There just has to be a better way.

“Elephants forgot, force-fed on stale chalk,
Ate the floors of their cages.” ~ King Crimson (lyrics by Pete Sinfield)

I’m breaking the chain and making a run for it.

Yap, you got it, I’m “quitting my day job”.

If you haven’t heard me say this yet, I’m planning to take 6-12 months off and just work on art. I really want to make it 12. I’d say my chances of landing on my feet after that year are maybe 50/50. I do have an MFA, have shown pieces in a gallery before, and received a $10,000 fellowship at UCLA for a juried art competition (only one winner per grade level, and I won it for seniors), so, I’m not just a deluded dreamer launching himself into a solipsistic bubble of escapism. There’s a slim chance I can break free of my worker drone fate. I know I can make a lot of really good art in a year, but selling it and making enough to live off of is the real challenge. Though, I can live off of just $500 a month in Asia, which I know because often I don’t even make that much teaching, and, for example, my rent is $250 a month. Can I get to where I can make $500 a month AFTER a year of work? I decided that even if I can’t, I need to take the time and make the art. That is its own reward. At least I’ll have something to show for a year of life, instead of just being milked in my pen for another season. It will probably pay off eventually.

More about that elsewhere, especially when the year of art is underway (I still have 7 weeks of teaching left), but, another reminder of why I should try to become more independent and not have to work for others is that most jobs are still using the hierarchical structure, where workers are treated as inferior minions toiling for a barely livable wage. This even extends to schools where highly educated teachers are the lowly workers within the same sort of top-down, hierarchical framework and mindset that is used in sweatshops.

You can’t ever have a democracy if once you walk into the door of your job you live in a dictatorship. It’s an old insight of mine, but something in the air has made it afresh. More often than not you are told what to do and how to do it, or within what guidelines, even if it’s the inefficient and tedious way to accomplish half as much. If you have to take two baby steps forward and a big leap back, just shut up and do it. You can’t vote on your managers or bosses. You can’t question authority. You can’t vote on ways to restructure the system so it works more effectively for you, and everyone else. You must love your job or leave it.

Something is wrong with the old, capitalistic, hierarchical model of corporations, and schools for that matter. The structure (think of an upside-down tree) presumes and tries to enforce that those higher up on the ladder have more knowledge, wisdom and intelligence than those beneath them, in spades. The problem with this is simply that it’s not actually true. Often people are in positions of power because they want power, not because they are superior or more benevolent. They are not the “philosopher kings” of Plato, who were “enlightened”, wise, and philosophically trained. Anyone who has significant experience working for corporations knows that illogic, and brute exercise of petty authority are as likely forces as logic.

To imagine the pitfalls of authority and hierarchy, I just image a class full of around 30 children. We could randomly and secretly select some to have various positions of authority, which we’d honor and enforce. Before long most everyone would likely get in line. People would start to believe themselves inherently superior or inferior. We’d have a whole caste system going. These sorts of sociological experiments have been done already, so this isn’t just conjecture. The point though, is when you imagine it being done with kids, it’s harder to conceive that some deserve such authority and superior status over others. It seems criminal and arbitrary. Related to this is the idea of “royalty”, which kind of fascinates me. The people of supposed royal lineage aren’t anything out of the ordinary, and yet people buy into it.

Further, what tends to happen in these top down hierarchies is that the most important thing for the institution in question ends up being the maintenance of the authority structure, and the structure of privilege. More than that, it becomes about increasing the power of each level above those beneath them. You end up with little princes and princesses, kings and queens within each structure, who come to consider themselves inherently above those toiling below. As with other kinds of rule, everything must serve to insure those in power stay in power. Ultimately, the profits of the CEO are paramount. Related to this, a problem arises when a school turns into a business, because a teacher’s job and purpose shifts from educating people to making some asshole a bunch more money.

“What did you do in your life, Henry?”
“I taught people and in so doing helped them achieve their goals and be better people. I made a bunch of money for some businessman asshole.”

Current studies and research has discovered, not surprisingly at all, that this system sucks. As it turns out, the lowly workers will have talents, abilities, wisdom, experience and intelligence that is NOT getting used. The abilities of dozens or hundreds of “workers” are sacrificed for the autocratic rule of a handful of people ensconced in higher positions. The best ideas are inevitably drowned. Those that articulate them may be punished or ostracized.

The new way forward is through a networking structure that allows everyone to contribute constructively and have agency and independence in what they do, which also makes them more motivated to do it, and provides more rewards. It doesn’t mean that if you are a plumber and the boss sends you out with a defective plunger that you should be creative about finding a way to use your hand. It doesn’t mean you should welcome the challenge as an opportunity to improve your skills, and damn you, you’d better keep a smile on your face when your arm is elbow deep in shit. You’d better love it! Somehow those in power believe a worker’s ability is reflected in how well they can implement someone else’s plan, no matter how flawed. In other words, how well they can fulfill their duties in a subordinate position. In a forward-looking, networking model, workers are people who can be informed about and contribute to the whole of their work environment, including the most important decisions. The plumbers would be able to assess for themselves through their daily experience what methods and what tools were best for the job, and have access to those tools. The result would be that they’d be out there with the best equipment and techniques.

