I was listening to a podcast by one of my favorite comedians in which he said that as a young man, one of his greatest fears was ending up in an office, and that it represented a kind of little death for the creative person. The idea was that, for the creative person, there was no worse fate than that of mundane work. I’ve heard this idea repeated over and over again in different iterations from people in all kinds of creative fields, and in communities both near and far.
I cannot say how strongly I disagree with this idea. I feel that anyone who can move directly into their career of choice can consider themselves very lucky in some ways, since these opportunities aren’t available to most, but I believe that in most cases their creative work will suffer.
I’m hard-pressed to think of any facet of our existence more universal, more essentially human, than work. Maybe not work in the forms that we now see in the Western world, but work nonetheless. We have worked for a large portion of our days since the beginning of when we could reasonably be called human… walking, hunting, gathering foods, and processing those foods, building shelter and producing clothing and containers, rearing children, etc. Work was essential to our survival. Later, after the invention of agriculture, we worked on community or family farms, and later we performed industrial work. While our work in the modern day is less directly attached to our means of survival, it is no less a vital part of our existence. If there’s one thing that I have learned from my extended time of unemployment and underemployment, it’s that not having useful work to set one’s hand to even has psychological and emotional effects on people.
People without work become less productive in their personal lives as well. Unemployment and underemployment has been shown to correlate with increases in depression and anxiety. I’m certain that some of this has to do with the inevitable financial hardships that come with a lack of work, but I also think that the living person wants purpose. Needs purpose. People want to be a part of a community, and wants to function in a useful way within that community. These useful roles may vary from person to person, and from culture to culture, but they are no less necessary to the emotional well-being of the individual. Without practical purpose, the sense of self-worth withers, and one’s place within one’s specific community begins to feel uncertain. This uncertainty of place is painful to the social mammal; it embodies a very basic fear that, being of no use to the larger group, we may be excluded from that group, and there is a very small and primal part of our brain that views this as a death sentence. In this sense, in the sense that work is essential for emotional well-being and for the human experience, work is a kind of a sacred thing.
Artists are no different. For those who are able to make a living from their art, there is still work. One must handle their books, their taxes; one must market their work, book shows, network with other artists, with venues, with gallery owners, and with the public. There are a dozen mundane tasks to each one exhibitionist act that, when you work for yourself, you must perform, or manage, or arrange to be done.
The only way to escape so-called mundane work is to become wealthy enough to never have to work again.
I don’t believe that even this is a healthy goal for the artist. To be human is to work, and to not have work is to, in some sense, lose touch with humanity. If one believes (and I do) that the work of the artist is to touch the essence of humanity and then to translate it into an audio or visual or verbal form that can communicate that humanity sufficiently well to touch the soul of another person, then to lose touch with humanity in any way is to drift further and further from that goal.
Think of the human experience as a reservoir. There is a certain amount of stuff stored in there, and when one creates their work, it uses up some of that stuff. You can refill your reservoir by engaging in human activities, by having human experiences, and by engaging with other humans. Then you have more raw materials, more stories to tell, more concepts to explore. But if you never refill that reservoir, the creative wellspring will trickle to a stop, and your work will become self-referential. You will do again and again the things that you’ve already done in the past, or even do things that you’ve seen other artists do. You will become inwardly focused, and rather than reaching for humanity itself, you will only reach deeper into yourself, producing work with such strictly personal implications that nobody else will be able to derive value from it. At that point, you are no longer serving your community or even the ideas of truth and beauty, but only your own ego.
And this is at best masturbation, and at worst, outright fraud. It is also, I believe, the reason why creative work suffers when an excess of success is achieved. Once you can insulate yourself from all suffering and once you can afford to delegate all menial aspects of your work, what remains of the person that you once were?