How pursuing an art career without a paying job works in a relationship.
Pretty pictures don’t pay rent, at least not yet. Right now I’m digging into my savings because I believe my art career will take off soon, and my girlfriend is footing the majority of the bills. I doubt I will ever make as much money as her, at least not consistently. Is that okay? Am I less of a man for it?
I came from a close-knit Southern family where men came of age on the job, where men were the main breadwinners. My mom grew up with five brothers, my dad with four, and all of them always worked. My dad and his brothers built the house in which I grew up, and my mom worked hard to keep it organized. I had a carpentry job before I could drive. I take pride in my roots, and I’m equally proud of my ability to adapt to a changing world.
I’m trying to ply my trade as a fine artist and plan for a family at the same time. The choice not to hold a paying job and let my significant other pick up the slack is a go-twisting experience. I have this voice in my head saying, “so you still don’t have a job?” even though no one says that, at least not to my face. But I do wonder what “they” think. I wonder what my girlfriend’s dad thinks. “This artist guy, he’s gonna take care of my daughter? He doesn’t even have a job.”
These thoughts trigger a door dinger doubt that wafts through my skull. Time to reassess. It’s not like I’m betraying some deep Neanderthal instinct to provide fresh elk for my honeybunny, or am I? I’ve been inundated with the idea that men have to make more money than their women to be good providers. Each side in a relationship should feel a desire to provide, but to tie it so tightly to income makes the picture incomplete.
For a while in Charlottesville, Virginia, I had three jobs at once. I was saving up for the move to Denver, Colorado, and I was depressed. Each day I stifled my art need to make a quick buck. I thought that would make us both happy, to have some security financially. I thought that’s what she wanted. It caused strife for the both of us. I am what I do. If I’m not making art, I’m not happy. If one of us is unhappy, we’re both miserable. That’s no way to start a family.
As one of two people in a relationship, there is a triple set of goals: one for each person’s individual endeavors and one for the life we live together. It gets complicated at times, and most fights are over money. So I have to step back and line up what’s really important. I have some simple rules to help me stay on track:
- Make sure I can cover our most basic survival needs—food, shelter, safety. Do we have enough resources, money, and knowhow combined to provide for those immediate needs? If no, I buy supplies; I get a job; I learn a skill. If yes, then no need to worry about money.
- Hustle to reach my goals; don’t be a layabout. As Black Thought said, “Nose to the grindstone, head to the stars.” If I’m stressed about income, it probably means I need to hit the studio, then there’s no time to worry about money.
- Make her comfortable. She’s taken on some extra stress by paying more than half, the least I can do is clean up more than half, give frequent backs rubs, go to the supermarket before we’re bottom feeding on fridge-shriveled carrots and dusty backpack Power Bars. If she’s happy, then there’s no need to worry about money.
- Have a plan. Decapitated chickens don’t make much art. If I have a tight plan, and I have faith in that plan, then the money will work itself out, no worries.
- This is the kicker: Get her advice. She’s my partner romantically and financially. Getting her advice should be a no-brainer even if I was footing all the bills. If she’s worried, something needs to happen—either reassurance in reference to rule #4 or getting a job. If she’s okay, then climb on.
As long as there’s a mutual understanding between partners there is no reason to feel guilt for accepting assists from your lifelong teammate. If you are lucky enough to have someone support your endeavors, you need worthy goals and a worthy plan to reach them.
For me, art is the best possible thing I can do with the time I have in this world, and I’d be a fool not to accept the support offered me. It takes more manliness to overcome antiquated insecurities than to give in to a stagnant status quo.
American society expects you to be productive by making money. Maybe the words “productive,” “job,” and “work” need to be reexamined. A good piece of artwork demonstrates rigor, skill, and ingenuity. Some say “my five-year-old coulda done that,” some ask “how much is it?” but others say nothing and recognize its worth past a dollar sign. There’s something bigger at play here. It has to do with society at large, the larger human family.
What I am doing is making something that enriches the world, that strengthens our culture. Dostoevsky said, “The world will be saved by beauty.” Artwork has saved my life. There have been times when a story, poem, song, painting, or sculpture filled me with such wonder that it gave me a reason to pull myself out of dark times and inspired me to push forward with my dreams. And I will gratefully accept what help I can get to make them happen.
For a different POV on this same topic, “The Losers’ Club.”