Art as a Vocation – Ammunition for the Holidays

It’s coming time for the holidays again. For many people, that means a gathering of relatives and friends that you may only see once a year, if that. These are the folks that saw you first beating on the furniture when you were six, later followed by you beating on the drums in high school marching band, and who shared stories of their own experiences with music lessons. These same relatives might have dutifully filed into the school musical when you were going to be a movie star, laughing politely at poorly written jokes in the script and trying not to laugh at the sometimes abysmal acting. While I was growing up, they were the patient listeners to my passionate teenage saxophone wailing which was often accompanied by the family dog’s howling – a greater delight for the crowd, I suspect, than hearing me play.

For many family gatherings over the years, keen interest in your artistic pursuits continues. Who doesn’t say admiringly, “my cousin plays a mean saxophone”, or “little Susie sure has gotten good at playing those bongos!”. Remember when you sold Girl Scout Cookies or wrapping paper in elementary school and it didn’t seem too tough to make a sale? These are the same folks that are the first to buy your debut album, or your painting no one else likes, or to get tickets to a show. Your relatives and friends become your first fans, and their encouragement helps you buckle down and pursue your art.

Except, one day, it isn’t cute anymore. You’ve finished school, or you can’t get away with describing yourself as a “twenty something”, or all your friends have settled down into a life of steady jobs – maybe even with babies in tow. But there you are, still doing your art. You might be known in your field, having had a few showings at choice galleries, or some reviews in national magazines, or even had your name on the Grammy ballot. But you weren’t nominated, not yet, and that piece of art you sold for a couple thousand, once, didn’t get you into a nicer apartment, or pay off your student loans. Not famous, not rich, not even “comfortable”. What are you?

If you are lucky, you’ll still have folks that support you among your family, and have made the kind of friends who don’t care if you follow an accepted path of existence for adults, even if they don’t really quite understand why you would rather sit home practicing long tones than be able to buy a pair of new shoes. I’m lucky enough that my immediate family still believes in my music. My parents are still often the first ones to call about show tickets, and they don’t ever ask to be on the guest list of comp tickets. This doesn’t mean that around the edges of their “suspension of disbelief”, as I like to call it, there isn’t a little bit of wondering at what point I’ll be a little more practical.

If you haven’t heard them yet, you might start to hear some whisperings at these holiday gatherings, or even some outright questions. “Why don’t you become an art teacher”, for example, or “I’ve heard (such and such day job) pays well – and you can still do your music on weekends!”. You might also get some sighs of “you’ve got it so easy – like I’ll ever have time to do xyz, ha!” – if it happens to come out that, by working for yourself, your schedule allows you to take time to do something during the day like taking a walk, or sitting in the sun reading a book. For those who question your artistic pursuits at these times, you need a little ammunition. You may not change anyone’s mind, and that’s not even important. What’s important is not letting other people’s mindsets affect your will to pursue your art.

That’s why I consider the pursuit of art a vocation – something I am called to do, a service to others, if you will, something beyond myself. Just like a calling to the priesthood, to be an aid worker, or a community organizer, a calling to the “arthood” begins with the belief that you can help others with your talent, and that sharing this ability outweighs any financial gain. As much as I love music, I don’t play music solely for the love of it. I play because I’m driven to play, because I feel it is how I can make my best contribution to society, because I have a gift that would be wrong not to share.

Sound egotistical? If this was about ego, I’d have given up the trying and uncertain life of an artist long ago for my fifteen minutes of You Tube fame (The Little Lady Saxophonist and Her Howling Dogs!), gone on reality television, or traded my saxophone for a shiny new pair of shoes so I could swagger into the next holiday gathering. Think about your own artistic life. Would you really have endured all the criticism, the hard work, the self-scrutiny, and the tough financial times if art weren’t a vocation? This year, when you walk into the room of relatives and friends and face awkward questions about what you do with your time, remind yourself what the word “vocation” means, and don’t let it get to you.