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Art without Work?

I recently recalled the precise moment when it first occurred to me that I would like to become an artist. I grew up in Moscow, and my father was a self-taught musician working at the circus. Circus artists work extremely hard physically: the amount of daily practice and physical exercise necessary to perform acrobatic acts or walk a tightrope is really enormous. They practice and exercise all day and perform by night—it’s nearly a twenty-four-hour-a-day job.

There was a birthday party for one of the kids in the building we lived in, which belonged to the union of circus artists. The children at the party, all about five or six years old, were children of clowns, animal trainers, and so forth. We were watching a cartoon on TV and at some point a conversation started about what we wanted to become when we grew up. Following the usual suggestions like a cosmonaut or a fireman, one of the kids said that he wanted to be a fine artist, because they do not work. I was very shy as a kid, so I did not say much, but thought to myself that this boy was really clever and that I too did not want to work and should therefore try to become an artist.

Ironically, this momentary realization ultimately pointed me on a trajectory that led to a perpetual state of work for many years: while my classmates in school tended to just hang out or play sports after class, I went to drawing lessons every evening. When my family moved to America, I enrolled in three schools simultaneously: the School of Visual Arts by day, Art Students League classes by night, and group life drawing lessons on weekends. Somehow the idea of not working went out the window, and all throughout my artistic education the emphasis was on work: the idea being that I had to fill all my available time with learning and practice, and that the sheer effort of this was bound to make me an artist. Perhaps this occupation of time was also practice for my future career: being a professional artist in a society where labor and time are still the ultimate producers of value. So the logic was that if all my time was filled with the labor of learning the skills of an artist, perhaps something of value would be produced, leading to a lifetime occupation by artistic labor. Thinking was of relatively little importance within this scenario.

I have to add that the system of non-university art education at the time (the 1980s) aided such an approach, because it made it possible to avoid academic studies almost entirely— literature, history, philosophy, and so forth—in favor of studio practice geared toward contriving some sort of artistic style that would be marketable.

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