I Already Have a Real Job

January 7, 2021 § 11 Comments

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.

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§ 11 Responses to I Already Have a Real Job

  • henhouselady says:

    Thank you for sharing this post. This is so true in our society.

  • Kelbungy says:

    Thank you so much for articulating so accurately what I couldn’t without bursting my creative blood vessels in sheer fury at this protracted injustice!! Let’s keep fighting the good fight to nourish this world with our artistry!!!

  • Bravo! Exactly the jolt of truth and inspiration I needed to hear this morning. Thank you, Joshua.

  • I wish it were true that “there’s such a huge emphasis on the arts in early schooling,” but it’s not. When I was training to teach art K-12, there was only one school district with K-12 Art teachers in my half of the state. (I was at the University of Washington and also earned two studio degrees.)

    There are athletes teaching physical education and musicians teaching music in elementary schools, but Diedrich is right that the arts are treated differently. And while it’s true that anyone can pick up a crayon and draw a line, while only a trained musician can pick up a violin and play Mozart, equating the two is a disastrous error.

    There have never been artists teaching young children in the district where I later taught English for 25 years. Teenagers in my yearbook class had to be taught the most basic principles of design.

    We have failed to teach fundamentals to children, failed to inspire, failed to provide the most rudimentary understanding of the great artistic traditions of the world, beginning with young children.

    “Arts education” as it exists today for children is play time. It is an enormous failing, and I thank Diedrich for bringing attention to this.

  • kim4true says:

    Thanks for this.

  • mebarscott says:

    Excellent. Thank you for starting this day off right. For those who are interested in this subject and the effects it has on our individual psyches, read Art and Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland. It’s a short, deep book that I think artists working in any form will be helped by. Take care of yourselves, Bar Scott

  • Further evidence, your words and those of Mr. Takeshi, are having an enormous impact upon my thinking. The plates are literally shifting inside my stone age brain. I thank you.

  • Marianne Lonsdale says:

    Really good piece with insights you don’t much see. Thanks

  • betsyetchart says:

    Thank you! I’m a magazine writer, published poet, and after-school art teacher who’s led public art projects for kids, but I didn’t know what a big industry it was, in GOP terms, until listening to NPR yesterday. I’m grateful to you for these valuable observations. Send this to HuffPost and the New York Times–everyone should read it.

  • VirgSpeaks says:

    Great piece. It makes me wonder if those of us who believe in nurturing the arts in young children couldn’t do so on a small scale. Once, I taught different crafts to 9-14 year-olds. The lessons were simple. Journal-making. Create your own desk set. Self-portrait in poetry. And so on. I hope to do this again once we get moved this summer. But, anyone who believes in The Arts could do their part to nurture creativity in the young and old alike right where they are at. We just need to believe that we can. Keep up the good work, Joshua! We need more people like you in this world of ours!!

  • maddielock1955 says:

    Thanks so much for writing this…If only this information could be prominent in the business section of everyone’s daily news! The Arts are also vital to our humanity; they endure when all else is able to fall away.

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