Literature 11-3-2005

Letters from a Writer: Math Class Is Tough: That Rare Artist

Jean Sramek explains the relationship of mathematics and making art.

Jean Sramek

The local daily newspaper profiles a guy who moved to Duluth to start an opera company. The story’s outline is predictable. Artist has gigantic resume; artist tires of The Big City(s); artist has secret love for pine trees and cold weather; artist moves to north country; arts community is invited to feed savior complex; final paragraph ends on cheeky, upbeat note.

One of the article’s threads is also predictable. This newcomer, we read, is that rare artist who also has a head for business. This description is repeated several times by both the reporter and the artist’s devotees, repeated so that we understand: sure, there are plenty of creative people in the world, but most of them are not very good with numbers. It implies many things, each one more infuriating than the last. But I know what the reporter means. She means it in a positive way, when she says that this artist can also make money. Really. We all know what she means and so let’s stop taking it the wrong way.

Okay, scratch that. We all know what she means, and let’s take it the way we want to take it, which is with a grain of salt, preferably attached to several other grains of salt, which are in turn attached to the rim of the glass of the world’s largest margarita, which we all drink as we sit around reading the newspaper’s arts section out loud, guffawing until tears come to our eyes. That rare artist who also has a head for business. Ya hear that? I’m rare. You? Well, no. Not rare exactly. More like medium rare, haw haw, God that pisses me off. How come it’s never the other way around, like if they interviewed the president of the Chase Manhattan fucking bank they wouldn’t be all surprised if he played the violin, they’d just say he played the fucking violin, not that he was a rare businessman who had a head for music, and we laugh louder and then have another drink and dull the pain of the world thinking that we’re too stupid to make a living because we are Creative Artists. That’s what the reporter means, and it sucks that most people think she’s right.

I guess I’m one of those rare artists. I’m no MBA, but I know how to wrangle a simple budget, use a spreadsheet, and keep track of both my own personal tax records and my theatre company’s bank accounts and expenses. I actually get a thrill out of using limited resources wisely, knowing when to cut corners and deals and when to splurge. In addition, I am a complete whore about getting people to come to my shows. There’s a sarcastic T-shirt, worn by angry Creative Artists, that reads, “Good Art Should Not Match Your Couch.” Well … I know what this means (what this means: people who consume art without fully understanding art, should take their filthy, ignorant money elsewhere) and I don’t agree. Art should be seen and heard; otherwise, why not just keep our ideas in our heads?

This idea, that an artist who makes art and breaks even financially is somehow rare … where does it come from? The big answer is that it comes from the beginning of time and the history of the world. My small, subjective answer is that sometimes it comes from Creative Artists themselves. We’re quick to explain that we don’t do this for the money. We laugh about how poor we are. Some go so far as to say, “I don’t WANT to get paid to do this—that would take the FUN out of it.” (If you are one of those artists and you are reading this: I hate you. No really, I mean it—I hate you.) We deliberately downplay the idea that our art has value, perhaps because viewing art as a job or a product jinxes the whole thing, drives away the muse, or whatever hippie chakra spirit plinky way you want to describe it.

So we say this over and over and over. A cheerful, “I’m not making any money doing this, but that’s not why I’m doing it, and anyone who expects to make money doing this doesn’t really love doing it anyway,” implying that Creative Artists who do care whether they’re profitable are somehow less pure and less real. An artist is obsessed, special, crazy—who has time to learn Quickbooks?

We say we’re doing it for love-not-gold and then we wonder why people bitch about paying $2K for a painting, $30 for a theatre ticket, $10 for a cover charge. We shake our heads at the crude, stupid jokes about artists “getting” grant money to do art that “no one” understands, and cringe when yet another idiot uses his stub of a crayon to draw a line from NEA funding to Satan worship and pornography. We cry and scoff at the arts reporters who tell the people what they want to hear, which is that artists can’t manage their money and that’s why they have to get all this free cash from the gubmint. When someone says, “I can’t afford to go to see your show because the tickets are $20 and that’s expensive,” or “Five hundred for that?” maybe we need to think about who’s responsible for their ignorance. Did we ourselves train them, carefully, to have such a messed-up sense of proportion where art is concerned? It’s the fault of history and of the world, but maybe it’s a little bit our fault.

That rare artist who also has a head for business. Not so rare. But much too quiet.