The day job

ONCE UPON A time, artists had jobs. And not “advising the Library of Congress on its newest Verdi acquisition” jobs, but job jobs, the kind you hear about in stump speeches. Think of T.S. Eliot, conjuring “The Waste Land” (1922) by night and overseeing foreign accounts at Lloyds Bank during the day, or Wallace Stevens, scribbling lines of poetry on his two-mile walk to work, then handing them over to his secretary to transcribe at the insurance agency where he supervised real estate claims. The avant-garde composer Philip Glass shocked at least one music lover when he materialized, smock-clad and brandishing plumber’s tools, in a home with a malfunctioning appliance. “While working,” Glass recounted to The Guardian in 2001, “I suddenly heard a noise and looked up to find Robert Hughes, the art critic of Time magazine, staring at me in disbelief. ‘But you’re Philip Glass! What are you doing here?’ It was obvious that I was installing his dishwasher and I told him that I would soon be finished. ‘But you are an artist,’ he protested. I explained that I was an artist but that I was sometimes a plumber as well and that he should go away and let me finish.”

That is from Katy Waldman in the NYT.  You will find similar themes discussed in my earlier book In Praise of Commercial Culture.  In her article I also enjoyed this part:

Edi Rama, the Prime Minister of Albania, sometimes feels his hand doodling as he contemplates a political decision. The art pours out to center and steady him. In 1998, Rama left a promising career as an artist in Paris to become Albania’s minister of culture. Now the country’s leader, he shows his loose, improvisatory drawings and sculptures in galleries around the world. “I found myself drawing almost all my working time whilst interacting with people in my office or on the phone,” he said in a 2016 interview. “I began to understand that my subconscious was being helped … by my hand to stay calm while my conscious had to focus on demanding topics.”



Has Taleb commented on this sort of thing?

Yes, he talks about it briefly in Antifragile and suggests that a barbell strategy is good for artists -- steady and reliable work on one hand and high-upside creative risk on the other.

"People are not spiders."
Well, Virginia Woolf was pretty close.

Thanks - that was a good read. I worry that too many writers make their living as English professors. They might be happier if they were at least teaching another discipline.

And Harrison Ford was a carpenter. I am pretty sure I know which has provided more pleasure to more people when compared to Philip Glass. Although unlike most modern composers at least you can say that Glass gives the audience what they want.

What is interesting about Glass is not that he had to have a day job - and I blame Dashiell Hammett for making every America "artist" need to pretend he is a tough guy by listing a lot of fake jobs to prove their proletarian credentials - but that he won every possible award there could be for a musician - Julliard, a Fulbright Scholarship to France, everything - and he still had to work as a plumber as a day job.

That suggests the American public has better taste than I thought.

That's one of the underrated features of the Olympics: people with jobs excelling at sports. I simply admire their devotion

It depends a lot on the sport. AFAIK, in swimming you need too many hours in the pool to succeed in competition. A real day job is not very practical. But if you are distance runner, it is practical. They may run 210km/week, an average of 30km/day which may take them no more than two hours.

Ron Hill used to get up in the morning and do a ten-mile run, and then do another ten-mile run when he came home from work. Fortunately for him, Ron Hill could do a ten mile training run in no more than an hour so it was easy for him to hold down a day job.

Sort of like a violinist or a pianist vs. a trumpet player.

If we look at heads of state, Hoxha of Albania and Tudjman of Croatia were both academics -- Hoxha wrote something like 70 books, which at one time dominated the school textbooks in Albania, as well as a highly regard memoir of his interactions with Stalin and Tito. Salazar of Portugal was a dentist. Margaret Thatcher was a chemist. The current Assad of Syria was an ophthalmologist.

"You will find similar themes discussed in my earlier book In Praise of Commercial Culture. "

Ugh, $21.50 on Kindle!

Well, it is "commercial culture", after all.

Yeah, “In Praise of Free Culture” is free, but it’s not as interesting.

Well, it is Tyler's real job.

I admit that I have no idea what price point maximizes profits (we're not talking about a book that is currently in much demand, it's 20 years old), but a lot of people would just buy it used for $8 (delivered) instead or skip it. It's more expensive on kindle than all his other non-academic books.

I bought it second hand here in The Netherlands for less than half the price. But when I searched for a long quote (being too lazy to type it) I found several scans online. I think you professionals now would add "Solve for the equilibrium"? :-)

In my day job,

I am faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, and able to leap tall buildings in a single bound,

So sitting here writing is different and very relaxing.


Editor Perry White "speechless" as previous award-winning Journalist suspended.

