Dear Cruel (art) World,
It’s November 1, 2016 and I have something(s) to share. Recently, I’ve decided to take a break from art. What does that mean?…you may very well be asking. Well, I’ve been building a career and a life in the arts for over a decade now, and more often than I care to admit I’ve found it difficult, stressful and even unrewarding at times. I have lost sight of why I started down this path and have no perspective to offer as to why I continue. l’ve let go of the idea that I would make a gainful living as an artist a while ago, and in return I somehow let myself believe I could expect to maintain some level of satisfaction or pride or joy or ease or something for that tradeoff. But no. Apparently that’s not a thing, and in an effort to stave off total and complete burnout, I’m going to take somewhat of an indefinite sabbatical.
Grim, right? I feel like I’ve been incredibly blessed to have worked with so many insanely talented artists, mentors, collaborators, teachers, students, producers, audiences, etc., and yet I’m struggling. I fully acknowledge all the opportunities I’ve been lucky to get and all the beauty, joy, and history I’ve been a part of creating—and the sum of all that just doesn’t come close to outweighing the bad stuff. It’s true. I don’t share widely what difficulty I’ve had in this career because often people’s reaction is one of disbelief. You?! But you just did xyz! How could your life be anything but amazing if you win a grant or work on a cool show? Aren’t you being ungrateful? A lot of people dream of being in your position. That sorta thing. I get shamed and belittled for harboring any negative feelings or critiques about the work I do and the field I work in, because I have an alleged “dream job.” Maybe except my mom, who’s like, “You need to get a real job, Eric.” No shame, all shade = my mama.
I’m tired of living/working in a culture that equates my value and perceived happiness to the work I do. I find myself resenting a career that I give so much to, with few returns in the traditional sense, and for as much as I cherish interpersonal relationships, adventures, and one-of-a-kind experiences, etc.—they do not pay rent, contribute to my IRA, or put food on the table. I don’t mean to make this decision all about capitalism and all of our continued complicity in it, but it is definitely a factor. I’ve had enough. I’ve been working in an occupation that consistently undervalues my labor, intellectual efforts, and creativity. I can’t do it anymore.
I’m not assuming the world is wrong and I’m the misunderstood artist. I fully acknowledge that my dissatisfaction might very well be a me problem. Maybe I’ve been approaching the idea of art all wrong. Maybe I’m too greedy and want too much from a career that is unlikely to provide it. I could just be an impatient and spoiled person with a bad attitude. Perhaps I was naive about the intersection of culture and capital. Maybe on a basic level, this country and its people don’t actually care much about art and the artists that make it possible. Perhaps I’m just overdue for a break. Maybe I’m just stubborn or worse yet a pessimist. I’m not really sure what the problems are or how to make them better, but what’s clear is that this major aspect of my life is toxic.
As I considered what 2017 was looking like, I began to realize that the options before me were unappealing for a variety of factors. The prime of which was my continued (or possibly deepened) unhappiness. This left me in a position to trudge along as I always have and hope for things to magically change OR create new options for myself. Except, I don’t really know what questions I want or need to ask of myself, the field, or the universe. I don’t know that I understand how to begin to articulate the problems I’m facing in a productive way. I’ve had a job outside of the arts all of seven months, so I’m also lacking in, uh, first-hand experience with these so-called “new options.” That’s what 2017 is all about! I need time to reflect on these concepts. I need space outside of the life I’ve created in order to gain a bit of perspective on what kind of life I truly want.
This has been a really difficult decision to make, but it’s time. I’ve been dreaming on it for a few years and have finally decided to put it into action. (Yes, it’s true I’ve had a difficult time in this field and in my life before 2016). I don’t think this means I’ll never do art again, but maybe it does. I’m not saying I’ll never teach again, but that could be true, for all I know. I’m not attempting to burn all the bridges I’ve been building of the past decade, but some will likely fall. For now, I’m going to focus on being a person who is defined by more than what my job is. It’s not that I won’t be an artist, but I certainly won’t be engaged professionally or informally in any projects, collaborations, classes, etc. For how long? I don’t know. This sabbatical could last for any amount of time. The only known factor is that it’s starting in January 2017.
I’m glad I mentioned that. Let’s chat about 2017! Do you wanna help me figure things out or confuse me more? Gimme a call. Gotta spare room? I’ll come visit. Got ideas for what I should do? Lay ‘em on me! Money-making opportunity that doesn’t involve art? Please send the deets. Connections abroad? Beers on me! Got ideas for non-art creative jobs? Please tell me what that means. I’ve been in brainstorm mode for the past few weeks and I must admit that I’m so excited for a totally different kind of adventure. I have no idea what’s going to unfold, but it’s really lovely to be thinking about myself for once instead of my career. My mind is as open as my calendar! Looking forward to the conversations and adventures to come!
Goodbye for now,
This piece is part of a series of letters under the theme Getting Out (on the outs, and ins thereof, of art), guest edited by Moheb Soliman.