometimes a lobster murderer. Most importantly, she is a person with many good ideas, and good thoughts, which is why I asked her to write an article. So . . . you’re welcome. – Jenny Kessler, curator

I’ll confess, when asked to respond to the prompt “discuss a social issue that can be addressed by art” my first thought was “what social issue can’t be addressed by art?”

“Art” is an enormous, vague term that describes the emotional resonances generated via application of the human imagination to the physical world. Art is to communication as form is to function. Art is inherently social in that it requires a creator and a consumer, and by necessity, it reflects a point of view. We’re influenced by these distant authors all the time, from the art we choose to engage with—what we watch on Netflix, what book we borrow from a friend—to the art that enters our sphere on its own—advertising, the song playing at the bar.

In Philadelphia, I’ve seen art endeavor to lift people out of homelessness. I’ve seen it revitalize neighborhoods (Mural Arts, duh—one of my favorite things to brag about in my new city). I’ve seen how Philadelphia Young Playwrights helps kids learn how to express themselves and grow confident through storytelling. Even at the incredible Mike Nichols exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (go, now—seriously, stop reading this until you’ve seen it) I read about how his evocative photographs led to the protection of the African Megatransect.

What I have a harder time recalling is art that helps artists.

There is a crisis of perceived value in the arts. This is not news. It’s harder than ever to pay your bills by producing creative fare. But it strikes me as odd that this crisis is one that art itself has not been able to address. Now, I get it. Creating art about the value of art can feel like a kind of intellectual masturbation that leads to hyper-sentimental works. So how do we cross-pollinate? How do we, as artists, use our imaginations, our technical skills, to advocate for other artists?

Most, if not all, artists, buy into a whole sacred text of myths about how they are supposed to behave and look and act. It’s time to reject the idea that suffering equals good art. It’s time to reject the ridiculous purity test that true artists must be willing to live ascetic lives, and must sacrifice families, financial security, and mental and emotional health to prove their commitment. Artists do not have to be grateful for unpaid internships and no-pay-but-great-exposure gigs that require full-time work. Your day job doesn’t make you less of an artist. You don’t have to be an obsessive, unlikeable genius in a failed relationship to legitimize your work. There is no such thing as “making it” or “selling out.”

If artists can heal wounds and give hope and effect powerful change in communities, hearts, and governments, then certainly artists can create work that inspires other artists to think beyond the boundaries of what is defined as the creative life. “Art for artists” is a label often used to dismiss the obscure or the formally inventive, but what if “art for artists” could define work that breaks down the myths of the creative life? How might art address that issue?

Photo: Home Safe by Ernel Martinez and Shira Walinsky. Photo by Steve Weinik.

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