How Does a Millennial Artist Survive under Capitalism?

Capitalism.

The pinnacle of modern and post-modern society. Survive and thrive, or get beaten and eaten. Work work work work work, until you can’t anymore, and hope to God that you retire with money in the bank.

This isn’t the usual tone of my blogs on here, but I wanted to make a blog that’s different than the rest. I need to get this off my chest.

I’m tired.

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I’m tired.

Self Portrait

I’m tired of working. I’m tired of existing in a world where I HAVE to work to survive and have a decent life. I’m tired of endlessly marketing myself, as if I’m some whore for the photographic arts. “Hire me,” I scream to the heavens, hoping someone will bite, so I can put food on my table at the next meal.

Yes, I am a Millennial. And I am proud of that fact. Not many people my age like to talk about that word, or even know what it means. According to most sociologists, the millennial generation are people born from 1981 to 1996 (making them 23 to 38 years old in 2019). The media loves to talk about us, and the word millennial is a buzz word these days. We are also the biggest generation, outweighing the baby boomers, and have been stereotyped as being “lazy,” “entitled,” and “snowflakes.”

However, I have yet to see these stereotypes in ANY of my friends who are millennials. All of my friends that graduated college with me (including those who were older than me) have jobs, and about 75% of those people have full-time jobs. Out of those who have part time jobs, I’d say about half of them have two or three jobs they do, adding up to full time hours. The fact of the matter is that they HAVE to work these hours, otherwise they would be homeless, wouldn’t eat, and/or survive. Most of them are not artists like me, but most of us have worried about where our next meal is coming from in the past month. We’re not even rich enough to buy a Starbucks every morning.

I even turned my trip into Ireland into a marketing opportunity to make money. I took pictures of all the famous places we went to, hoping I could sell prints of them to my clients.

Most of us know who artists are. But do we really know what they do and how much they make, respectively? Most artists I know (from freelance up to full-time) have 2-3 jobs including whatever hustle their art entails. This could be painting, drawing, composing, writing, photography, music, acting, or whatever else falls under the “artist” category. If I have a friend my age who does art in any capacity, most of the time, they’re making money off of it. Sounds great, right?

Wrong.

When I went into this photography business, I went into it to make money out of necessity, and not because I wanted to. “Do something you love, and you’ll never work a day in your life” doesn’t really hold up here. From day one in this business, I have worked my ass off trying to make ends meet. If my husband didn’t have a consistent, 8-5/M-F job every week, there would be no way that we would make it financially. But if I didn’t work, there would be no way his job alone would be able to cover all of our bills, either. After taxes, overhead, and saving money in case my camera breaks again, I’m left with very little. Some months I make more than him, and other months I only make a fraction of what he makes.

Don’t get me wrong, I love photography. But if I did it on my own terms, followed my own heart, and did what I wanted to do, there would be no way I would be making enough money to contribute to bills and existing. My husband and I don’t hardly eat out (maybe 3 times a month, if that). I couldn’t tell you the last time we saw a movie together, let alone one with popcorn. We don’t go shopping for leisure, only for the essentials. We do have animals, a mortgage payment, and no car payments/student loans, but even with all of that, sometimes we struggle financially.

I am truly a starving millennial artist in the 21st century.

Everyone always makes jokes about starving artists, but that’s because this world doesn’t like people like us. Capitalism doesn’t like artists, or millennials. Or the chronically-ill. Or the mentally-ill. And the list goes on.

So how does a millennial artist survive under capitalism?

The answer is easy: We don’t.

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The answer is easy.

We don’t.

“Why not just do another job that makes more money?” You might say. Oh, if only it were that easy. I so wish I could walk into a job hiring that has benefits, good pay, and a good boss. But most places like that aren’t even hiring, and they’re definitely not hiring anyone like me: chronically ill, mentally ill, and oh-so-not cisheteronormative. If the minimum wage was increased and more places were hiring here in Chattanooga, and I could make considerably more than I could with photography, I would make this job back into a hobby back in a heartbeat.

You might think that the cover photo on this blog is dramatic. But in all honesty, it’s how I feel about the situation. My head in my hands, hopeless. A self-portrait of self-hatred and monotony. Tired of trying to survive in a world that is so actively against me. But all of art has some type of drama in it, right? With the words I use in this blog, with a crescendo in a piece of classical music, with poetry or theatre, there is beauty in the drama. Right?

The only beauty from showing raw, unfiltered emotion is the release that comes after doing such a thing. Most people talk about how Van Gogh ate yellow paint to feel happy again, but do they actually talk about his mental issues, psychotic episodes, and what might have contributed to those?

The solution to having a better mental space when I’m burnt out is simple, yet problematic: do more personal projects and art just for fun. Working on deadlines is never fun, and keeping my paid photography work separate from my personal photography work is essential to my well-being. It gives me time to rest and not worry about work, while fulfilling my personal needs as an artist. In doing this, the work I make is better and not strained, boring, or non-creative like it is when I’m burnt out.

When I’m feeling fancy, I like to do makeup, another form of art, on myself. This is me making myself look like a man with a fake beard and masculine contouring. I did this for a birthday celebration for my 25th when I went out with friends.

When I’m feeling fancy, I like to do makeup, another form of art, on myself. This is me making myself look like a man with a fake beard and masculine contouring. I did this for a birthday celebration for my 25th when I went out with friends.

However, here’s the problem with that: capitalism doesn’t allow for such poppy-cock. If you’re not working or making money, you’re behind. If you’re not making rent payments, credit-card payments (which we don’t even have, by the way), or anything else that’s due every month, you’re behind. If you’re not marketing to get new clients, your prospective clients will find other photographers for their needs, and you’ll be behind.

I so wish it was different.

And don’t even get me started on the perfectionist attitudes in art. If you’re not perfect with your art, then no one will hire you, and you won’t make any money. What happened to making art for the sake of art?

So if you’re a client reading this, wondering why you haven’t gotten your pictures yet… this is why.

Sometimes I need a break from all things photography and work related to rest and recharge. To be an effective artist, I need to have the creative juices flowing always, and I also need to let the juices regenerate when I’m low.

Keeping this delicate balance of resting to recharge and making money to survive has been nothing short of absolutely exhausting. I wish nothing more than to travel the world, volunteer to make a difference, create beautiful art for the sake of making art, and live life to the fullest in this beautiful world, but it’s not that easy.

In the meantime, I’ll try to make the best art through my photos as possible.

McKenzie McClure