Friday, January 21, 2011

The case against Plan B

A review of a show about artists’ day jobs reminded me of another aspect of my talk last week with the St. Olaf visual arts students—they mentioned a strong emphasis on minor studies, and I asked if these were subjects that contributed in a significant way to their artistic pursuits (I’m all for a breadth of knowledge) or if they constituted “Plan B.”

I am SO opposed to “Plan B.” 

How successful can you be at anything, when you’re simultaneously planning for failure? Especially now, when it’s impossible to predict future needs, it seems like a waste to spend time (and considerable money) on anything you’re not passionate about. My parents’ idea of Plan B for me, given that I liked art and bought a lot of clothes, was fashion illustration. I bet most of you don’t even know what fashion illustration is, since outside of a few Lord & Taylor ads that made it into the eighties, the field evaporated shortly thereafter. Besides, I hated it.

Lord & Taylor, 1984 (Copyright may apply)

However what my parents would really have liked was for me to get a good corporate job so I could live a lifetime of security, and we all know how long that lasted (it did work for my brother, a computer engineer, but only because he was ahead of his time—and he couldn’t have studied computer science in college because there weren’t yet programs for it).

It’s amazing to think that just a few years ago students were crowding journalism schools (Journalism? What’s that?), and last week the Times ran an article entitled, “Is Law School a Losing Game?”  Is nothing sacred?

[Interestingly, I did take a class in eighth grade that has always stood me in good stead: typing, a subject that was discontinued soon after, as it was seen as helpful only to those who would become secretaries.]

Outside of an ability to get to a place on time and actually complete tasks (qualities that are more unusual than you’d think), what do the times require? What will they require?  Well it’s always good to be the best at whatever you do, and those people will succeed, even if they choose to be journalists or lawyers. But also…people who are flexible and adaptable, who can think on their feet, think outside the box, are realistic about their strengths and weaknesses, have good social and organizational skills and surprisingly—we didn’t expect this, did we?—can write well. People who know how to learn, since in the future we will no doubt be reinventing ourselves on a regular basis, if we aren’t already (and while I always hesitate to agree with David Brooks, he touches on some of these same issues here).

So where do you go to develop these essential attributes? For one, a school like Bennington College, where I used to teach, where learning to think for yourself is built into the program, and barring that—well, I never saw myself as an advocate of art studies, but it seems as good a way as any to find out who you are and explore what you can do.

And who knows? You might even become an artist.


Eva said...

I think I am against Plan B - but I am not completely sure. I've worked a lot of day jobs which eventually informed my work. One thing I do know - artists who only study art are rather narrow. I like art about life too, about literature or science or music for example. This may take a certain investment in those fields.

deb said...

This post reminds me of a visit to the doctors office I just made with my 16 year old daughter. The dr, making small talk asked what she planned on doing, she replied that she intends to be an actress, the dr asked what her back-up plan was and I am proud to report she said "my family doesn't do back up plans, you only get one life you know!". She is smart, beautiful and determined, graduating from high school early and working her butt of to get every theatre experience that is available to her here. She may NOT end up on the stage, but she will be sure she ends up some where she wants to be!!

LXV said...

Here's a quotation from a book entitled How to Survive and Prosper as an Artist by Caroll Michel, who I gather is an artist who also works as some sort of artist's consultant. He writes: "The phrase dual career is a euphemism for holding two jobs, and under the Judeo-Christian work ethic it is emblematic of fortitude, stamina, dedication, and responsibility. But in reality, anyone engaged in a dual career for any length of time understands that it creates a life-style of frustration, confusion, stress, chaos, exhaustion, and guilt."
As much as I have learned from my day jobs over the decades, it is heartbreaking to be separated from my real work for any length of time.

Anonymous said...

What is failed to be discussed here is that not everyone is a trust fund kid. It takes enormous amounts of energy to work a day job for food and rent, and then do studio time during off hours. I am thinking this is a "person of privilege" discussion. If you have all of your basics covered, it's easy to say follow your passion.

Carol Diehl said...

Gee, did I say anything about day jobs? I was talking about something different--preparing in college for something you don't really want to do. I don't know any trust fund kids, but I do know a lot of people who've found their way to making a life in art through simply following their interests.

And I do believe you can successfully do many things and be an artist--I've done quite a few, including being a writer and teaching both college art and tai chi, and I have a friend who's a doctor with a full-fledged art career--as long as they feed your soul and your art.

Joanne Mattera said...

I like your anti-Plan B attitude. As you poiht out, there's a lot of meshing of skills in the lives of creative people. I worked in publishing for a long time because its regular hours (I rarely worked late) allowed me nice chunks of studio time, plus a decent wage and perks like vacation time. Now that I'm full time in the studio--"full time in the studio," a euphemism for self-employment that requires as much time running the business of art as it does in actually making art--I find that those years in publishing have provided me with good communication and organizational skills for writing, blogging, curating, gathering artists together for projects, and simply saying what I want to say.

I would probably call my old day job Plan A.1

Carol Diehl said...

Here's to Plan A.1!

I figured I'd had 32 jobs by the time I was 32 (I was a temp for part of that time).

Each of my jobs served me in some way.

I never intended to "be" anything.

Kathy Hodge said...

I think I was too clueless in college to think much about Plan B, apart from a few classes in graphic art and illustration. So I graduated with a degree in painting and bumbled along with day jobs in graphic art, learning web design along the way. I find that few people end up with jobs in their majors after all, so I say go for what you are most interested in while you can.

Now if I can just figure out a way to ditch the day job.

Lindsay said...

I love this post. As a student of yours at Bennington, I can certainly say I did not have a Plan B and never felt any pressure to come up with one. I just had the will to paint and write and read and that's what I did. And I think everything turned out just fine. These days I wish I devoted more of my time to painting, which makes me all the happier I did just that in college.

Carol Diehl said...

Hi Lindsay, so glad to hear from you and to learn that you are still painting!