The Artist Dance by Michael Hopkins

The Artist Dance

“What do you do for a living?”

Uh-oh. The dance begins. I am an artist, and I identify myself as such. It seems that most people, however, identify each other by how they make a living. If you’re an artist, like me, and make some of your living from sales of your work but need another source of income to get by… Well, then the dance continues.

Sometimes I grow weary of being asked this question. I have given these responses: I’m a Third World dictator… a whale gutter… an eavesdropper for the NSA… a proctologist. These responses generally bring things to a screeching halt. Dance over?

When I’m not giving responses like the ones above, and I answer honestly, artist, the inquiry that often follows is, “Do you make your living from your art?”

Well, I do make part of my living from my art. When I tell people this, they may ask, “So, you’re like a Sunday painter, right?” I’m not sure why people feel the need to clarify this. I sometimes want to say, “Can I leave the witness stand now, or do you need to see my tax returns?”

In my opinion, money is the worst way to keep score. The list of famous fraudsters who have made lots of money is endless: Bernie Madoff, Jeffrey Skilling, Dennis Kozlowski, Ivan Boesky and Charles Keating, for a start. Our value is not in our income level. I am not my bank account.

Artists have often supplemented sales of their work with a variety of other endeavors. Sculptor Richard Serra was a furniture mover. The acclaimed Constantin Brancusi was a dishwasher. The author Kurt Vonnegut Jr. once managed a Saab dealership. Many of the artists I know supplement their art income by teaching. Talent, job, profession, life’s work… do these have to be one and the same?

An excellent non-art example of this conundrum is Albert Einstein. Einstein had some of his greatest scientific breakthroughs while working six days a week as a Swiss patent clerk. I wonder what he answered when asked, “Mr. Einstein, what do you do for a living?”

His answer could have been, “Well, I make my living as a patent clerk, but I’ve had some incredible ideas of late. Have you ever heard of e=mc2?”

What a conversation stopper. The inquirer might smile and answer, “Oh, how nice. Would you like some celery with cream cheese?” No wonder Einstein’s hair grayed so early.

Lately, after I’ve asserted that I’m an artist, I remain silent when asked the inevitable question, “Do you make your living at it?” Silence is golden—though in this case it’s also slightly awkward. Despite this awkwardness, I have found that this approach works well for me. Dance over.


Michael Hopkins is a writer and artist who makes drawings, paintings, and sculptures. He has work in numerous museum collections including the Art Institute of Chicago. He has work in numerous corporate art collections including the Progressive Collection and the Wellcome Trust Collection in London, England. He is a Pollock-Krasner Foundation Grant recipient.