The best class I took in college was called Advanced Art Criticism. Unfortunately you could only take it in your final year, usually in the second semester – far too late.
After a few years of studying the history, processes, interpretations, and roles of art and the lives of artists you have a pretty good idea about what kind of work you want to make, how to talk about it, and where it fits in in the grand scheme of things. Maybe you can do an internship and get to see how a working artist supports himself. From what I understand most college experiences, regardless of major, are like that – years dedicated to learning and honing skills, culminating in the finality of having to confront the reality of what type of life you can get yourself at this point. Which job you can find.
What I liked most about Advanced Art Criticism was the focus on creating a lifestyle. We learned how to find funding, resources to get exposure, how to present ourselves and our work not just in front of each other, but in front of “real people”. We discussed career paths, monetary constraints, employment options – all things that I could have used a lot more time thinking about before being handed a degree and sent on my merry way.
In the years since, I’ve continued to produce and show work, all personal projects. Shortly after I graduated I interviewed for a position taking yearbook pictures. I’ve known several classmates who have gone this route, and I don’t blame them. It pays well, it’s a job “in your field”, and could lead to something. I didn’t get that job (maybe I was overqualified?!), and quickly cemented the idea that I would do my meaningful work on the side, and work a regular job to survive.
I’m content with the regular job part. Early on I wasn’t making a lot of money but had enough time and energy to pursue my own work and feel good about the work I got done. Now, time and energy are reduced resources, and the work has suffered.
Romanticizing the Starving Artist
Financial Independence seems to appeal to a lot of engineers, scientists, financial professionals – people to whom numbers sing to. But what about artists? Especially those like me who dislike the idea of doing their art primarily to make a living. Art students are notorious for sacrificing money for things like food to buy more art supplies, and working artists seem to live very practically out of necessity due to fluctuating and unsure income sources.
With the math as simple as it is, I think a lot of art students might be turned on to the idea of an extreme early retirement. Maybe double majoring in school, using one degree to get a well paying (secure) job and the other to continue their practice, and, after 5-10 years, leaving the rat race (or downshifting) with the freedom to dig deeper into what they’ve really been working for. All by the time they turn 30.
There’s also the ideal of the Starving Artist – a romantic image of putting expressive pursuits above even basic human needs. People also have different ideas about what constitutes “selling out”. Is the work created by someone who lives and breathes photography, and makes their living from it, more pure than the occasional pictures made by an accountant? I would argue that anything created that has the potential to earn it’s producer money is inherently less pure if that money is needed for things like food and rent.
The Big Three-Oh
People tend to view turning 30 as a pretty momentous occasion. Your 20’s are meant for exploring, dating, making mistakes, and pulling all nighters. After 30 it’s marriage, kids, a mortgage and a career. Perhaps it’s the common belief that all these things happen around a certain age that leads to the idea that this is when you buckle down and get serious.
Wouldn’t it be nice if you already did the buckling down? If you had the option to put your passions at #1 or #2 on the list instead of automatically slotting them below “your job”? I think starting from 18 (or earlier) with a good financial head and continuing to develop ideas about things like consumerism and work would give you enough cushion to still have a pretty good decade and actually have the time and energy to apply some of the life lessons you’ve learned.
There’s also a fear that if you put your passion on the backburner during your accumulation that it would die out. That’s a real possibility, not necessarily because you didn’t spend enough time on it but because you’re probably a very different person at 30 than you were at 20 because, um, you’re a human. If it does die out, I’m willing to bet there’s other things that have replaced it that make financial independence just as necessary. If it doesn’t, if the whole time you still obsess and dream about making something, then I can only imagine the release of energy that would come with 40+ extra hours a week and severely reduced worries about money.
Into The Night (and watch out for quicksand)
Some time shortly after I’d graduated I found an article written by photographer Alec Soth called At What Age Do Photographers Do Their Most Influential Work? As a 23 year old I’d be lying if I hadn’t thought about whether I’d peaked creatively, or if I ever would. I was also plugging along, working at a job and making work on my days off. When I’d scan film in the evenings I felt like I had a secret identity, a secret mission that I was working on. I knew that what I was working on might not be that good but would lead to work that was better. Over time I would evolve and truly leave something meaningful behind.
That evolution hasn’t always been the smoothest. Some of it is the nature of improvement – barriers appear and challenges arise and getting better comes from overcoming them. The rest is quicksand. Absences of money and health seem to be the strongest forms of quicksand. They can pull you down and bury you in any way you can describe. Time and energy spent fighting the quicksand means there’s less time to think about making, to take things slow and steady, and to be present in the moment. Now or Never becomes a constant thought. Approaching 30 becomes real and scary.
Many days now I don’t even make it into the night. I’m too tired from work or distracted. Writing seems easier right now, I can set a timer and write for an hour after work and that doesn’t seem daunting. But the idea of getting into multi-year projects seems exhausting.
On the surface it seems the majority of people concerned with becoming financially independent in their 30’s work in areas where math skills, problem solving and systems are involved. While I think this is mostly true, I think the idea of extreme early retirement is spreading quickly and far enough that more and more people from different backgrounds will stumble upon it.
Putting the math aside (which really isn’t complicated – I would argue that the discipline to pursue such a goal over a decade or more is much more difficult to acquire), financial independence is really about having the freedom to do what you want. All of the time.
For someone who envisions a life of unrestrained creation and exploration the benefits of early financial freedom, once discovered, are obvious and difficult to ignore.