The Day Job Has Been a Generative Force in U.S. Art
May 8, 2023 4:05 AM   Subscribe

In the end, the art in Day Jobs is not demystified by its source material as much as the day jobs are remystified by artistic success. The only way for this effect not to have occurred might have been to show unfinished, unrealized, or nonexistent art: what artists couldn’t quite bring to completion, or couldn’t even start, because they were too busy with, or tired from, their jobs. But no one wants to see that, no matter how much more representative it might be. from The Art of Work by Megan Marz
posted by chavenet (12 comments total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Wonderful timing for this post -- I was just thinking about this because I'm determined to make it as a professional artist and I do have the ability to do it, but I have to be mindful of the whole day job thing and am trying to figure out how to navigate and work with that. This article (and super good arts writing) has helped give me plenty of ideas though, thanks for sharing!
posted by yueliang at 6:14 AM on May 8 [1 favorite]

I used to work in a window factory. We had a drop saw we used to cut steel, typically 5mm channel for making fire-proof window frames. All the sparks were guided towards the wall behind it and over time it began to form what I called the fin, because it looked like a shark fin.

When you cut steel like this you have to account for the width of the blade in your measurements. The two new lengths of steel aren't the same combined length as the original. The remainder was turned into white hot sparks and fanned out in a shower onto the fin.

The fin was sharp. The sparks formed splinters like needles, millions of them in a broad fan. They'd have a blob of slag at the base, like when a bullet gets squashed and mushrooms out when it hits something. It was a dull grey, like a pencil, but it shimmered in a way. Fresher spines had a sharp glint, older parts were corroded with a dim rust.

Then one day the fin fell off. There was nothing really holding it onto the wall, I often wondered how it clung on. It looked so heavy. It was actually quite light when I picked it up, my welding gloves crushing the splinters like steel wool.

I was sad. I really liked the fin! There was no way to keep it, it was so brittle, and without fresh slag it'd turn to rust. We put it with the off-cuts to be recycled. That made me smile. I'm happy that some random steel object out there was once part of my fin.
posted by adept256 at 6:37 AM on May 8 [35 favorites]

The artist interviews posted on the Blanton’s website and quoted on museum labels hint at another important ingredient. “The beautiful thing about it,” Lewis said of nursing, “is that, you know, intensive care—it’s only three days a week. . . . Which is really amazing. And a lot of that [free time] was dedicated to starting to draw.” Robert Mangold, one of several artists in the “Art World” section who worked at the Museum of Modern Art in the mid-twentieth century, explained that, “It was reasonable pay. And you got health insurance, and you didn’t start until—I think the museum maybe opened at 11 a.m. and closed at 5 p.m.” Other artists are described as having been part-time, or freelance. Excepting a few jobs that are explicitly presented as draining, Paid Time Off or Reasonable Hours or Decent Working Conditions might have been just as apt an exhibition title.
This right here. I've certainly used my day jobs as inspiration for some of my writing (maybe most notably the story I wrote about a facial allotransplant patient, based in part on getting to talk to one of the surgeons who did the first facial allotransplantation in the US when he came to give a grand rounds lecture at the hospital where I work) but I am absolutely held back from writing by the time factor. I work 50-60 quite intellectually draining hours per week, and rarely have energy left to do anything very productive towards the novel I've been working on four years. It makes me sad when I think about it, but the alternatives seem pretty grim. And on the plus side, I get 3 weeks of PTO (including holidays) every year, and lately have been using most of that time to go on writing retreats, and have completed more than half of my novel during those weeks. If I ever get the damn thing done, it'll be because of my paid time off.
posted by joannemerriam at 6:42 AM on May 8 [9 favorites]

One of my grand mistakes in life was allowing myself to be convinced that law was a good day job for a novelist. This has certainly happened, of course, but it worked best for a previous generation that went home at 5 pm, and also these novelists tended to have a labor-saving invention known as a "wife," upgraded as necessary. Neither of these applied to me. People told me that Wallace Stevens and John Grisham did it, but they did not tell me how.

(This is not a jab at Ragen Moss, whose work looks fantastic. I am totally unfamiliar with the work/life balance involved in doing sculpture.)
posted by Countess Elena at 8:43 AM on May 8 [4 favorites]

(Although whether law is a regret or not, I couldn't say. I worked with wonderful people and was able to stay safe during the Great Recession. And it certainly taught me a lot about storytelling and human nature and, of course, the depths of agony.)
posted by Countess Elena at 8:45 AM on May 8 [4 favorites]

I used to work in a window factory.

Sounds pane-full.

posted by Ayn Marx at 9:27 AM on May 8 [5 favorites]

Excepting a few jobs that are explicitly presented as draining, Paid Time Off or Reasonable Hours or Decent Working Conditions might have been just as apt an exhibition title.

