Why Leaving the Art World to Become a Programmer Was the Best Choice I Ever Made

A disclaimer: I really do love art…

but really,

Having said that, there are really only a few successful outcomes of trying to be a young emerging artist (in America at least) that I can think of. Either: a) you’ve found your way toward the top of the massively oversaturated arts ecosystem of one of our few metropolises able to sustain an even moderately active art market, b) maybe you have rich, generous parents and it doesn’t really matter what you do, or c) you are so in love with art, or the idea of being an artist or whatever, that it’s worth The Struggle.

There are other ways to find a happy, successful life on the path, no doubt, and if you’ve found one, then genuinely — congratulations — this post isn’t for you.

lmaoooooooooooo

However, maybe you’re like me a couple years ago, hands in your empty pockets, wondering whether or not your once-sacred relationship to Art / the ArtWorld is really so unconditional that it’s worth a lifetime of eating top ramen in one frugally-heated room or another. Maybe, every once in awhile, you’d rather be enjoying the world around you in the most common way fun things tend to manifest — that which costs any amount of money at all.

I mean, I had great art-world jobs. For many years I was a ‘preparator’ — which means I got to move, assemble, and have other sorts of behind-the-scenes, intimate relationships with famous / priceless art objects, as well as fabricate casework and architecture for the exhibit designs of several world-class galleries and museums.

me after finishing an 18hr solo install of a piece by Katy Stone

It was fun, and I probably would never have stopped if there was an option besides doing it for the absolute maximum number of hours to never qualify for benefits, at a wage that was by pretty much all accounts not remotely livable — a situation all too common across my extended network of artistic friends, stuck in the limbo between having a BFA, the toy degree, and not wanting to go another ~$50k+ in debt to pursue a Masters toward even more esoteric depths in a questionably-societally-relevant field.

@bradtroemel

One day, I just said, ‘naw’. I knew there had to be another way…


Everyone thinks code is math.

avant-garde

Largely, unless you’re a data scientist, it isn’t, because computers are calculators. ‘Thinking like a coder’ is more or less having the patience to be bad at a discipline for a long time until you start to learn enough about it to be less bad at it, having a good sense of pattern recognition / an ability to think in many interlocking levels of abstraction at a time, and an appreciation for well-crafted systems.

Sound familiar?

This post isn’t about the specifics of getting from A to B, but for context, my story is that basically, about two years ago, I realized I was out of money and going to have to sell my stuff and move immediately if I didn’t do something drastic. I was always pretty good with computers but had never written code, heard The Rumors about the flip-your-life move, did a few months of online courses with the energy I had left over from working all day, and eventually decided to follow in the successful path of a good friend of mine. I quit my job, took out a loan with an embedded living stipend, and enrolled in a six-month ‘bootcamp’ program called Galvanize to learn how to build websites.

It worked. Like all things, it was a ‘get out what you put in’ type deal and I definitely know people who don’t think as positively about their choice as I do mine, but at the end of it all, I feel profoundly that it was one of the few unequivocally ‘good’ choices I’ve made in my life. It really, really worked…but what does that mean? Here’s the point of writing this:

  1. I won’t dance around it, the reason pretty much anyone makes this kind of move is money. And, yeah. It’s a thing. My first developer job more than doubled anything I had ever made before in the museum world. My current job, which I got about a year later, added another half of that amount. Money’s not everything and it won’t buy you happiness and etc etc, but the difference between having so little you aren’t sure if you will be able to pay rent and being able to pretty much do most things you feel like doing is an indescribable change in quality of life, with a nice, short trickle-down effect to mental health.
  2. But perhaps more significantly to me, despite working in very academically-oriented contexts my entire adult life, the fact that I’m generally an intelligent dude (an asterisk: this is kind of a prerequisite for coding) was mostly a novelty. Like, “oh, not all The Help is this fun to talk to” *pats back*, type novelty. For the first time in my life I feel appreciated for the ideas I’m able to come up with, like actually, via the concrete analog affirmation of dollar bills, in a non-competitive environment where everyone is just mutually grateful everyone else can do what they do.
  3. That last part — it’s one of the most significant. The art world is small, and without going into a theory conversation, basically, there’s just not that much that hasn’t already been done, and in the era of post-genius viral appropriation, this leads to a sort of I.P. scarcity scenario that often leaves the emerging-art-world feeling very cattily insecure and (perhaps necessarily?) cutthroat. All this very radically opposite when considering the internet, still in its infant stages of whatever organically, explosively bizarre mutant creation it continues to grow into. The abundance of programming jobs out there (necessitated by the insurmountably rapid pace at which the sand of new-code-stuff slips through the fingers of any and all who work with it) and the enthusiastically supportive Open Source community working to help each other build it together sounds ideal. And it is. But it’s real, too.
  4. “But it’s boring…” (…and is my anarcho-sensibilitied-ass self really going to make a decision like this based on money? gross…): the sort of thoughts I had before I had the genuinely shocking revelation that code accidentally happens to be my favorite medium I’ve ever worked in. It’s fluid, it’s dynamic, its possibilities and applications are endless and ever-growing, and its nuances / secrets / opportunities for finesse continue to extend beyond the horizon of my exponentially-growing level of comprehension in every direction I look. It’s truly addictive. And sure, a lot of the daily experience of programming is rote, like any job, but the golden moments of it are par none some of the most exciting ‘a-has’ I’ve ever had. Your creative productions become immediately accessible to the world as their own embedded means of distribution. The exhibit is the work and it’s everywhere in the world whenever you want it — kind of thing. It’s magical. Truly. I remember when I was young and able to draw well, how people thought it was magical, before postmodern art school a la Sol Lewitt ensured I’d never be able to view, say, indulgence in stylistic mimicry within this photographic era as worth doing, much less magical, again. Learning to code gave me magic back.
  5. Somewhat ironically, an interesting thing about being an artist-turned-programmer, is that you’re more valuable as an artist in this field than in the artworld. The whole thing about code-as-a-medium — it’s totally lost on 98% of the people I know who do this stuff. Like a complete disconnect. The idea of craft, of expressivity, of nuanced sensory experience and The Poetry of Interaction — this is the stuff to make your typical engineer’s eyes glaze over. But it’s all extraordinarily important to making a Cool Thing™️, as all artists / designers (and, in a different way, the people who hire people) know, and I’ve quickly learned that you’re viewed as a very, very special kind of programmer if you have a deep understanding of aesthetics as well.
  6. And, again ironically, finally, on a more personal note — with all of the pressure of wanting to find success as an artist off my shoulders, with all the weighty context of what the artworld thinks art should be now in the trash folder of my subconscious, I finally feel myself appreciating actual Art-art with a genuine ease that I haven’t known since art school happened. As in, I always had resolute, independent opinions about art, and wrote about them passionately, but always in hindsight pretty combatively, like I needed to hold my ground or avenge the memory of some perspective-shift or something. It’s so wonderful to like, just actually like it again in an uncomplicated way.

I’m greatly looking forward to the time in the future when the still relatively discrete realms of art and tech start to overlap each other explicitly in my creative pursuits. I can only imagine how I’ll feel then. In the much nearer future I plan on writing some thoughts on where I see the medium of the website headed, but that’s another topic.

So for now, yeah — these are all just my biased subjective lens of opinions and personal experiences and whatever, but I’ve wanted to share these thoughts for a long time outside of the drunken conversations where they’ve normally come up. I hope that maybe they inspire someone else unhappy with their current situation to use The Cheat Code To Fix Your Life After You Thought It’d Be A Good Idea To Study Art But It Probably Wasn’t.