Referred to Daily Planet ethics board for conflict of interest in covering stories he personally featured in as well as violations of moonlighting and anti-trust guidelines. Questions over foreign travel, earnings and endorsement. Second home in Artic undeclared on federal Income Tax. Law abiding businessman Lex Luthor announces plan to sue Daily Planet corp for $600B for loss of earnings, world domination. Live-in lover Louis Lane silent; 'what did she know and when did she know it?".

It is Lois Lane. She was not born a man. Besides, these days she would be on Ellen talking about her role in the MeToo movement and the necessity of getting all creepy Beta males who keep trying to express a romantic interest at work fired.

I am curious. Have you ever talked to a woman? It seems unlikely. Don't worry, they fear you as much as you fear them. Well, what they feel may be more like loathing and revulsion, but you got my point.

Everybody Wang Chung tonight!

Hey, you guys are creative. Go for it. +1

This complements Cowen's earlier jab at funding for the arts (and other such things) in the latest Republican budget. As an alternative criticism of the Republicans, Cowen could have pointed out that the investment spike promised from the corporate tax cut didn't happen and likely contributed no more to investment than funding for the arts.

The liberal arts were, by definition, knowledge for the sake of knowledge and not as a profession. For that reason they were almost exclusively the province of the wealthy.

The fine arts are little different.

"Edi Rama, the Prime Minister of Albania, sometimes feels his hand doodling as he contemplates a political decision. The art pours out to center and steady him." I can relate to that. While I don't consider myself an artist, I find doodling also centers and steadies me. Only it's Gregg Shorthand, and I write little stories while in boring meetings or lectures, usually related to the topic being discussed but not always. It helps me not tune out the boring material altogether.

Nice! Where did you learn shorthand? I thought shorthand was a dead art.

Life imitating art. Why do some works of art have value and others don't? I'm referring to works of art that are priced in the millions, tens of millions, hundreds of millions. How are those works of art different from high quality works of art that are priced in the thousands or hundreds of thousands? Or for that matter, from works of art that are priced at less than a thousand dollars? I have the same question about cryptocurrencies and other assets that don't in themselves produce a return (like rent, dividends, or interest) and are attractive investments only because of the expectation that someone will pay a higher price for it later. Of course, wealth fuels the expectation of rising asset prices, the greater the concentration of wealth, the higher the price may go. But it's not just works of art and assets like cryptocurrencies that benefit from concentrations of wealth, as some labor does too. No, not labor like the plumber in Cowen's post, but labor like banking. Banking is an attractive high paying job because, well, that's where the money is, and the more of it the greater the concentration of it. One might make the case that rising asset prices, whether works of art, cryptocurrencies, or banking, are just an illusion, that the only real value is reflected in assets that generate a return (like rent, dividends, or interest) or, in the case of labor, actually produce something useful (like a dishwasher that's installed by a plumber). That's inherent in the justification for the corporate tax cut: that it would cause a spike in investment in productive capital. But that too turned out to be an illusion, as most of the tax cut has been devoted to the expectation of rising asset prices. Have you tried to find a plumber lately when you really needed one?

Creativity, the word creativity, has not yet appeared in these comments. Briefly, and somewhat rephrasing what's in the article -- Spending lots of hours in a totally different activity might help creative processes in several ways. 1. Taking a break from directly thinking about the creative projects allows for an 'incubation' period, often considered important in creativity studies. 2. The day job can sometimes provide a different perspective on old patterns. 3. Spending all of your time immersed in the arena of status signalling competition in a field that becomes ever more narrow as you become ever slightly more expert in it can be a process of stagnation for networks of individuals as well as individuals themselves.

Great example of Drucker's "second career" concept.

There are other ways of being supported. Mark Rothko was asked by an aspiring artist about the secret of success. “Marry a rich woman,” was his response.

Is this true? Source please.

I didn't like Philip Glass until now. Now I like him a lot.

One can also read into this blog post a fanboy of Jordan Peterson. A real man does real work like plumbing. Whether Cowen actually agrees with Peterson's ideas about politics is unclear, but his admiration for Peterson is unmistakable ("the most influential public intellectual in the Western world right now"). One will recall criticism of right wingers is that they lacked "empathy". Peterson exhibits empathy on steroids, it's just empathy for a very narrow slice of people. Anyway, here is one of the dozens of profiles of Peterson that are available on-line:

It's bad enough that JP's fans are trying to insert him into every conversation online, now it has to be his detractors, too?

So the guy's day job is as Albania's leader. I bet his mother reminds him everyday that she wanted him to be a dentist instead of that artist thing. Moms are never wrong.

The biblical scholar Thompson worked as a high school teacher, janitor, and house painter during the spell when he couldn't get a university post . His PhD dissertation had been rejected for being - if I may paraphrase - too scholarly for the Roman Catholic church's taste. Papa Ratzi would seem to have been the malefactor in this tale but that was before he became a Holiness and thereby infallible..

