"Real Work"

By Leslie Chandler

As a freelance artist who is forging a career, I am constantly caught between two expectations. Although I strive foremost to contribute something beautiful from my heart, I also must develop my creative path into a lucrative trajectory to hopefully do more than break even! How often am I asked “How long did it take you to paint that?” as if that should somehow suggest a value to the artwork itself! An artist friend of mine told me when she is asked that question, she simply responds “All my life!”

So, you can imagine how I was immediately struck by an intriguing article by Alison Bain in a publication called Work, Employment and Society, entitled “Constructing an artistic identity.” In it, she comments on the “lack of recognition attributed to artistic labour as ‘real’ work” and goes on to state that “artistic labour tends to remain largely undervalued, and predominantly subsidized by the artists themselves through secondary employment in other occupations.” She acknowledges that in Canada as in other industrialized nations, “most people spend their entire adult lives at work and that commitment to work can be a central feature of a person’s life.” For artists, they pour so much of their heart into their work, their creations, that they often feel they have given birth to something they love, and hope that it will find its own home where it will continue to be loved and cherished. Marc Chagall says it well: “Art must be an expression of love or it is nothing.” Such labour is deserving of respect.

Of course, all of this must be balanced with a sensible approach to market values, demand, production costs, etc., in order for artists to achieve a realistic profit for their work. But still, it is a bit of a silent battle to counter the general misperception that “it’s only art” and, therefore, is not worth much more than what it might cost for a good haircut or a dinner out.

I think most of us have arrived at a progressive level of consensus regarding the lifework of many. We would cringe at hearing “just a stay at-home parent” or “just a nurse.” For those of us who have always been artists at heart and, like me, who are now acknowledging this inescapable need to create, we know we are not “just an artist.” What artists achieve visually, transcends the barriers of language. Good art encompasses everything and everyone. Art enables us to dream, to imagine, to become. 

John F. Kennedy said “If art is to nourish the roots of our culture, society must set the artist free to follow his vision wherever it takes him.” And Henry David Thoreau noted “It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.” James McNeill Whistler understood the value to society of an artist’s ability to see when he stated “An artist is not paid for his labor but for his vision.” 

So, perhaps, the next time we are looking at that favourite family photo and wondering how we can capture its essence in an enduring and personal way, or when we experience a milestone worth commemorating in a truly meaningful way in our lives, we will turn to an artist for their ability to see the truth and love in that moment and request a painting to cherish ...long after the good haircut has outgrown and the dinner has been consumed. And respectfully and willingly pay them a deserving and fair wage.