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by Michael A Stusser

My uncle had three questions for me over the holidays: Do I have a job? (No.) Do I receive a regular paycheck? (No.) Am I making a living? (No again.)

I’m getting used to it.

As a free-lance writer, I’ll be lucky to get ten cents a word for this article, should my editors chose to print it. Nevertheless, it’s what I’ve chosen to do "for a living." The money is irrelevant. But not to my family. I tell myself it’s the "starving artist" cliché that concerns them, and that they’re simply worried about my well-being.

Strange as it may seem to the kinfolk, my life-style actually emulates the classic capitalist model: conjure up fabulous ideas, put all your energy behind a single vision, bet the farm and soon you’re Walt Disney. Or Arthur Miller. Or Yanni. I’m pursuing the American Dream; my relatives think I’m a vagrant.

The truth of the matter is we all need hard, cold cash in order to survive. Most people are able to redeem their labor for compensation in the form of a straightforward hourly wage: carpenters, dentists and prostitutes have been selling their services for ages. Before currency the barter system was used, making it possible for artisans to participate: some gal in an igloo could swap a few hand-carved marionettes for a little gunpowder or some salmon jerky and call it an even trade. No longer. Today, even the local coffee shop is a multinational comprised of shareholders who wouldn’t think of exchanging a few framed poems for an iced latte or three. ("Art is worth something, dammit!" At least that’s what I keep telling the barrista when the caffeine headache kicks in, and I’m short on coin.)

Life’s full of trade-offs. In order to make ends meet, I live in a hovel and drink less than I’d like to. A former roommate and one helluva dancer said "fuck it" and went to law school. One of the best poets I’ve read gave up the rejection letters and Top Ramen to write those witty Dewars ads. A painter friend steals from Diamond Lot parking boxes.

Admittedly, only insane artists choose to stick with it. There are far too many obstacles blocking the road to success in a calling that rarely pays and is easily ridiculed as unrealistic. (Artistic elitism aside, true artists are not to be mistaken for weekenders with a hobby, such as watercolor, or with those who enjoy "dabbling in the arts." This is a faux pas on par with comparing Martha Stewart with Michelangelo.) Interestingly, the word "art" is defined as a: "skill in performance acquired by experience, study, or observation." (Websters) Point is, art is serious business, even if the artist never gets paid for the work.

I understand that the odds of "making it" in my profession are slim and none (thank God I’m not a mime). Nevertheless, as they say in the lottery ads, you can’t win if you don’t play. And I’m perfectly willing to compete for greatness on the open market, knowing full well without an agent, track-record or licensed action figure to back me up, most of my blind submissions will fall upon deaf (and dumb) ears. (In order to keep my spirits high, I write positive notes to myself on each proposal’s SASE.) For better or for worse I’m in for the long haul. Even so, it’s never a bad idea to have a back-up plan:

I’m proposing a new relationship between the public and the artiste; sort of a King and court jester arrangement, whereby artists are paid to amuse, enlighten, and entertain "the royals," but on a more local level. I’m not suggesting that thespians hang out at Bill Gates’ house and tell jokes for cash (though playing a few jazz riffs in front of Woody Allen’s pad might not be such a bad idea). What I do submit is that more artists create experiences accessible to the everyman: neighborhood sculpture gardens, street craft fairs, garage recitals, local hootenannies, sidewalk murals, community newsletters, campfire performances, poetry block slams. Imagine kids on the corner selling lemonade, but along with your frosty cool beverage comes an entire vaudeville show! How much would you pay to see that?!

All art, of course, is not created equal; some of it’s crap. And I’m not suggesting the public, the federal government or even you pay for this garbage. What I am recommending is that each citizen pledge a small amount of their yearly budget for art they do like - brew pub rock and roll, handmade paperweights, velvet blacklight paintings, strip shows - whatever floats your boat.

The responsibility in this scheme falls on both artist and audience: If local performers put on a bad cabaret, pass the hat, and come up with nickels and dimes, they’ll have to change their tune for the next month’s show. But it will have been great practice.

If you don’t like this idea, I’ve got a short term suggestion for saving the arts: Send all cash and donations for this thoughtful essay, to: Starving Artist Inc. c/o Michael Stusser, P.O. Box .....

Michael A. Stusser is a contributing writer to mental_floss and Law & Politics magazine.
He is co-author of the Doonesbury Game (with Gary Trudeau) and Hear Me Out.

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