On Money, Fear, and the Artist

A currency collage by artist Mark Wagner (Photo courtesy Mark Wagner at smokeinmydreams.com)


An Artist Gets Audited

A visual artist I know once told me about an audit she endured with the IRS. My friend is a professional artist in New York City with her own studio. Her work is shown at galleries and museums. She has received grants, been accepted to artist residencies around the world, and every now and then, she even manages to sell a few pieces of artwork.

During the audit, one of the IRS employees explained to my friend that she couldn’t keep declaring a loss for her business year after year. “This looks more like a hobby than a profession,” the auditor said.

My friend attempted to explain the financial ups and downs of being a working artist. Yes. There had been a dry spell in the “income department” in recent years, but her expenses were legitimate. Art was her business, her life, her passion–not a mere hobby. The auditor was completely puzzled. “But if you aren’t making any money creating art,” he asked, “why do you keep doing this year after year?”


"The one dollar bill is the most ubiquitous piece of paper in America," says artist Mark Wagner. "Collage asks the question: what might be done to make it something else?" (Photo courtesy Mark Wagner at smokeinmydreams.com)



A detail of the above currency collage by artist Mark Wagner (Photo courtesy Mark Wagner at smokeinmydreams.com)


The Idea of Art is Free

I love this story because it says so much about the profit-oriented culture we inhabit as artists (and when I say “artists,” I define that term broadly to include writers, performers, designers, filmmakers, composers, visual artists, etc.).

For most artists I know, money is a constant source of anxiety because most creative projects don’t make economic sense. As artists, we have chosen an alternative paradigm to the profit-oriented one. This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be smart about the business-side of art making, only that money isn’t our primary motivator.

The concept of creating for its own sake remains a radical concept in our culture. This is one of the central rifts we saw playing out between Wall Street bankers and supporters of the Occupy movement. One camp placed a higher value on profits, while the other a higher value on more elusive qualities like imagination, empathy, and justice.

Of course, if you have your money invested in the stock market, then you want your broker to be greedy with your money–you want to earn 6%, not 4% like everyone else. But when it comes to art, greed turns the best ideas sour. It isn’t hard to sniff-out the difference between work that was created from a free, deep place, and a blatant commercial commodity.

You may be able sell the end product of art–the concert ticket, the photograph, the book–but the idea itself is free. Art is a gift, and like all gifts, it must be shared in order to make an impact.


Mark Wagner currency collage (Photo via thisiscolossal.com)

Mark Wagner currency collage (Photo via thisiscolossal.com)



"For most artists I know, money is a constant source of anxiety because most creative projects don’t make economic sense. As artists, we have chosen an alternative paradigm to the profit-oriented one." (Photo courtesy Mark Wagner at smokeinmydreams.com)



"Fear is normal for an artist--it's the reason we get trapped in the cycle of self-doubt and anxiety, the reason we hesitate to declare a project finished." (Photo courtesy Mark Wagner at smokeinmydreams.com)


Make the Work

Being an artist is so hard because we’re operating in a parallel universe from the larger culture—one that values imagination, creativity, and ideas more than money or status. But a true creative exchange–one in which art is given and accepted without obligation is a way of side-stepping the soul-crushing grimness of consumerism. I would go so far as to say that it’s an alternate way of being. It’s this free exchange between artist and audience that creates movement, provides pleasure, provokes change, and offers meaningful connection.

As writer and MacArthur fellow Lewis Hyde says in his classic book The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World, “The gift moves toward the empty place. As it turns in its circle it turns toward him who has been empty-handed the longest, and if someone appears elsewhere whose need is great it leaves its old channel and moves toward him. Our generosity may leave us empty, but our emptiness then pulls gently at the whole until the thing in motion returns to replenish us.”

“Motion” is a key word here, for an artist needs this movement to thrive. “Make the work,” said Walt Whitman. “Just stop thinking, worrying, looking over your shoulder wondering, doubting, fearing, hurting, hoping for some easy way out, struggling, grasping,…Stop it and just DO!” wrote artist Sol LeWitt to his friend Eva Hesse. “All that is important is this one moment in movement,” Martha Graham once said. “Make the moment important, vital, and worth living. Do not let it slip away unnoticed and unused.”

Art that languishes for too long on the hard drive, on the studio wall, or in the murky recesses of the imagination becomes stagnant. At worst, it becomes insular and self-absorbed. “No art is sunk in the self,” observed Flannery O’Connor, “but rather, in art the self becomes self-forgetful in order to meet the demands of the thing seen and the thing being made.”

