Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Autotelic Arts and Professional Envy

There was this post I'd been thinking about writing for some time. It's not an easy one to write. It's always hard to admit to your darker sides, even when you know everyone has them.

The other day, I ran across this video and it pushed me to write what had been stirring in my head for some time. It's not very related. It is to some extent, I suppose, but... Well, watch first and then we'll talk.



I love Van Gogh. I have ever since the first painting of his I saw jumped out at me and said, "Hey, look at this!" At least they say that to me. The video talks about how "late" in life he decided to paint as a career/living/obsession. He was 27. That didn't sound terribly "late" in life to me, but then people do tend to live longer these days, so relatively, maybe it was.

Then I got to thinking: I was 30 when I began to take my off-and-on writing hobby to an obsessive (aka professional-minded) level. I do feel that was starting rather late, in as much as there were so many years I could have been working hard on it instead of playing at it so I'd be farther along by now. I see young women putting time and effort into their writing career at the age I was very busy with little kids. I don't regret that at all, but I sure could have been writing instead of doing cross stitch while they napped or were in school.

I do have a little bit of envy for those pursuing their writing so seriously so young, even though I realize my choices were mine and maybe what I needed to do at that time. Or I just didn't believe it would go anywhere, so I didn't bother until I had to write. For myself. Because I had to. There does come that point. If I'd found it earlier...

Anyway, my writing is autotelic. I write what I need/want to write, despite the way it doesn't fit today's market and that I may never be one of "those" names due to the fact that it doesn't fit. I even tried a couple of years ago to start a new direction under a different name along with my "need to write" stories, and they slid right back in to what I need to write, not what fits or what will profit financially.

I believe art should be autotelic.

I do.

Still, there's that other post I've been thinking about writing. That one where I talk about professional envy. My own, that is.

It's very hard to work so seriously for so long, as Van Gogh did, for little to no compensation while your writing friends and acquaintances are showing off their successes and big sales numbers and best seller statuses. It's hard. It's envy, of course, and we've all learned that envy is a bad thing.

I think it's not. I think envy is a wonderful challenge. Jealousy, now that's different. Jealous people tend to take it out on those of whom they're jealous, or they manage to hold it in and let it eat at themselves. There is nothing helpful about jealousy that I can see.

Envy, though, says yes, it bothers me that I'm working so hard and not getting the glory you're getting. It says, whether true or not, that my work is as good or better and deserves as much recognition. Maybe it does. But in all honesty, maybe it doesn't. Maybe they made the choice to write for the market and they're pulling the effects of that. Okay. So what? That was their choice, and it was a good choice. They deserve the good effects of their choices.

Does that mean it should be your choice, also, instead of whatever choice you made? Or maybe you didn't see and haven't heard how much struggle they already went through and you're making a sad assumption. Maybe your work isn't as good as you think. Maybe it's outstanding and you're just not hitting the right audience. Maybe...

There are too many maybes to list them all. The thing is: so what? Their path is their path. Your path is yours. If you aren't happy with that path, then use that envy productively. Acknowledge it. Realize you aren't a bad person simply because you're envious.

If you're envious, it means you care about your work. Yes? Caring is good.

If you're envious, it means you want to do better in some way. That's always good. Just figure out how and work toward that.

There is space for non-autotelic art. Obviously there is. Sometimes you can get lucky and what's autotelic is also commercial ("in"/easily salable) at the time you're working. That's a wonderful thing. If it's not and enough of your writing goal is income, then do both if you're able.

Van Gogh died a pauper having sold only one painting while still alive, due to his brother's efforts.

Personally, I find that extreme and I believe there has to be a better balance for autotelic artists. I know there is. I've seen very passionate, talented artists doing fairly well. That makes me envious at times, yes, but it also inspires me. When one person does it, it shows it can be done.

Take notes. Consider the how.

(If you have a loved one who will work hard to promote you when you can't afford to pay them, consider yourself lucky, too, and be sure to return their help as much as possible, which, from what I read, Vincent didn't do at all. Maybe that was part of his downfall. Maybe he needed to learn to give a bit more to others instead of always taking and expecting success before he felt able to give back. Sometimes that doesn't happen and being a leech off someone who cares about you never works out well.)