Like, so much this, and the pull quote in the post: I like this as an organizing principle for an art exhibit just for its own thematic sake, but I'm pretty allergic to the, uh, remystification of work-as-font-of-art in the same way as I am to the more classic trope of suffering-as-font-of-work. Framing it as a causal thing—"i create art because i work", "i create art because i suffer"—feels mostly like it carries water for unjust systems by valorizing and romanticizing them as being productive of art.

In practice, lots of people have jobs, lots of people make art, some people with jobs manage to make some art too. And a ton of people just...don't make art, or don't make as much art as they might, because they're using that energy on their job. There's nothing romantic or valorous about it, there's nothing interesting about it: jobs take time and energy and emotional reserves, and the art that would have used those doesn't get made.

I've been thinking about this very directly the last couple of months, as I've been hugely relieved to be back in steady employment after longer without than I'd planned for. And also have been getting relatively fuckall done creatively since I started because I'm doing a bunch of focused work every day on whatever normie corporate stuff and when that's done i'm a lot more inclined to relax my brain and play some video games, read, watch TV with my wife than to start Doing The Other Kind Of Work required to get the ball rolling on art stuff most of the time.

I am glad to have some financial stability instead of being constantly deeply anxious about being unemployed and scraping up a pittance of art money, even if I had more time in that anxious void to try and distract myself with artmaking. But being constantly anxious isn't really a recipe for art either, it's just the free time that I was not losing entirely to that anxiety that made space. Neither working nor being precariously unemployed leads to art in a healthy or meaningful way; that art happens sometimes around the edges is a silver lining, not an argument in defense of the prevailing conditions that largely just prevent it from happening instead.
posted by cortex at 11:33 AM on May 8 [11 favorites]

In 2019, wanting to shrink the place of work in my life, I took a job that was only four days a week. My preoccupation with work did not disappear, but it diminished disproportionally. With 20 percent less time on the job, I wrote at least 200 percent more than I had before. Ten or so pieces a year, for example, instead of none to a few. Last February, for reasons not interesting enough to detail here, I left for a full-time job elsewhere. I was confident that I could keep the momentum going. It was ten months, though, before I pitched a single essay—this one.

Oof. This is so much the story of my artistic life. I used to have a job that gave me more spare time, and more spare brainpower. Now I have a much more challenging job... and often, at the end of the day, my nerves are jangly and my mind is drained. The creative brainstorms come less frequently, and I spend months and months (or even years) to complete a single project.

Combine all those headwinds with the fact that my 3 major creative networks have all basically crumbled out from beneath me over the last few years, and the result is that it's often hard to see the path forward.

Oh, and: I'm increasingly involved in union activities -- specifically, trying to bargain for a better contract. I know it's a good thing to do. But as the months drag on with little progress, and I spend hours in meetings every week devoted to this, it's another drain on my time and energy.

But, you know: we must go on; we can't go on; we go on. Sigh.
posted by Artifice_Eternity at 11:45 AM on May 8 [4 favorites]

Yale has papers related to composer Charles Ives’s day job as an insurance salesperson.
posted by larrybob at 1:06 PM on May 8 [2 favorites]

I graduated from art school in '89 and have had a succession of factory and warehouse jobs ever since while continuing to make art that whole time.
I seem to have zero ability to move forward with some sort of version of an art career, but on that note, I still feel incredibly lucky still to do the kind of art I make.
I could probably write paragraph after paragraph on the day job and the life of an artist but you know what, I have to go to work now.
My Instagram, incase anyone would like a look.
posted by Phlegmco(tm) at 1:22 PM on May 8 [5 favorites]

One of the best things about my day job is that it's strictly 8-5, no overtime. It's hell while I'm there and drains me dry, but it leaves me time for creativity after work. However, the older I get and the worse the job gets, the more I'm resentful of the fact that typing and taking abuse for money is the only thing I'm worth in the world. I hate that I'm wasting my life/time/talents/interest on being a shitty clerical worker. But what else is there? I need to have health insurance if/when I come down with something, I don't have the financial brains for my own business, and I refuse to do something "expendable" again as a career in the age of pandemic. Arts are frequently the first thing thrown out the window, ChatGPT is going to take over all of them, why bother trying.

I'm not a fan of Harvey Pekar and I've never read any of his work, but his having a day job throughout his life really seems to me to be the only reasonable answer to the question.
posted by jenfullmoon at 2:33 PM on May 8 [5 favorites]

This article has me thinking about what I could be bringing home from work. I don't just mean raw materials (I work in a library), but what resources I have access to that I could be leveraging for creative pursuits outside work. I don't consider myself an artist-- I have no craft or talents to speak of-- but were I to pursue some more creative pastime, how could my day job bolster that work? (besides the obvious "access to much of the world's knowledge" benefit). Thanks for sharing, chavenet!
posted by johnxlibris at 9:56 PM on May 8 [3 favorites]

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