Fear is normal for an artist–it’s the reason we get trapped in the cycle of self-doubt and anxiety, the reason we hesitate to declare a project “finished.” Our bodies are wired for self-protection. The moment we sense artistic risk or criticism, our “fight or flight” response kicks in. This is perfectly natural, but if we aren’t careful, we can get stuck in this place, unconsciously filling our time with research, editing, re-evaluating, re-writing, re-working (the artist’s version of “flight”).


"A true creative exchange--one in which art is given and accepted without obligation is a way of side-stepping the soul-crushing grimness of consumerism." (Photo courtesy Mark Wagner at smokeinmydreams.com)



A currency collage by Mark Wagner. See more at  markwagnerinc.com

A currency collage by Mark Wagner. See more at markwagnerinc.com



A detail of the above currency collage by Mark Wagner (Photo courtesy Mark Wagner at smokeinmydreams.com)


Artists Can’t Begin With the Market

IJournal of a Solitude, May Sarton writes: “There is only one real deprivation,…and that is not to be able to give one’s gift to those one loves most…The gift turned inward, unable to be given, becomes a heavy burden, even sometimes a kind of poison. It is as though the flow of life were backed up.”

This doesn’t mean that stillness isn’t important–it’s key to the creative process–but at some point we have to let go and allow our work to be subjected to the marketplace. “The artist who hopes to market work that is the realization of his gifts cannot begin with the market,” Hyde explains in his book. “He must create for himself that gift-sphere in which the work is made, and only when he knows the work to be the faithful realization of his gift should he turn to see if it has currency in that other economy. Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t.”

A fat bank account may be the sign of a successful stock broker, but a bank balance is the last way to judge the quality of an artist’s work. It is the act of creation and completion that matters in the end. The doing. Not the accolades or silence of the marketplace.

The best art emerges from the tension of these opposing impulses: fear and fearlessness, discipline and play, desire and acceptance, solitude and community, intellect and emotion, success and failure, giving and receiving.

“The passage into mystery always refreshes,” says Hyde in The Gift. “If, when we work, we can look once a day upon the face of mystery, then our labor satisfies…It is when the world flames a bit in our peripheral vision that it bring us jubilation and not depression…for we are only alive to the degree that we can let ourselves be moved.”


Artist Mark Wagner is co-founder of The Booklyn Artists Alliance, and has published books under the name Bird Brain Press and X-ing Books. His work is collected by dozens of institutions including the Museum of Modern Art, The Walker Art Center, the Library of Congress, and the Smithsonian Institution. It has shown at The Metropolitan Museum, The Getty Research Institute, and The Brooklyn Museum. “The one dollar bill is the most ubiquitous piece of paper in America,” says Wagner. “Collage asks the question: what might be done to make it something else? Blade and glue transform it–reproducing the effects of tapestries, paints, engravings, mosaics, and computers—striving for something bizarre, beautiful, or unbelievable… the foreign in the familiar.” For more information on Wagner’s work, visit his website.

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Note: An earlier version of this essay originally appeared on writer Nova Ren Suma’s site, Distraction No. 99.


About the Author:

I’ve spent almost 20 years helping thousands of successful artists of all disciplines and working to make the arts more accessible. (One friend likes to call me “the arts enabler.”) From 1999-2012 I worked at The MacDowell Colony, the nation’s oldest artist colony, but I've also done time at an arts magazine, a library, an art museum, and a raptor rehabilitation center. In May of 2012 I left MacDowell to pursue writing, speaking, curating, and creative projects full-time. In 2015 I was named a “Top 100 Artist, Innovator, Creative” by Origin magazine. I've appeared as an arts and culture commentator on New Hampshire Public Radio, and in 2017 I was the recipient of the Wampler Art Professorship at James Madison University. I am the founder of the Gwarlingo Salon series, which connects artists like DJ Spooky with rural audiences in the Monadnock region. In 2017 my collaborator Corwin Levi and I will publish our first book, Mirror Mirrored, which combines Grimms’ fairy tales with vintage illustration remixes and the work of contemporary artists like Kiki Smith, Carrie Mae Weems, and Amy Cutler. I grew up in Atlanta, Georgia, but have called New Hampshire home since 1999. My studio is located in the historic, mill village of Harrisville. I miss fried okra, the early southern spring, and restaurants that stay open past 9:00 p.m., but rural life agrees with me. In New Hampshire I can see the stars, go kayaking or snowshoeing, watch bald eagles fish in the lake, and focus on my creative work in silence. I no longer have to worry about traffic jams; deer, wild turkeys, and frost heaves are the primary road hazards here. Although I live in the country, I’m fortunate enough to be part of a vibrant arts community that extends beyond this small New England village. The quiet days are punctuated by regular travel and frequent visits to museums, theaters, readings, arts events, lectures, and open studios around the country. (You can read my full CV here.) Thanks for visiting Gwarlingo. I hope you'll be in touch.


