By Joshua Diedrich
I have a hard time putting my finger on exactly why the arts are so looked down upon as a career in America. I’m a classical figure and portrait sculptor, so it’s something I think about a lot, but the answer still eludes me.
It could be our Puritanical past telling us that they’re frivolous or a waste of money. It could be that there’s such a huge emphasis on the arts in early schooling, making us think of them forever as a childish activity that everyone ought to be able to do badly, but only a few are immature enough to believe they can do well.
It could just be that these careers are difficult and have no clear path to success, and thus, people don’t understand how creatives make a living, and forever carry a chip on their shoulder that we are lucky and get out of doing “real work.”
The arts are not a “real job” like construction, or warehousing, or farming. Overall, they are in fact much bigger
and more lucrative than any of those jobs. The arts contribute more than five times more to the US economy than all of agriculture does. Artnet News reported in March 2019
…the US Bureau of Economic Analysis and the National Endowment for the Arts released a report with a stunning takeaway: that the arts contribute $763.6 billion to the US economy—4.2 percent of the GDP—more than agriculture, transportation, or warehousing.
The data, which is pulled from 2015, the most recent year for which figures are available, also shows that 4.9 million people work in the arts economy and earn more than $370 billion. (Importantly, the report defines the arts broadly to include everything from jewelry manufacturing to film and TV production.)
Sixty BILLION more than construction, and 227 billion more than transportation and warehousing. The arts represent nearly 5% of the entire US GDP, and employ over 5 MILLION people.
Frankly, purely in a sense of bringing home the bacon, the arts may be a “realer” job than anything else you do.
In times like these though, when economic going gets rough, we all know that we will be left on the margins. Like sex workers, our fellow residents of the highly profitable margins, laws will be written to carefully exclude us from aid in favor of “real jobs” like fast food—an industry that the arts out-employs by more than a million workers, or coal mining, which Arby’s alone out-employs in the fast food sector, and which the arts sector out-employs by a ratio of 100 to 1. (Literally. There are 5,000,000 creatives and arts support workers in the US. There are 50,000 miners.)
I’m doing OK this year. Sculpture generally does well in times of crisis, when the stock market is gangbusters for wealthy donors, and people want to memorialize things. The romance novelists I know are doing great right now, when people need to escape more than ever. Some of us will probably be fine. Performers, musicians, circus artists, stage managers, singers, dancers, actors… much less so.
There’s been some government action to try to protect venues at least, but all in all, our low conception of the arts place in American culture and within the US economy is a lie we like to tell ourselves. With that lie, we do great damage to ourselves and our society. It’s a childish, self-aggrandizing view, based on nothing, and purely in the interests of being adults and facing facts, it needs to change.
If your broker couldn’t wait to watch Soul or Wonder Woman, if your accountant was thrilled to get a new novel to escape into, eventually, they must own up to the idea that the arts are not beneath them. If you create art, or music, or dance, or words, you, too, are part of an enormous, measurable, financial contribution to the GDP. People may spend their days in construction or finance, but the arts are what they want to come home to.
And yet, even knowing that we are a real job that matters to America very much, all of us in the field understand that there will be no government aid for us, no fundraisers, no protections, as this crisis continues. This will likely be true as much as people need us, or miss us, as much as we are an incredibly important part of their world.
One of my drawing teachers was a Japanese printmaker named Takahara Takeshi. He took us all out to his studio on the last day of that year, and showed us around, mostly making light of himself and his work as he tended to do, but at the end he said:
In your life, because you are artists, people will try to tell you that you are not dealing with the real world. You will meet lawyers and businessmen who will look down on you, and tell you that you are avoiding reality—that you should get a real job, participate in society like everyone else. They will say that you are renouncing the real world and indulging your ego. You must listen to me and believe what I tell you now, that we are not the ones avoiding reality; it is they who are avoiding reality. It is the businessmen, and the lawyers and the accountants who are caught up in a self-indulgent fantasy, but they cannot see this. They will not understand or believe it. They will never choose to see. And to go on, you will have to learn to forgive them for that.
A classically trained sculptor, Joshua Diedrich currently runs a teaching studio in Kalamazoo where he works on public commissions and his own work, and takes on apprentices in figurative art and sculpture. He headed the Sculpture department at the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts for four years, and is a Michigan regional rep for Burning Man. Follow him on Instagram @diedrichsculpture.