in defense of unprofessional
on play, not getting paid, and the art animal
Hey — I made a website from scratch this month. I don’t know how to code at all. I feel like this text on the homepage of Zonelets, which is a free blogging engine (that I do not use, lol), describes the whole thing succinctly:
Plenty of services can help you to “create a professional-looking website without writing a single line of code.” Now, thanks to Zonelets, you can create an UNPROFESSIONAL-looking website by writing NUMEROUS lines of code! ...Hey, wait, come back! Let me explain!
Take a quick stroll through the internet and the IndieWeb and you’re likely to find plenty of personal manifestos against the state of the current web and its sleek, storage-heavy animations, its buffed-until-shiny sanitization, and how everything seems to sing, with big white teeth, about maximizing our potential. Against this, the new wave of personal websites is a kind of cultural, individual resistance. Not against professionalism or professional-grade work, but against the dissolving of the public-private life. I have spent enough time browsing people’s niche Pokemon Web-shrines and gardening logs and gorgeous articles on J-fashion to say, wholeheartedly, that I am obsessed.
Hence the website made from scratch. It’s a space-ship themed website where I basically just draw lots of pictures and share things that I like, and I keep it wholly separate from my professional and real-life identity.1 I’m addicted. Some days I spend hours just working on my website. I don’t get paid, obviously. Yet when I work on my website, despite the tedium of code, I feel as if I’m sitting in a chewier, sweeter space and time, in communion with some version of myself vibing thirty seconds in the future: I want that rounded edge on a window and I will work with a burning focus until it’s there. And when the rounded edge is there, finally, it doesn’t feel like something close to joy— it just is.
For a long time I thought getting paid to make art would fix most, if not all of my creative problems. By that I mean I imagined a clear relief in being a creative professional and in making a living doing art. During business school classes I daydreamed about having my own studio and how that paint, the wet clay in the next-door room, that slant of light coming in through an imaginary window, would be enough to set me free.
Recently I completed an illustration commission. I had a wonderful client, clear expectations, and pushed myself creatively in ways I wouldn’t have without the project. It was, by all definitions of client work, a great experience and relationship. Yet it hung over me, still. In the first few days of working on the piece I was wracked with anxiety and dread. Can you just fucking draw already, I said to myself, already begging myself to start drawing despite being delighted about it a few days ago. Or as Alison Zai puts it into fewer words, and much more gracefully:
Why? Perhaps it’s about how even work that you enjoy includes tedium and challenges that upset you. But at the heart of the matter, I think it’s about play; because not all creation is playing, but all play is creation. I’m not writing this to make points against careerism; plenty of smarter people have done that already. I just think play is fundamentally different from working. It’s transformative in the way that work can be. You can end up with things that you’re proud of, professional or not. But relying on your art to make a living is not the same thing as having the freedom to create; if the opposite of work is rest, then play occupies that inimitable third space between them. Play is that strange, undeniable, writhing light that we are, as Youngha Kim says:
If you have kids, you know what I mean. Almost everything kids do is art. They draw with crayons on the wall. They dance to Son Dam Bi's dance on TV, but you can't even call it Son Dam Bi's dance—it becomes the kids' own dance. So they dance a strange dance and inflict their singing on everyone. – Youngha Kim, Be an Artist Right Now
Yes, it seems that living the creative professional’s life is antithetical to being able to draw what you want, or write what you want, or make what you want, at least most of the time. Maybe it’s bringing money into the mess, or that I’m approaching creativity with the intent to generate work from it, like it’s not an animal I’m sharing the same house with. It’s not that I want to make money from making art; it’s just that I want to get paid for something I was going to do anyway, or to deconstruct that further, to have a means of living where I have time, space, and resources to freely make art. It’s that making money from art only gives me a reason to continue trying to make money from art — and why else has a burning influx of blog posts and videos appeared, “demystifying the Instagram algorithm2” and “teaching you how to go viral”?
This isn’t to say that one form of work or making art is morally better or worse. I’m not interested in moralizing art or work. But one is certainly rooted in joy and curiosity. The other one is a job. Perhaps, then, the issue is not that I couldn’t find joy in making stuff, but rather that it was nearly impossible to get joy from the stuff I was making. I see now that, like, I don’t have to be stressed to grow when I do stuff. Certainly stressful situations and pushing myself creatively have helped me, but also they aren’t the only situations in which I get better as an artist. Like guitar. I have no professional aspirations for guitar-playing. I just wanted to play some silly songs. And so guitar has never been stressful for me since I started learning it, yet I still improve at it. If I quantify my improvement over the last year, one could call it inefficient or unoptimized. It’s likely I didn’t improve as quickly as I could have if I pushed myself. So? It’s the playing that heals and redeems me. That is enough.
This isn’t a rejection of one lifestyle or the other. But play is inextricable. We can create and make work and push ourselves and be artists and be professionals and be professional artists:
Once I was in New York and got in a cab. I took the backseat, and in front of me I saw something related to a play. So I asked the driver, "What is this?" He said it was his profile. "Then what are you?" I asked. "An actor," he said. He was a cabby and an actor. I asked, "What roles do you usually play?" He proudly said he played King Lear. King Lear. "Who is it that can tell me who I am?" — what a great line. That's the world I dream of. Someone is a golfer by day and writer by night. Or a cabby and an actor, a banker and a painter, secretly or publicly performing their own arts. — Youngha Kim, Be an Artist Right Now
This feels hopeful to me, in the same way that holding on to playing, in the garden, in the thoughtful music recommendation, in the heart-thrilling obsession, feels hopeful — in these multitudes of identities, no matter how private or unprofessional, we find ways to keep playing, and therefore living. ✨
hope u liked this dispatch. 💖, jess
Though I guess that brings up the question of what constitutes a real-life identity. What I mean to say is that the site is largely anonymous and disconnected from my university and professional career.
Not to mention that these algorithms are barely navigable by even the folks who made them. (as explained by Jaron Lanier in his book, Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now )