From the Case Files of The Self-Deprecating Sleuth 🕵🏻: Why I Can’t Refer to Myself As An “Artist” Without Automatically Using Air Quotes
Is “art” a four-letter word? 🤔
Is it humiliating to self-brand as an “artist”? Or a “creative director,” as I see on every third millennial's Instagram bio? Is it simply ill-advised to label yourself anything, because that opens the chamber door for the plebeians to tell you you’re wrong and are, in fact, not that, you fucking poseur?
Or am I just wary of any self-chosen designation because it would mean a) actually committing to something for once, and b) an indication that I am taking myself somewhat seriously, which means any subsequent failure would also be “for real,” and not merely a “joke” or an “experiment”?
Yeah, probably the latter.
But I’m not imagining that there is an infestation of generational peers calling themselves — shouting it from the Internet rooftops, really — “creatives,” right? That doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with me, though. Except that it does, because I’m an equal-opportunity junkie; as such, I can’t seem to stop myself from obsessing over others’ careers and life trajectories, and how my own stack up in comparison. (P.S. I genuinely want to found a Social Media Addicts Anonymous program, as it is such a pervasive aspect of our lives, and I know that entirely new psychiatric fields will spring up soon to analyze the effects of this 24/7 access to people’s faux existences. Yet, go figure, I can’t seem to get off the World Wide Web long enough to embark on this.)
This all started with [not] calling myself a “model.” Beginning in 2013, standing motionless in front of a camera was my initiation into the shit I now create. (Note the subject’s usage of the pejorative “shit,” as opposed to “art” or even “work.” Fascinating!) At the outset, I was convinced — with absolutely no evidence from reality — that if I ever actually used the word “model,” I would be forthwith knocked down by a barrage of taunting trolls: “YOU think you’re a MODEL?” “Butterface!” “Eat an ass burger, then kill yourself, bitch!!” etc. etc. So in response to this completely unfounded certitude, I decided to say as little as possible; and when I had to say something, I would self-deprecate so extremely and thoroughly that everyone would know just how much I didn’t take this “nonsense” seriously. Thus no one could possibly poke fun, because if it means nothing to me, there’s no tantalizing lure of a ripe specimen to mutilate.
This raging internal debate begs the question: at what point would I not be mortified to tell people I’m an “artist”? Would it be when I get a solo show at some sucker of a gallery? When I sell a collage to a hapless fool for $1,000 (because that’s approximately my rent and anything below that I somehow decide is negligible)? When I finally get the opportunity to work with one of the handful of real artists I near-idolize, a seismic event that will surely catapult me to fame, wealth, and — finally — serenity (à la the classic AA meeting closing prayer)?
All of these options, unsurprisingly, are predicated on a metamorphosis initiated by specific forms of external validation, as opposed to internal resolve. Only if _____ and _____ and possibly _____ were to happen to me, would I become _____. But I sense my reluctance would not evaporate even if all of the above do happen. As my main man Oscar Wilde put it: “There are only two tragedies in life: one is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it.”
If all signs point to my being perpetually unsatisfied and forever minimizing my achievements, does someone else need to decide what I am for me…?
On the subject of identity, my mom and I recently attended In And Of Itself, an “existential magic show” about how one constructs her selfhood, and how this affects both how we see ourselves and how others see us. Upon entering the theater, we were greeted with a wall covered with hundreds of small white cards, each reading “I Am A _____.” Arranged in alphabetical order, the options ranged from actual professions to fantasy figures to idioms. I automatically drifted towards the P’s; although a safety pin-affixed patch on my purse christens me a PROCTOLOGIST, I was pleasantly surprised to see “I Am A Prostitute” available for the taking. (My mom was not quite as thrilled. She chose “I Am A Fast Learner.”) Before taking our seats, everyone gave the card they had selected to a stage manager. As the grand finale, Derek DelGaudio asked that those who had chosen a card that they believed was a true reflection of themselves to stand up; then, to many gasps and much applause, he correctly matched each audience member to their selection.
The possible backstage mechanics of this feat aside, I left the show feeling profoundly distraught, and had a very un-magical sidewalk sob before dragging myself to my legal but part-time, minimum wage job. I had not stood up to be matched with my chosen identity; at the time I figured it was because I was being thoughtful about how my mother might feel if I were “revealed” to be A Prostitute to a room full of well-to-do strangers.
