ONCE UPON A time, artists had jobs. And not “advising the Library of Congress on its newest Verdi acquisition” jobs, but job jobs, the kind you hear about in stump speeches. Think of T.S. Eliot, conjuring “The Waste Land” (1922) by night and overseeing foreign accounts at Lloyds Bank during the day, or Wallace Stevens, scribbling lines of poetry on his two-mile walk to work, then handing them over to his secretary to transcribe at the insurance agency where he supervised real estate claims. The avant-garde composer Philip Glass shocked at least one music lover when he materialized, smock-clad and brandishing plumber’s tools, in a home with a malfunctioning appliance. “While working,” Glass recounted to The Guardian in 2001, “I suddenly heard a noise and looked up to find Robert Hughes, the art critic of Time magazine, staring at me in disbelief. ‘But you’re Philip Glass! What are you doing here?’ It was obvious that I was installing his dishwasher and I told him that I would soon be finished. ‘But you are an artist,’ he protested. I explained that I was an artist but that I was sometimes a plumber as well and that he should go away and let me finish.”
What is an artist supposed to be? The figure this anecdote suggests — holed up in an airy turret with her materials, descending only to glissade through parties and openings — may be the one of popular imagination, but she is also a recent phenomenon, a product of our fetishization of genius. She doesn’t work, likely because she makes so much money she doesn’t need to. As a consequence, her talent can start to feel corruptible, like easily torn silk, or larger than life. (Either way, all the more reason to avoid the office.)
But even the celebrity painters of the past half-century had to hustle at one point. As David Salle — who was financially insolvent at the time of his first show, held at the loft of a young dealer named Larry Gagosian in 1979 — admitted in a 2005 lecture, “It was common not to expect to be able to live from your art” in 1970s New York. Inclusion in the city’s top exhibitions during the ’80s brought Salle the fame that allowed him to spend “most days in my studio, alone,” no supplementary income required. Artistic success, it can often seem, means earning enough money from your art not to have to take a job.