The Artist’s Dilemma – Follow Your Bliss or Earn a Secure Living

I paint for myself. I don’t know how to do anything else, anyway. Also I have to earn my living, and occupy myself.

Francis Bacon

The abstract artist, Hans Hoffman, spent a lifetime building a reputation as one of the finest art teachers in New York City, while in the art world he was not taken seriously as an artist, until the final 10 years of his life. His legacy as a teacher may be equal or greater than that as an artist of evocative and striking visual compositions created when he retired from teaching in his 60s. But why did it take so long for him to be recognized for what he did as an artist, not just as an inspiring mentor to emerging artists in New Yorks stellar art school, Art Students League of New York? Like so many immigrants who make the uncertain trek to the land of opportunity, he needed to survive and earn a living. Only when he could devote an uninterrupted decade to painting following the death of his first wife did he produce a body of work that is now considered one of the pre-eminent collections of abstract work created in the second half of the 20th century. Amongst a panel of modern authors up for a prestigious Canadian literary award, three of the 6 panelists spoke of the tension between the lure of a stable position in academia and the need to give his or her most substantial energies to their art. The consensus amongst the writers was that an artist should teach only as much as they have to in order to subsidize the development of their art; to put all of ones best energies into his or her students work leaves very little quality energy left for ones own creations. Robert Raushenberg told his close friend and fellow artist, Jasper Johns, then a young, struggling artist on New Yorks lower side to work as a window dresser as little as possible, just enough to pay the rent and buy food. If an artist does choose to teach, what are the positive lessons he can hope to gain? Teaching is one good way to practice what you show your students, to be a role model of turning theory into practice and to use the research and instruction on a subject to revise, manifest and learn something new. In other words, a good way to learn something is to teach it. The cautionary side of teaching for the purpose of paying the bills is that the same dedication and creative energies that one puts into art gets sublimated into instruction. This is a wonderful benefit for the artists students and may lead to a lasting and unexpected positive legacy but it enervates and frustrates the artist, who comes home at the end of the day with just enough energy to water the lawn, kiss his fiance, eat dinner and watch TMZ. It comes down to balance. Be good enough as a teacher to do the job with pride and make regular creative dates for painting that ensures that ones lifes passions do not become a martyr to making a living.

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