Saturday, May 22, 2010

The Arts - for fun or for profit?

Since I haven't been posting much lately, I thought I'd dust off a draft I found lying around.

Some time ago, I read an article (in Swedish) about the situation for poets and authors in a market-driven economy:

Being married to a freelance opera singer, and having such an impossible hobby as bel canto singing myself, I believe I have pretty good insight into the problem: A few artists reach "name recognition" and start making money. For every one who manages to break through, there are many who are as good - perhaps even better, at least in some regard - who don't. It's not fair, it's not particularly predictable, and you'd be stupid to go for a singing career for the money.

At the same time, I would like to highlight one particular phrase from that article. Google translate gets it all wrong:
"In the case of literature, which is the only area
where I have no knowledge and no transparency, ..."
(It should be "where I have some knowledge and some insight").

This is where I think it gets problematic, and it rubs me the wrong way, and I want to describe why.

I have some knowledge and some insight into several areas. Being the son of a former Olympic Track & Field coach, and having practiced sports myself with some success until my mid-20s, I claim some knowledge in that field.

It takes about 10 years to become a top athlete, and during that time, you should be prepared to spend 2-4 hours/day, 5-7 days/week, training hard. And you'd be stupid to do it for the money - very few Track & Field athletes can make a living on their sport. As a consequence, practically everyone studies for a day job on the side. Many of my former T&F buddies are now engineers (like me), which means that while putting in this time training, they also spent 30 hrs/week at school and about the same amount doing homework. This is true even for athletes who won medals in the European Championships, and by any measure, that qualifies you as an elite practitioner. Among Swedish T&F stars, high jumper Staffan Strand and pole vaulter Martin Eriksson come to mind. Both won international Championship medals and completed advanced Computer Science degrees at the same time.

Why bring this up? As a former athlete, I've been surprised that so many aspiring artists do not even attempt to prepare for a good second career. Not only do they only know one field; they seem to have no backup plan, should they fail in their bid for a spot among the few financially successful artists. In Track & Field, we had the luxury of being able to measure the quality of our performance. This could give early indicators of your potential for a successful career. It is decidedly more difficult for an artist, but shouldn't this make it even more important to have a backup plan?

I should say that I don't necessarily fault the artists. The education system for artists does not seem to be set up to allow for a parallel career, whereas athletes are usually assumed to have a day job. In Sweden, athletes find their support mostly in non-profit organizations (clubs), where people devote their spare time to coaching and otherwise supporting athletes at all levels. I used to help out teaching coaching techniques during weekends. The students included budding athletes, former athletes interested in taking up coaching and parents who got involved in order to support their kids.

It is actually quite amazing how sophisticated an "education" our athletes would get primarily through unpaid labor. What's more, those who realized that they didn't have the talent (or perhaps not the motivation) to become elite athletes, often became the backbone of the club instead, competing at a suitable level, coaching, organizing events, and rejoicing in helping others excel, while finding an outlet for their own passion and love for the sport at the same time.

As my son is now playing bandy, I have found a reason to don my ancient ice skates and become one of those supportive parents collecting balls and assisting the real coaches. I was immensely proud of my son the other day as he rose at 6:30am on Jan 2 to play an away game in Västerås, losing 0-9 (they are really good) but being a great trooper all the way and putting up a good fight, with high spirits, all the way to the end. It is a great privilege to be a part of this, and of course, there is no expectation of future earnings; even most elite bandy players have jobs on the side.

The other area where I claim considerable expertise is software development, and I see some interesting analogies here. For one thing, software development is intensely creative. It requires thorough theoretical knowledge, years of practice, and a highly inquisitive mind. It is in fact so intellectually stimulating that few things can compete...

...or perhaps I should say, that's the way it can be. Many software developers have day jobs, where they do what they are told, and live in constant frustration because they are not allowed to use the best tools, the best approaches, and work in small, highly creative teams. They churn out industry software for a living, and then hang out in Internet forums on their free time, discussing their hobby projects with fellow hackers. The result of their work is stored on the Web as Open Source Software, free for anyone to use and improve.

Several Open Source software projects have actually become so good that it is now among the best software money can buy (though it is free), even to the point that it is now practically impossible to develop and sell certain types of software components for profit. There is no market for anything but perhaps an even better freely available version. The software industry is going through the same kind of transformation as the record and movie industry, but is years ahead of them both.

It is interesting for me to compare notes between my programmer self and my singer self. The scary part about singing is that you cannot really separate yourself from your art. You are your instrument, and what's more, you have very few ways to measure your quality other than other people's subjective opinion. I have commented earlier about how even professionals seem to have difficulty separating the singer's technique from his/her personality. See also Jean-Ronald Lafond's excellent blog post on "debunking the talent myth".

While programming is an incredibly creative and (to me) deeply personal activity, the product is very much a thing separate from myself. A program tends to either work or not, and I can judge the quality of my work by the number of bugs that are found in my programs, and how many people find them useful. Judging the quality of my singing by how many people are willing to pay to hear me sing is something I try very hard not to do.

There is much to be said for having art or music as a hobby or sidekick rather than a profession. I think many artists would be better off doing so, or at least feeling that they had the choice. An education system that practically requires you to go for being an artist full-time is most likely contributing to a great deal of frustration.

In a sense, I guess this could be interpreted as a plea for more market-oriented thinking: if you are good enough, or if your "product" is sufficiently in demand, you may be able to become a full-time professional. Otherwise, it may be much better to have a fallback occupation (preferably one that you enjoy a lot), and adjust your level of involvement in the Arts.

I think there is a different dynamic possible for the Arts. The question is: how to get there?


Mirko Bonadei said...

Good point Ulf. I agree with your point of view. Completely.
The next time that I will be so lucky to meet you, I hope I could hear you sing something good.

Good week-end


Ulf Wiger said...

Thank you Mirko. Take care.


Luc said...

Hello Ulf.

Read your post because (1) I'm having trouble with Erlang and (2) I'm part-time guitarist. For me, art (singing or playing an instrument or painting...) and computer programming is about creating something that others can re "execute". We can play Bach and make others feel well... Can any sport match this?

Ulf Wiger said...


Well, I think sports have the thing in common with the Arts that it appeals to us at a very basic level. Also, a sports event has the wonderful quality of happening "now" - you can't really know what to expect (Usain Bolt's false start in the recent World Championship finals was one fine example of that, but perhaps even better was Women's Javelin competition - sheer performance art, if you ask me).

As a programmer, I love the feeling of building something that lasts, and that other people can use. As an opera singer, the feeling that you have to "build" your instrument every day, and never know what is going to happen during a recital, is something that I find pretty similar to being a competing athlete.

Aritul said...

Hello, Ulf,

You'll have to figure me for posting in the comments section, a comment that does not correspond with your journal entry. However, I cannot think of a better place to post it.

Is there a video of your wife singing "Midt i alt det meningsløse"? It's a Norwegian hymn that I can't find anywhere.


Ulf Wiger said...


I'm sorry, but my wife has not sung that one, nor am I able to find it (except the lyrics) on the Web.

Aritul said...

That is really unfortunate since I really like that song. Oh well, if she decides to do a rendition of it, please post in on youtube.