The Quest for Respect

2015-10-22 15.45.23

Piyush Agarwal, a good friend and client, commissioned the above pastel portrait of his father, the late Dr. Agarwal (reference photo here).  The subject was revered and loved in his community where he practiced medicine and saved lives for many years.  The client was touched by the portrait.  Perhaps more importantly, his mother was touched.

This is why I paint.  This is why I draw.  If my work touches a single soul, affects his or her emotions as I had hoped for, then I have accomplished something.  If I am able to reach more souls, then so much the better.  Yes, I am asking a fair price for my work, but I’m searching for an emotional impact that goes beyond money.

The social reaction to my decision to switch careers has been remarkable.  Most people seem genuinely happy for me.  They recognize that my family enjoys considerable benefits from my peace of mind and increased availability.  Some openly say that they wish they were in the position to make a similar switch.  In the opinion of these people, I have guts.  I’ve grown a pair.

There is a minority of people, however, that is far more critical and disparaging.  To them, I am free-riding on my wife.  I am selfish and irresponsible.  I am an untrained, self-taught artist and my work is little more than the sketches of a street urchin trying to make a buck while resting over a metro grate in winter.  I am more lucky than talented, they say (though I would ask a trained artist to accurately draw a child’s head and reassess drawing that conclusion).  I should grow up and return to a real job, with real retirement benefits.  It is only a matter of time before I crawl back to the law and, regardless, my wife will divorce me.   To these people I have no guts at all.  I’m a shameless, ungrateful, selfish coward.

It is because of this minority view, the fear of it, that it took me 7 years to take serious action on switching careers.  What propelled me to make the move was an awareness that there was no better time.  Caring for a very sick relative reminded me that none of us really know when we run out of time.  Increasing family obligations were making it impossible to balance art with the law.  I recognized the sexism in feeling that a woman can’t be the primary breadwinner; realized that there is no shame in living a life that I am fortunate enough to have the opportunity to live.  Conservatives, in particular, would seem to swirl in hypocrisy when they say that “it takes a family not a village,” but then invoke the standards of the “village” to assess the financial viability or prestige of switching careers.  Who really knows a family’s financial stability?  Who really knows whether a child is better off living around contentment and passion than around unhappiness and purported stability? I’d rather go to the individual family, who knows its own details, than look to the formulas of the village or to the astrologers and uncertified financial planners who have arisen within this minority.

I wonder whether people would be so judgmental if I were a woman deciding to quit for better quality of life, to pursue a passion, to spend more time with kids, and care for a sick relative?  Probably not.  What if I took a job with an environmental think tank, researching the law for $ 35 K per year and receiving very few benefits?  I probably wouldn’t hear much of anything, yet the monetary risks to my family would be similar to those from pursuing a career in the arts.

As to the debate about what’s real art as opposed to poor quality art, good luck getting to the end of that one.  Go back to the beginning of time to collect all the arguments.  In my view, I’ve succeeded if I manage to move the emotions of the viewer, bring him or her back to the piece to revisit those raw emotions, and continue to expand the range and audience of my work.  Because my contentment and my family’s well being take precedence, I feel that victory is already at hand.

Mid-life crisis or the fruits of wisdom?  It almost feels indulgent to consider at length such a question.  To tell the truth, this write-up reflects the longest thought I’ve given to the question in months.  I’ve been too busy working on commissions.

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