The Financial Insecurity of Artists Debunks the Myth of Self-Sufficiency

Financial insecurity is a challenge for many artists, but it can also be a blessing, according to fine artist Duncan Stewart.

By Jonny Mellor / Tue 23 Jan, 2018

An artist can lead something of a hand to mouth existence. The stereotype is the starving artist, labouring on their work until their fingers stiffen up completely from cold or malnutrition. Perhaps Von Gogh springs to mind, dying in poverty, having only sold one painting, as something of a necessary prelude to his post-mortem acclaim.

I hope that few of you who are reading this would identify too readily with poor old Vincent, but behind the stereotype, there is a grain of truth in regards to the often uncertain financial position many artists find themselves in, if they are looking to pursue self-initiated projects for large portions of their working week.

I’m constantly impressed by the innovative ways that artists find to fund their work. However, even when these methods are successful, this is still a difficult path that will often make it unclear where the next paycheque is coming from.

Financial insecurity is a fact for even the most skilled artists

Duncan Stewart touched on this in his excellent presentation at Woodside Church last week. Duncan is a painter and sculptor from Port Elizabeth, South Africa, and he talked to us about one of his most successful projects: an exhibition inspired by and put on to coincide with the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. It was an exceptional project full of nuanced spiritual challenges, provocative calls for justice and an intimidating level of craftsmanship and skill. It was also very successful, gaining national media interest and, importantly for the Stewart family, proving itself financially viable. He sold the entire exhibition on the opening night. For many artists, this is the stuff of dreams.

Piece from Duncan Stewarts Football: A Dialect of Hope Exhibition

However, he ended by observing that this was now 8 years ago. Subsequent projects have not reached this level of success and he admitted to finding this frustrating. He, like so many other artists, lives without job security or a guarantee that this will pay the bills month on month. Duncan vulnerably shared the difficulties of this situation. This causes worry. This causes tears.

It was revealing to see that even those of us with exceptional skill and great determination can still find ourselves in this position. If you are pursuing your art as a means of income and finding that this is not leading you to Damien Hurst/Kanye West levels of prosperity and financial security, be encouraged! It doesn’t mean you’re not any good. It doesn’t even mean that you’re doing something wrong. This goes with the terrain. Obviously, we do need to listen to our circumstances and adapt accordingly but it is very worth noting that this way of living is shared by the majority of artists, even artists who would be regarded as very successful.

Painting from Duncan Stewarts Football: A Dialect of Hope Exhibition

Financial insecurity carries an unexpected lesson with it

This is encouraging on its own but Duncan ended his presentation by completely flipping our perspective. This was not an unhelpful drawback of the artists’ predicament, he told us. He considered it a huge blessing. Why? Because it led to a greater dependency on Jesus.

It would be easy to write this off as a trite platitude. The kind of thing you have to say to keep getting church gigs. However, it wasn’t a throwaway comment; Duncan had modelled this dependency all through his story. On his artistic journey, at every stage, he had been listening to God for guidance, praying earnestly for help and obeying what he felt God was telling him to do. This was not just at moments of crisis either, but this lived-out dependency on God was built into his everyday life.

Those of you who don’t have a regular 9-to-5 contract have got something to teach the rest of the body of Christ

Most telling for me was a moment in the Q & A. Duncan mentioned something about his ‘quiet times’ and then commented that setting aside such time was a challenge as he has four children. I joked that, in that situation, quiet times wouldn’t just be a challenge but impossible, taking the phrase literally (ie., it is impossible to be quiet in a four-child household). Duncan immediately struck me with a pretty stern glare, and clarified that this was not the case. Quiet times (ie. devotional times of prayer and Bible reading) may be challenging, but they certainly weren’t impossible, and he made sure that he had them daily.

For those of you looking to earn a living from your art, who don’t have a regular 9-to-5 contract, I want to encourage you. You’ve got something to teach the rest of the body of Christ as you navigate the insecurities of your daily life. For most people, myself included, the security of a contract and set amounts of money deposited monthly into our bank accounts, is seen as a blessing, and in many ways it is, but it certainly means that we are less likely to fall back, desperate and needy on Jesus to look to provide for us. This arrangement can often trick us into thinking that we are the ultimate providers for ourselves and our families, and that we’ve got it sorted. I’ve got to work hard to remember that this is a lie. The Bible tells us that all we think we own has been loaned to us from God to use for his kingdom, and our security is always in his hands. This reality is much more readily accessible for a freelance graphic designer, say, than a shool teacher.

Security can trick us into thinking that we are the ultimate providers for ourselves and our families

So, whatever schemes you are cooking up to make ends meet while still aiming to maintain your artistic integrity, Duncan’s model is a great one to follow. Acknowledge and embrace your dependency on God, and demonstrate that dependency in bringing it all to God in prayer. Jesus said this:

‘Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes?  do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.’ (Mt 6:25-34)

What do we do instead? ‘seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.’ (Mt 6:33). Duncan told us that this was one of his favourite verses. No surprise there, then.

Sculptures from Duncan Stewarts Football: A Dialect of Hope Exhibition

Jonny Mellor is a rapper, a writer, and the director of Sputnik.

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