Professional envy can be very constructive. It can also be devastating. Which one it becomes depends on how you handle it.

Autotelic art can be amazingly creative and beautiful and long-lasting. It can also be soul shattering. Which one it becomes depends on how you deal with the natural results.

Never expect anything from your art. Hope. Work hard. Push yourself (but not beyond your limits). Keep going (or don't if it's too much to handle).

Be honest with yourself. Why are you doing it? For the sake of the art or for sales? Whichever it is, don't expect people to bend to your whims and support it just because you think it's worthy.

Yes, maybe it is. To you. To some. And that's great. But never expect.

Just create and trust.

In the meantime, do something that will support you. Cutting your art hours by having a "real" job or by giving to others while they help support you can be frustrating, yes, but it can also build your passion and create inspiration. It also creates respect.

I love Van Gogh's work. I do. But much of me thinks he would have been better off, physically and financially, if he'd taken up a side job that pulled him away from "it's all and only about my art and the heck with anyone and anything else" attitude. Because it's not. His beloved brother would likely have lived a longer and healthier life, as well, since he wouldn't have had the constant drain of a grown man constantly asking for more money for food and paint on top of supporting his own family.


Yes, at times I have trouble congratulating other writers on their successes. I admit it. That's part of being honest with myself. I still, though, am happy for them, because I know what kind of work and commitment it takes. I know I lack marketing skills and interest. I know I could be doing much more to promote my work. I'm quite sure I could spend more time working at the craft part of my books. There are always things that could be improved. My failures are my own, not theirs, and I remember that. It doesn't make it easier. It does make it acceptable.

Sometimes that's good enough, at least for the time being.

And if it becomes unacceptable, well, I need to improve what I'm doing in some way. Or, as the line I most remember from my grandpa, a very wise man, says,

"If you want to be as lucky as him, go out there and do what he's doing and you'll be lucky, too."

If you don't want to do "what he's doing" then your results will be different. When it comes to art, they will very likely be different anyway, because art is subjective and what's beautiful to one is ugly or blasé to others, but that's okay, too. You can't make people think the way you do or appreciate what you appreciate. You have to work with what is, even while striving for improvement, both your own, and your society's.

Be envious. And then put it to good use.

Be autotelic or don't. And realize the results will vary.

2 comments:

wangiwriter said...

LK, you have written this especially for me, I am sure!
I write what I want to write, what interests me. It doesn't fit the market, so I don't sell. But I also don't promote my work - that's not me - so I can't expect people to either know or care about it.
I do get pleasure out of writing, but I get envious of others as well, those who have the energy and desire to work hard and to promote themselves.
I came to writing much later than van Gogh did. I was 57 when I wrote my first creative piece. That was ten years ago. I have many short stories, and poems behind me now. I also have one self-published novel and another almost finished. And I have my blog, as well as my journaling and my scrapbooking.
Perhaps I will never have recognition for my writing, and it really doesn't matter if I don't. I know I'd have to put in a lot of time and effort to have any chance of that. My family comes first - 8 children (3 of them step-) and 12 grandchildren (4 step-) and we have to travel to visit them all. That leaves little energy for promotion - and at 67 I must admit that compared to how I used to be, I have become rather lazy.
I sometimes wish I had started when I was young and energetic, but I didn't. I love to see those young writers doing well though, in spite of my envy of their ability and their opportunities.
Now, after all that, I think I had better stop! Perhaps I will use my response to your excellent post as my own. Thank you. :-)

LK Hunsaker said...

Hi wangiwriter and thanks for commenting! I was on a big roll for a few years once my kids were mostly grown, and now I'm a "new" grandma and that has slowed me way down. But I'm fine with that, too. Yes, family first. If you don't put your family first, nothing else matters much, in my opinion.

Good for you for starting when too many people tell themselves it's too late. It's never too late. Do what you can. :-)

It's nice to meet you and I'll pop over to your blog.