Naima Lowe is a queer black artist based in Washington state whose most recent project is causing quite a stir. She’s created a book called “39 Questions for White People,” a collection of simple questions that are meant to generate a discussion around white privilege.
I have to start with a disclaimer: I still suck at navigating WordPress (and social networks) and I’m probably searching for features that I can only get with premium service. In any case, I got one good comment on a post I wrote last week about being an independent scholar. The comment from RVCBard at Ars Marginal noted the similarity to problems faced with being an artist.
Of course, my mind began to go off in a few directions, but I always came back to this same idea: the problems with being an artist are exponentially worse than those of being a scholar. I say this because of the idea that artists are expected to suffer for their work. Apparently, we have this ingrained idea that “good” art only comes from struggle and sacrifice often at the expense of the artist’s well being.
Not only do I think this is false, but I also think it is dangerous. I’m not saying that hard work isn’t important. I believe in working hard and doing whatever it takes to succeed. But I don’t understand why people feel the artist is the one who has to suffer in order not only to create but also to succeed.
There is nothing romantic or poetic about being a starving artist. Fear of hunger, homelessness and general poverty is not truly a great motivator. Just as with any other endeavor in life, it is a hindrance and it is no fun at all. Suffering hurts mentally and physically and it is not a guarantee to make a person stronger and more resilient. Sometimes it’s just exhausting and it is always painful.
I know that personally I am terrified of getting sick. Colds and the flu slow me down, but fortunately I can still keep going through these illnesses. But I live in fear that perhaps I will slip and fall and break a bone or come down with a case of pneumonia that requires a hospital stay. Living in fear that a major illness could end it all is not a character builder. It is paralyzing and terrifying. Working through that fear every day is not easy, but it is necessary.
I don’t pretend the world promised me anything, but we still perpetuate the myth that hard work and suffering is all that is needed to succeed in this world. That is simply not true. Many people work hard at nine to five jobs every day and can still barely scratch two nickels together to come up with five cents much less ten. Why should suffering be added to that equation?
Artists of all kinds have to eat and sleep just like everyone else. There are bills to pay and there are times in which it is necessary to have room to breathe without worrying about making it to the next pay period in order to survive. Everyone deserves that bit of human dignity, not just every once in a while but every day. No one should ever have to live by the credo “I’ll sleep when I’m dead.”
I’m aware that at times I don’t provide myself with the self-care I know I need every day of my life. Taking ten minutes to breathe and slow down feels like a cheat when that is time that could be used writing or sending out resumes. I know I need it, but I feel guilty for taking that small amount of time to myself. Taking a nap in the middle of the day means that I have to stay up later to make up that time I took for myself.
These habits and beliefs are hard to break. I’ve written about that strong black woman stereotype before and as harmful as I know she is, it is extremely difficult to let go of her. Yet I know that my own self-care means that she has to be relinquished and balanced out with vulnerability. That’s the hard part. This is what artists are not told. Hopefully, I will learn this for myself sooner rather than later.