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Dear Uncle Bert and Auntie Gert


Art Lover writes:

I'm a long time reader and a first time writer. I'm desperate. I like art. A lot. I don't like sports. At all. I like science but I'm rubbish at it. I don't like history, geography and English Lit but I'm good at them. I'm good at English grammar and Composition and I quite like that. I'm rubbish at maths and I don't like it.

I've got my exam results and they are far better than expected. Now my parents want me to take A levels in the courses I got the best academic results in and to choose that as a career path. I just want to paint and go to Art College.

How do I persuade my parents who love me and want the best for me and have the mindset that artists live in squalor, eat cat food and spend all their money on canvasses that gradually fill up the living space so that even if I had a cat, I couldn't swing it.

Art Lover

Gert says

Hello Art Lover.

I'm going to let Bert start this one off because your school history sounds very like his: except he can't do anything artistic to save his life.

Bert says

She only interjected to make fun of me. She's always making fun of me. I like it. It's what keeps us young.

We were young a very long time ago and before that we were at school. And Gert is right: there were things I was good at but didn't enjoy and things I enjoyed but wasn't good at. Like you, sports was at the top of that list. Cooking was high, but my school didn't allow boys to take cookery classes. We had to do woodwork and metalwork at which, on a good day, I was really bad. And art classes which on a bad day, I was really terrible.

The fact is that at that point in my education, except for English Language and history, there was nothing that interested me that I was allowed to do. Geography wasn't too rubbish but it didn't go into any real depth. History was great: it was the agricultural and industrial revolutions. The 20th Century can be summarised in one paragraph: people started wars over power, land and wealth and because they are racist. Many people died. Economies collapsed. Credit became a cultural norm and people went broke en masse. Oh, and man flew to the moon and back, computers went mainstream, countries were formed, borders were changed, cars became essential and the climate got f...ed."

So, now I've just dismissed as worthless almost everything you are studying at school, let's see how all of that can help you.

Art isn't about drawing or painting, it's not about carving or moulding. Art is about what you see and how you can best communicate it. If art is just about the visual, we don't need it: we have nature doing that every minute of every day for millions of years. Good art is not a substitute for a photograph. That is not to say that a painting of a waterfall is a bad thing: just that it needs something extra to turn it from reportage to having added value. Some artists use gimmicks - such as hiding a creature in every painting - but why use novelty when you can touch both the intellect and the soul of a person looking at your work?

It is no coincidence that music, theatre, poetry, dance and even prose are classified with painting, drawing, sculpture and carving as art. They are all means of communicating, all methods of touching the emotions of those that see or hear them. There was, recently, a sculpture that was controversial. It was a meaningless blob that communicated nothing. It was only because of its title, and the artist's explanation, that it gained meaning. That's not art, in my view: it's self-publicity. And if the piece cannot stand on its own, it doesn't deserve the kudos that a description of "art" affords.

So, when I say this, it's not because I don't enjoy art, it's not because I deprecate the efforts of artists. It's because I think art has a higher purpose than as a simple pastime or an excuse for "luvvies" to pat each other on the back. If your art touches people, it it makes them think, even if it makes them debate, then if you don't do your art, you will be a loss to the world, not just the world of art if you don't do it; and if you have something to say and you don't say it, you will be forever unfulfilled, a putative mother that cannot conceive.

But, on the other side of that coin is where your parents stand and they are right. Reading between the lines, your parents don't want to quash your dreams but they don't want to think of you always struggling, always struggling - probably hopelessly - to sell your work or to gain a patron. You say you are rubbish at maths but you must be able to work out the cost of living and therefore how many pieces of your art you must sell so as not to fall into the trap described by Dickens: "Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen nineteen and six , result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery."

So, your life plan must include at least how to make sure you eat well and live in safety and comfort. Let's be clear: there are many, many artists from all fields of art who have spent years sleeping on the floor, worrying if they should use a tea-bag for a third time or keep it for tomorrow, making a can of soup last for four days, and watering it down. I am not making it up: I know some. And I know some who have fallen into drugs, prostitution and ended up unable to make art. That kind of defeats the point of what you intended, doesn't it?

So, here's what I recommend. Get an opinion on your art. Go and see lecturers at two or three art colleges and find out, now, if they think you can make art that can sell. I am not talking about commercial art, not the pictures that haunt a million identical hotel rooms across the world, but art that meets all of the above criteria but will find a market at a price - and a frequency - that will enable you to cover your expenses. And remember, before you think you are hearing "sell out" - those lecturers are lecturers because they can't produce and sell enough to pay for the life they want. That doesn't make them a failure and it doesn't make them a sell out. It makes then sensible.

So, I'd find something you are good at and get qualified and get a job. Maybe that means studying the history of art and getting a job in a gallery or an auction house. And study and do art in your spare time while you build up a portfolio and gain recognition. Make a name for yourself as an artist before you try to live as an artist.

There are very few fields as difficult to make a living in as art. Maybe motor racing. But no, art is harder. Those that go motor racing are in a showcase every weekend. As an artist, painting etc., you don't get that, you don't get a showcase once a week or even once a year after you leave college. You don't even produce a painting, etc. once each week.

But there is nothing, absolutely nothing, as great as walking away from a racetrack knowing you made the best lap you could possibly do, walking off a stage knowing that your performance had been flawless, putting down your brush knowing that your art is perfect. It's not even about the plaudits of the crowd, it's not about the money: it's just this - there is an orgasmic pleasure in getting something exactly right. And there's the crash afterwards. And the worry that it might not be as good next time.

That's what it is to be an artist.

Have a Plan B ready to execute when necessary. And put your heart and soul into your art. And, fingers crossed, it makes a decent income, even a second income, for you.

May your art be beautiful and your message well received.

Gert says

er, Bert. What passion did you give up? Sit there. I'll make a cup of tea.

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