The Dangerous Real World

I have been fortunate enough this year to have gone on a lot of trips to weddings, bachelor parties, and engagement parties. Each trip was like a small vacation in itself. Because they were all for either steadfast old friends or exciting, relatively new friends, each event had that sort of glow to it. The kind that starts to fade when you pack up your bags and return home, expecting to work the next day. You say to yourself “back to the real world,” even though in your heart you know that everything you just experienced is just as “real” as the work you are about to start. In a way it is even more “real,” because the vividness and potency of those memories will last far longer than any cycles of labor you may go through the next day, and definitely will have more value than any dollars you may earn through that labor.

When we were in college, specifically ending college, we spent a lot of time talking about how we were about to enter the “real world.” Of course, what we meant by this was “the world of having to financially fend for yourself.” You might throw socially and vocationally in there too, but college is already a test of your capacity to socially define yourself and vocationally make choices about your direction. The “real world” really referred to having to pay for our own stuff, and pay back any debt we may have accrued while we were still forming our brains.

Again, it is a terrible misnomer, because when I think back on college I am full of very vivid memories of real life and experiences, some very good, some bad. It is simply because they were not “economical” that they don’t fit in with our wryly named “real world.” The things we can’t put a dollar value on don’t get called “real” even though we know them to be fully real.

We do the same thing as artists with our work, and we make what I believe is a deadly decision of language, even though we often do it in jest. We sweat and toil to bring about moments of beauty and passion or profound images, and when we walk away from the experience, we say “back to the real world.” Or when we go about the business of negotiating a fee or a contract for our work we refer to it as “the real world of being a working artist” as if it is somehow more “real” than the profound work we have engaged in.

Why do we do this?


I’ve been reading a phenomenal book, it’s called “Small is Beautiful” by E.F. Schumacher. It was written in 1973 and lays out what has become the foundation for the modern sustainability movement. He starts by addressing an easily overlooked problem: the primacy of economics as our main mode of measuring good. The science of economics has somehow become our measure of success on both a personal and a global scale, even though economic principles alone (whether applied via private enterprise or public enterprise) cannot provide a moral basis for action, and in fact will always be boiled down to the idea that “more productivity for less work is better,” and the “better for what?” question is never really answered. The book is excellent and bears reading by anyone who thinks about work, money and the world, which is everyone.

Schumacher provides insight into our question of the “real world” when he talks about how we have been overwhelmed by the idea that quantitative distinctions are somehow more important than qualitative distinctions. He points out that this ranking is a false construct, but it is easy to make this error because quantitative distinctions are easy to define and qualitative ones are hard, fuzzy, and require a great deal of study and thought. This is not deriding quantitative data as a mode of understanding the world, but we have to recognize that we ultimately choose what data to use, or even how to go about gathering that data, in a qualitative manner. We can’t escape it.

When we make personal decisions about money, when we as artists or professionals negotiate a contract, we are ultimately making a qualitative decision. We always bring other factors to bear other than the dollar value of the item purchased or the contract we are signing.

It is deadly to distinguish between the “real world” (of quantitative problems) and the “dream world” of good work and good experiences because they are ultimately the same world. The world of personal finance that we dreaded entering when we were in college is a world in which we have to make value decisions, and if money itself is the primary value then we should all quit being artists. But it is not. Money is a mode of transferring value, it is not in and of itself value, and it is an imperfect measure of value.

I’m certainly not advocating that we flip the whole thing on its head and pretend that money is meaningless. Money is meaningless by itself, but it is full of meaning when placed in the context of 1) people and 2) other things of value. An example: what charity one gives to, if at all, is a strong indicator of what one values.

Money is a mode of transfer. We need to know how to deal with it and be unafraid of that, and put it in its proper place. It should not be at the top of our values when we measure what is real and what is not, but neither should we as humans and as artists pretend that the world of money, the world formerly referred to as the “real world,” is a sham simply because it is not the only reality.

What I am advocating is a fresh perspective on money, art, and value for those who are working in the field, and for those who are being educated in the arts, education in the business of art. Young artists can be taught a balanced appreciation for the value of what they are doing and the value of money itself. Too often I believe these students are graduating with a strong sense of creative purpose but a weak and frantic sense of what money is, how to manage it, how to pay rent and taxes, and what all that has to do with making art. It can be learned the hard way, which breeds resentment, or it can be taught. I think the latter is more appropriate and anyone who is looking for a college program should keep an eye out for programs that provide at least some training in the business of the arts, because an artist is a sole proprietor and if you don’t know what that means you had better learn fast.

I could never have gone to those weddings and parties with all of my wonderful friends and family without the expenditure of money, sacrificed for some very worthwhile experiences. This is not a case going to a dream world by means of what was done in a real world, but rather the intersection of some very real things within a single world.

So get real.

(As for the issue of the work of artists being a very real contribution to the rest of the real world, that is a post for another day. )

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