But upon further reflection, there was undoubtedly more to my reluctance than that. I do not feel shame, per se, associated with my doing sex work, but there is surely some internalization of the stigmatization that the field continues to cultivate. I have never, and likely never will, proclaim my involvement in this field to be any sort of “feminist” mission, nor would I frame it as inherently transgressive or empowering. As many wide-ranging factors go in to choosing this vocation as any other; no job selection is as simple as “I love it.” For me, the benefits of independent sex work are primarily the trifecta of the comparatively high hourly rate, the flexible schedule, and the freedom from having to answer to an employer — which is especially important considering my ongoing, and seemingly ever-expanding, “battles” with chronic physical and mental illnesses.
Consensual sex work — meaning between two willing parties, as murky as those definitions may sometimes actually be within a perverse capitalistic system — seems to be one of the final frontiers of what is widely societally acceptable. To an extent, it appears that the stereotypes revolving around The Addict are the most recent to be investigated and revised. Even though there still is — and likely will continue to be for a long while — considerable debate over whether or not addiction can be properly classified as a “disease,” the branding of the addict as necessarily weak, selfish, and/or immoral has seen a profound reexamination.
Essentially, I feel that I have a better grasp on “being” a “sex worker” (albeit in my own admittedly privileged compendium of experiences) than I do an “artist.” For example, somebody recently approached me — and subsequently ghosted me thanks Austin — about commissioning a collage. Instantly, I was suspicious. Although I knew he was in a relationship and had children, my mind immediately launched in to a story about how this whole commission thing was merely a ruse, and he was really just trying to bone. As it turned out, he appeared to be sincere about wanting a piece of my work hanging in his apartment. And rather than being primarily proud or excited or even anxious about the prospect of my first commission, I was disappointed. If he had actually wanted my sexual services™, I would have been somewhat relieved because, quite frankly, I am more comfortable with playing that role than I am embodying the part of an “artist.” No matter which of the two identities — and I am defining them as being separate entities, at least for now — I’m entering, I’m invariably a sack of nerves. However, in the “artist” box, there is an even longer list of aspects I feel unprepared for dealing with, including pricing, deposits, timeframe for completion, sourcing materials, and so on.
The unceasing anxiety with all this may be partly because, as a friend and complete weirdo (@ sucklord) once told me, it can be difficult, overwhelming, and confusing to attempt to blaze a previously uncharted course. Especially in an age where the methods and venues for the creation and dissemination of content are being routinely uprooted, how to best “make it” in a field largely reliant on self-promotion can feel like a permanent question mark. Trial and error — with social media, apps, networking, actual IRL events — seems to be the only feasible strategy, if it can be properly called that.
But also, since I am attempting to fuse multiple forms of “art” — modeling, collages, writing, hopefully more video — there is not really someone who’s “made it” in all of these mediums whose approach I can try to emulate. Aaaaaaand this is where I decide I need to throw in an aside to the effect of: I AM NOT SAYING THAT I AM A GENIUS DOING SOMETHING SO DIFFERENT AND REMARKABLE THAT PUTS ME COMPLETELY OUTSIDE THE BOUNDS OF TYPICAL HUMAN EXPERIENCE. I tend to disqualify and over-apologize even before any indication arrives from outside my solipsistic bubble that such a statement is necessary. I feel this is akin to the reluctance to self-label, as both impulses serve the purpose of eliminating imagined friction and discomfort.
I see a blindingly clear connection between my reluctance to self-label and my near-automatic reflex of deciding I have zero interest in being a part of any and every group/community/scene — before they can tell me they don’t want me there. If I never make the effort to incorporate or prove myself, then there is no possibility of “failure,” whatever that means in this context. But, amorphous as it may be, I evidently think it would be brutal enough that I want to avoid it at all costs, even if that means an excess of solitude. I’ve always thought of myself as someone who thrives in seclusion, but that is surely at least somewhat of a defense mechanism, too. And there’s a stark difference between productive and/or reinvigorating alone time and soul-crushing isolation, the latter of which I’ve learned can be achieved just as swiftly and often sober as while an active addict.
Speaking of the “addict” name tag… as you may or may not know, before anyone shares at a NA/AA meeting, they introduce themselves by stating a variation of “I’m ______, and I’m an alcoholic/addict.” It took months of excavating the fossils of my delusions and denials as to why I was not an addict until I hit the bedrock, which bore the lovely epigram “OF COURSE YOU’RE AN ADDICT, DUMBASS.” Now, it’s pretty much the only label that I feel comfortable with.
Is that because it’s inherently negative — at least in connotation — and thus would be very difficult to be construed as any sort of boast or self-satisfied signifier?
Maybe that’s what I’ll make my next definitely-not-art-thing about.