  1. […] On Money, Fear, and the Artist | gwarlingo. […]

  2. Sara Klar January 11, 2012 at 7:49 am

    Great article – but I would have liked to hear more about WHY fear is normal for an artist. Is the implication here that fear is more normal for artists than for people who are non-artists?

    • Michelle Aldredge January 11, 2012 at 10:47 am

      This is an excellent question, Sara. Certainly every person, regardless of their profession, experiences fear of some sort. But I do think artists have a special relationship to fear and anxiety because it is so integral to the process of creating.

      I’ve seen artists of all disciplines, in various phases of their careers wrestling with this intense anxiety. I think each of us experiences fear differently depending on our personal histories, our project, and on which stage of the creative process we’re in. There is the fear of beginning, the fear of choosing, the fear of working, of finishing, of failure, of sharing our work with others, just to give a few examples. Not every well-known or established artist will confess these fears openly, but I know from the conversations I’ve had with artists over the years that the anxiety doesn’t dissipate over time, even with commercial success. In fact, commercial success brings a new kind of pressure.

      Struggle seems like a necessary part of the creative process to me. Norman Mailer once referred to writing as “a deep spiritual gamble,” and he’s right. Our work is so personal, so closely tied to our identities that it’s hard NOT to fear exposure or criticism. As I say in the piece, it’s normal to feel this way. It’s also normal to want to make the anxiety stop by whatever means necessary (which is one of the reasons so many artists quit).

      But over time I’ve come to believe that the key to making our best work is to make peace with this anxiety–to move toward it, instead of away from it. Acknowledge it, but keep going. I think it’s the only way fear loses its grip on us. Isn’t this what creative discipline is really all about–working in spite of our confusion, panic, over-thinking, over-planning, blindness, inner resistance, fears, and uncertainties about the future?

    • Michelle Aldredge January 11, 2012 at 6:34 pm

      Thanks for the link, Adrian. I missed this article on Mark’s work!

  3. Kathryn Martins January 11, 2012 at 6:14 pm

    Michelle, very happy that i found your website today. Re your May Sarton reference about the gift turned inward becoming burden and/or poison: i feel that when an artist cannot give what is in them to give, it is akin to ripe fruit remaining and ultimately rotting on the tree. What’s more, because it cannot give itself to the merest touch, it continues to drain the tree…needlessly. That is why i believe that no matter the response–whether or not your work is truly received–you have to keep putting it out there.

    Now i’m off to check out your P.J. Harvey post 🙂

  4. Anna Dibble January 11, 2012 at 6:21 pm

    I very much enjoyed your piece, and your answers to Sara’s questions. This subject is rarely addressed even though it’s an integral part of every serious artist’s life. Thanks.

    • Michelle Aldredge January 11, 2012 at 6:41 pm

      Thanks Anna! I wanted to let you know how much I enjoyed perusing the paintings on your website–so clever and striking. I particularly like your use of color. Also, that porcupine monoprint is a knock-out!

  5. Mari January 11, 2012 at 6:44 pm

    Michelle, this post is exactly what I needed to read today — I can so relate! I wish more artists talked openly among themselves about these common, and quite normal, feelings, but, as you’ve written, few do. Thanks for this.

    • Michelle Aldredge January 11, 2012 at 6:56 pm

      Thank you for all of your comments on this post. Mari, I too wish artists talked more about these personal struggles. I think this is one of the benefits of going to residencies, attending writers’ or art groups, having honest conversations with friends, or even discussing the subject here–it gives us a chance to have a REAL conversation for a change. We all go through the difficult periods. Why not acknowledge it?

      • Anna Dibble January 11, 2012 at 10:25 pm

        Thanks, Michelle. I really love Gwarlingo, and look forward to more. Will try to catch your interview tomorrow on NHPR.

  6. C.K. Wilde January 13, 2012 at 11:58 am

    For more currency art please visit: http://www.alternatingcurrency.com

    • Michelle Aldredge January 13, 2012 at 1:06 pm

      Thanks for this link C.K.!

  7. […] list because it emphasizes the ways in which we tend to stay in our safe zones as artists. As I’ve discussed previously, pushing ourselves takes courage and risk, which is inevitably […]

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