A couple of weeks back, I had dinner with someone I hadn’t seen in ten years. Let’s call him GG, short for Gordon Gekko. We worked together in sales at Xerox. Although he eventually left Xerox too, he remains engaged in similar work that pays him extremely well, which he also happens to like. I, on the other hand swore I’d never wear a suit again.
GG once told me that married women who stayed home and raised their children were whores. Actually, mothers dependent on spouses or inherited wealth or welfare were worse than whores. They were takers when they should be makers who paid someone else to raise their kids. Such was the kind of convoluted thinking that went hand in hand with an economic mindset that valued prostitution more than motherhood.
He didn’t reach this conclusion in a vacuum. The cultural mindset that grabbed hold in the 1980s with the rise of Reagan and Thatcher, and which gathered steam through the last twenty years took him there.
If this is a view of motherhood accepted by some otherwise bright people, what the heck do they think of artists and writers, many of whom don’t care all that much about money? What would they say to a child who wished to become one?
GG asked me if I missed it, the hustle of corporate deal making and the ridiculous commissions we earned. I told him no; I didn’t have to do that any more and I wasn’t going to. He looked surprised. I can only surmise that he thought that writing and teaching others to write should be hobbies. They couldn’t be fulfilling in and of themselves because I don’t make much money from them. Nor are they prestigious. Newsflash: corporate sales wasn’t prestigious either, yet it paid well. The market valued it.
Talking to him reminded me of David Foster Wallace’s commencement address at Kenyon College. In his preamble he referenced a parable about a pair of young fish swimming side by side. An older fish passed them and asked, “How do you like the water today, boys?” One fish looked at the other and said, “What the fuck is water?”
GG’s attitude suggested he believed the only moral way for individuals to live was by collecting a salary. He wasn’t aware of the ocean and it’s possibilities for a different kind of life.
This view leaves no room for creative people who work independently, accepting the implied risks, with no certainty that they’ll ever make money. The creative arts, whose function is to find new ways to make meaningful the nature of the water we’re swimming in, generate a kind of knowledge whose value is not easily measured with money unless you start thinking about ticket sales, box-office receipts, auction prices, book sales, advertising revenue, and so forth.
Painters don’t price their work based on some perceived hourly wage that includes the time it takes paint to dry. Nobody ever started an experimental theater company because they thought they could make eighty thousand dollars a year plus benefits. They started because they had something to say, something that needed expression.
Anyone whose temperament predisposes her to this kind of work, which boils down to creating something that didn’t exist before, and who also takes a job at a corporation to keep a roof over her head, has to evaluate the water she’s swimming in. If she ignores it she risks turning herself into an alcoholic cat kicker.
For some of us, nine to five is no way to live. We are in pain when we realize that the water we’re depending on for our lives is not ocean water, connected to all of nature and the wonders of the world, but chlorinated pool water. We are like trapped orcas at Sea World.
And yet, what do we tell our children with similar temperaments? Like GG, we tell them to go to business school or to study biochemistry or computers or dentistry. We think such disciplines will set them up for a safe life, free from financial risks. We worry that if we encourage our kids into music or acting or writing or painting they will be doomed to a life of poverty; that they will become takers rather than makers.
What we’re really telling kids when we discourage them from pursuing degrees in creative arts is that we don’t have any confidence in them. You’re not good enough is the message we’re sending before they’ve even tried. It’s a terrible thing to do to a young person. Often, they listen to us and regret it later in life.
The salaried class of the twentieth century economy fears the gig economy its youth faces in the twenty-first century. On the surface it is scary. There’s a lot riding on an individual’s ability to sell herself over and over and remain relevant to market forces.
However, in reality salaried people face the same risk, it’s simply masked by the tissue of security the corporation offers. The fact is that most workers change jobs an average of every five years and that the knowledge they begin their careers with loses its currency. The world of work is changing all the time and workers adapt. The lifespan of a marketing degree or even a general business degree is about five years. Experience and lifelong learning are what keep individuals relevant.
The skills that last a lifetime are critical thinking & analytical reading, writing, problem solving, asking questions, focussed reasoning, and doing research. All of which are learned in creative arts degrees.
Measuring the value of an education with starting salaries is as idiotic as comparing unpaid mothers to prostitutes.
The truth is that arts graduates are everywhere, applying their knowledge and skills to many of the world’s problems in an infinite variety of ways.
A friend of mine with a background in both classical music performance and improv comedy runs a successful business coaching executives, sales people, and anyone else who needs to communicate effectively in meetings and presentations. I’ve met psychologists with undergraduate degrees in fine art. I know others who work in the tech industry—arty types seem to be good at app development. They also excel at working with people. More than one human resources executive I’ve met holds a music degree. My neighbor makes a living composing musical scores for feature films, documentaries, corporate videos, and TV.
Often when we discourage our kids from artistic education paths, what we’re revealing is not truth about the world but our own ignorance. Arts and culture industries contribute $25B per year to the US economy, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis. What’s so bad about having a kid who wants to be a part of that?
Secretly, we fear that all of this artiness is a sign of a mental disorder. We’re afraid of what might happen to her if she goes down that road. Might she be polluted by drugs, sex, and rock n’ roll? Will she spiral down into a rabbit hole of addiction or worse? Look at how many writers drank themselves to death for god’s sake. Poverty is the least of it.
The fact is that there is no conclusive scientific evidence linking mental illness to creativity. The stuff we hear about in the popular media is based mostly on conjecture or weak science. Just because some famous people suffered unhappy ends—Amy Winehouse, Phillip Seymour Hoffmann, Ernest Hemingway, Virginia Woolf, and so forth—doesn’t mean that all creative people face similar fates. They are hardly a representative sample.
In a paper published in the Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, Dr. C. Waddell found that
Of 29 studies that evaluated possible associations between creativity and mental illness, 15 found no evidence to link creativity and mental illness, 9 found positive evidence, and 5 had unclear findings. Most studies used flawed methodologies with weak (case series or case control) designs. There were no randomized or prospective cohort studies. Adequate criteria for determining causal association were not met. In 34 selective reviews, despite mixed evidence, many authors asserted that creativity and mental illness were positively or causally associated.
Think about that last sentence for a minute. Despite evidence and weak study design, some authors concluded that a positive association existed when none was proven. We appear to have a bias against creatives throughout our society. We want to believe that they’re crazy. Why? Do they threaten us in some way? Are we afraid of people who are aware of the water?
In this month’s Harper’s Magazine William Deresiewcz pointed out that our finest universities whose primary function should be to encourage young minds to become aware of the water aren’t interested in doing so anymore. Such a mission doesn’t suit the market’s demands. There isn’t any money in producing independent thinkers these days.
The most odious example of this thinking was Gov. Scott Walker’s attempt to alter the University of Wisconsin’s mission. Walker tried to strike language that invoked public service and the search for truth and replaced it with a phrase that could have come from Stalin’s lips: The mission of the university was to “meet the state’s workforce needs.”
Such an attitude threatens to kill the innovation that made this country great.The American tradition of a liberal arts education made the United States unique, creating an innovative and confident populace of free thinkers. Where would Apple be today if Steve Jobs hadn’t taken a class in typesetting & font design at Reed College just because the wind took him that way? Now this tradition is threatened by powerful elites who don’t want to be challenged.
One purpose of art is to point out the poison in the water, and to do it in an a way that people relate to. Academic tomes don’t cut it on their own. We need people with the energy and vision to generate their own analysis of culture and society through books, films, plays, songs and paintings in order to keep America relevant and free.
So let kids pursue the arts if they want to. They’ll figure out how to make money. They’re more than capable. They’re often the sanest fish in the sea.