I’ve now worked at 5 schools. I found them all unsatisfactory work environments, usually because of a combination of corruption, ineptitude, and a refusal to listen to reason on the part of those running the show. Hell, my standards aren’t even that high. The university lasted 3 years before they made significant changes that undermined what had been a pretty good place to work at (including plans to cut out a month of salary). Basically I require a standard fair pay package that I can live off of (cheating me is unacceptable), and the ability to do my job well (no recipe for failure situations, like the 3-hour evening “Oral English” class with 100 students my last university tried to saddle me with, as an extra, unpaid class – when night classes should even pay extra, I later learned – and which I flat out refused to do). Sadly, that’s a tall order. Each school will usually fail with a combination of shortcomings. My current job has the most difficult and confusing schedule (overlapping weekday and weekend classes), as well as the highest amount of unpaid out-of-class work. We are also undergoing a transition to new books, which will, but shouldn’t, make our jobs a lot harder. When I realized I was facing another year of making ends meet for the privilege of continuing to teach, I resigned. I could keep on keeping on if I weren’t trying to do my art as well. Right now it’s as if I have two careers, and teaching is the less important one, while also taking most of my time and energy.

I’d rather be a starving artist than a malnourished worker!

Stay tuned to see how my year of art-making goes, and especially for the art I’ll be making! And, there’s a new piece that I’m trying to do the finishing touches on between classes and lesson planning… Should be ready any day now.

~ Eric

15 replies on “I’d rather be a starving artist than a malnourished worker!

  1. Congratulations on doing what most would love to do – take time off to exclusively pursue their art and passion. I’m so excited for you and am looking forward to following you on your adventures!


  2. Good luck, Eric, but I’m sure you realise the art world is built pretty much along the corporate lines, though twisted in its own elitist way ) would love to see the first results!


    1. Yeah, well, at very least I just wanna’ make a bunch of new work. I asked myself what I’m saving money for. I might as well invest it in myself. I don’t wanna’ end up old and making excuses why I don’t have more art work to show for myself, and wishing I’d spent $6,000 or so to take a year off and work while I was in my prime.


  3. You’re spot on about managerialist structures.

    I did on and off contracting for the Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) for a couple of decades and saw it go from one of the most innovative, customer and staff focused organisations I’ve worked in to a top heavy stockmarket focused nightmare that inevitably imploded and cost everyone their jobs and investments. For its last five years it was pretty much being run by Andersen’s Consulting (nuff said?).

    When my Mum quit work to become a full time artist it wasn’t an inability to sell paintings that made her give it up after a few years, it was because the ones she made money from weren’t really the ones she wanted to paint, so in the end she came to see art as a job and lost her passion for it. Also the gallery system in Australia is pretty much as bad as working for the man anyway. The compromise that finally worked for her was teaching visual arts privately while still working on her own art part time, but that only worked while she had access to a cheap teaching studio.

    Best of luck with your project.


    1. I’ll be trying to sell prints online, at least initially. This is something I have no success with as of yet, but haven’t put much energy into.

      It’s up to me to do the marketing and publicity, which I also haven’t attempted yet. I’m hoping the work will do a lot of the speaking for itself, and that people will start sharing it and some (online) venues will want to share it. It’s a real challenge. But, when I look at how little money I’m making, and how little I’m surviving off of, I won’t need to be that successful. I’ll just need to be successful at all. It’s also a new way to make money as an artist. I’m not above showing in a gallery. We’ll see what happens. Part of the year of work includes marketing and selling strategies.


  4. You’re taking a big leap and that’s awesome! Better yet, you have a realistic chance of making it work.

    Btw, your imaginary classroom where someone says a random person is the leader? I can’t quote anything, but I think that experiment has been done (and talked about as unethical research) and turned out exactly as your imaginary classroom does.


    1. Well, there was the one with “blue eyes” or “brown eyes” people were better in a kid’s classroom, and there was the Stanford Prison experiment where some students were guards in a prison and some were prisoners and they had to cancel the experiment because the guards got sadistic and people just natural fell into the roles. People aren’t so much better than each other, and the hierarchies are bogus, just like royalty, which people also accept.


  5. Hey, Eric, go for it! A pity that the job that looked so promising didn’t turn out to be any different from so many other jobs. You’ve got the drive and the talent, so give it Hell. It sounds like you’re going to continue to live in Asia. Thailand?


    1. Hi Alan. Great to hear from you. I’m going to stay here most likely, depending on visas and money. I can live here much more cheaply than in the West. The teaching job was good for me upgrading my teaching skills, but when it comes to the benefits, the Chinese universities are much, much better. If I go back to teaching, which it’s very likely I will have to do, I plan to go back to university teaching.


      1. Yeah, the never-ending cold (or, in my case, lung infection) indeed. Well, again, give it Hell. I think I’m now on your update listing, so will try to keep abreast of what you’re up to–including your art. Dana and I will probably apply for jobs back in China for next academic year; hopefully this will be in the warmer south…


      2. I might end up going back to China, if all else fails. Hopefully it won’t. Yup, for me it was chest infections, too. I haven’t had any since i left China, and I only had one cold that I beat in 3 days.


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