His PhD dissertation had been rejected for being – if I may paraphrase – too scholarly erroneous for the Roman Catholic church’s taste.


Actually, it was rejected for questioning the historicity of the Bible, in particular the Old Testament, offending more Jews than Catholics. He taught part-time at the Univ. of North Carolina in the 1970s, long before the New Testament scholar, and New Testament historicity skeptic, Bart Ehrman joined the faculty at Chapel Hill. I'm a Christian but I'm not so simple minded that I believe in the historicity of the Bible - it's a theological document. Of course, as we learn daily at this blog people will believe anything.

As I recall, Benjamin Whorf of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis was an insurance company executive who worked on linguistics in his spare time.

Just like the New York Times: they don't know any working artists! As if there were none. As if the author of the article sought and did not find.

Do changes in technology provide more outlets for creativity, and reduce barriers to entry into areas where one had to have non-creative technical expertise or a network linked to those who had resources to publish or distribute the product.

So, for example, one used to have an enlarger, darkroom, multiple lenses, special cameras etc. to be a professional photographer.

One used to have to be connected to the publishing community to have a book printed. Today, one publishes electronically.

To make a movie one used to have very expensive cameras and software systems tied to mini-computers. Today, indie films are low budget.

Maybe we can be creative in the same spaces as predecessors that we could not have been creative before.

Technology democratizes creative spaces that were once closed,

Yes, absolutely.


- Gangnam Style was a multi-million selling MP3 despite almost no coverage by the mainstream media. It was carried across social networks.
- The Martian was only picked up by publishers after it had already been released, to some success as an ebook
- Tangerine and Soderbergh's latest film, Unsane, were shot on iPhones.

Many filmmakers are advising people not to bother with film school. Werner Herzog suggests filmmakers should get a job, like working in a strip club, make a load of money and then take time off to make films.

But on the other hand we have Fifty Shades of Grey. Also an e-book that became so successful conventional publishers could not ignore it.

I didn't say the products were necessarily good ;-)

That said, 50 Shades of Grey was about being the first product in a new market. The anonymity of ebooks led to women buying books like it, which led to a publisher recognising there was a market and designing books with tasteful covers (unlike the garish covers of old porn books that women wouldn't want to be seen with).

But the market was immature. Women didn't know what porn book to buy, or maybe weren't aware of other porn books, so just dived onto this one. It's worth noting that after a couple of other similar books, there really hasn't been another huge selling porn book. The market is much more diverse and probably better.

Examples from the realm of classical music are abundant (in the US, at least, it has always been problematic, and most of the time impossible, to be a composer as one's sole source of income: I can't think of more than two or three exceptions). Charles Ives was an insurance executive; Stephen Albert was a professional philatelist; Peter Homans ran a hedge fund; Gordon Getty runs a foundation; and of course most composers teach, which is quite different from composing. The Albanian premier has a distinguished predecessor: Ignacy Jan Paderewski, storied pianist and distinguished composer, was foreign minister and president of Poland.

Yeah, and Donald Trump had a rock band called "The Big Fingers", with a lead singer named Stormy Daniels.

I heard he paints, too! But then the bathroom maid comes and cleans it up.

The vast majority of novelists have a "day" job. I don't think it's much different for other artistic pursuits. If you look at the talent pool for the voice, probably 80% of those very good singers have day jobs. I'm trying, but I can think of an artistic pursuit where most of the artists don't have a job in another field. Fashion designers, maybe???

Don’t most artists have day jobs? Except for a very few able to sustain themselves through actual art sales, almost every person I know in visual arts is either in tv/film production, video games, graphic design or teaching. If this is a statement on subsidies, it seems that very few end up in any subsidized role.

Most of the visual artists I know are computer programmers or scientists... most of the musicians I know have retail jobs.

Once upon a time did philosophers too have "job jobs"? Ryan Holiday says among the pioneers of stoicism were an emperor, a rich merchant, a political adviser, and a boxer cum water-carrier. In the 20th century I can think of the eminent Hindu philosopher Radhakrishnan who was president of India ( no real power despite being the "first citizen", but a good salary, big house with plenty of perks even after retirement.)

It’s a great idea to not have your source of funds (job), and the thing you do for meaning (work) be the same thing... much greater flexibility.

But the day job needs to be something that doesn't consume too much brainpower.
I used to work as a lawyer and didn't get anything else done, because I couldn't switch off from the cases.
When I downshifted my life, I worked at a bookstore. It was not challenging at all, but I could let my mind wander all day and start writing as soon as I left the shop.

Comments for this post are closed