So you want to be an artist …

Image of Simon Kuper

Over evening beers many years ago, a housemate unfolded his career plans to me. He was going to remain an estate agent until he “hit his number”. Then he would finally pursue his vocation and become a film producer. He never did, of course, but this type of fantasy is common among us wage earners, especially in early September when the daily grind restarts. Now we are “working for the man”, but one day we will make movies, set up an organic prune company, or finally write that novel.

However, it’s usually best to let these fantasies stay fantasies. For most people, being a hack – doing routine work for money – is the happiest, simplest and probably even the most authentic way to live.

At the root of my housemate’s fantasy was a common delusion: that the authentic self is an artist. The idea is that though the actual you sits in the office, the true you is a kind of Picasso. It’s a notion particularly prevalent among workers in the so-called “creative class”, because most of these people know they are in fact the “semi-creative class”. Their jobs tend to be distant derivatives of respected art forms. Cyril Connolly, in his undying 1938 hack writer’s lament, Enemies of Promise, listed “those remunerative substitutes for good writing: journalism, reviewing, advertising, broadcasting and the cinema”. Other such derivatives include graphic design, or making corporate videos.

Most members of the “creative class” dream of making the leap from hackery to art. Many of them talk about it in the pub. A few actually do leap. The honour roll of advertising copywriters-turned-authors includes Isaac Bashevis Singer, who wrote radio commercials for a coffee company; Salman Rushdie, who coined the slogan “Naughty but nice” for cream cakes; and Fay Weldon, who revived the slogan “Go to work on an egg” after spotting it in some 1930s material. (Weldon also dreamed up “Vodka gets you drunker quicker”, but sadly it was never used.)

Leaps like these feed fantasies in office cubicles everywhere. However, most dreamers should not leap. Even if you are sure that it’s your vocation to make art, you are most likely wrong. For a start, if it was your vocation, you would probably have embarked on it aged 18 instead of making a living first. And even people who do devote their lives to their supposed vocation often discover that they aren’t good at it after all. As Nick Hornby writes in his memoir Fever Pitch, in a riff on the failed Arsenal footballer Gus Caesar: Gus must have known he was good, just as any pop band who has ever played the Marquee know they are destined for Madison Square Garden … and just as any writer who has sent off a completed manuscript to Faber and Faber knows that he is two years away from the Booker. You trust that feeling with your life … and it doesn’t mean anything at all.

The fantasy of yourself as an artist works best as a fantasy. It provides a pleasing back-story to tell yourself and others. On paper you might be an accountant, but your authentic self is Emily Brontë. That’s fine until you try to live the fantasy. I knew a girl who as a child wrote lovely poems. Writing was her vocation. In adulthood, she didn’t just talk about writing a novel, she actually wrote one. It even got published. And the critics panned it. She won’t ever publish another. Her fantasy is shattered. That fear, almost as much as Connolly’s famous “pram in the hall”, is what stops most hacks from leaping.

Staying put saves them lots of unhappiness. The hack’s life is fairly easy. Your work just has to be good enough. You don’t have to put your soul into it and aim for perfection. You know how to do the job, you hand it in and they pay you. I know a film director who made commercials. Occasionally, he talked to film executives about making a movie, but he said he’d only do it if they gave him total creative control. Of course, they never did. So he kept making commercials, got rich, grew old and never found out whether he could make a good movie. He even posed as an artist who refused to sell out to Hollywood. It’s a good life. Art is harder.

In any case, it may turn out one day that you weren’t a hack at all. Arthur Conan Doyle thought his Sherlock Holmes stories were dreadful hackery. Yearning to devote himself to “better things”, he even killed Holmes off at the Reichenbach Falls. Now we know that Holmes was his greatest creation. The stories weren’t hack work at all, just as Georges Simenon and Alfred Hitchcock weren’t hacks.

In short, if you are a hack thinking you were made for higher things, you are probably wrong. Don’t give up the day job. Perhaps your authentic self is the accountant.

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