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“Modest” artists standing the test of time. The artistic “vocation”, yes… but not that alone
Marie Buscatto
p. 9-26
Cet article est une traduction de :
Présentation [fr]

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I. Introduction

1In the last few decades, the number of men and women aspiring to be recognized as artists and live from their art in a professional manner has significantly increased in developed societies, whether we refer to actors (Menger, 2003; Pilmis, 2013), musicians (Coulangeon, 2004), visual artists (Abbing, 2002; Karttunen, 2008; Moulin, 1983; Quemin, 2013), writers (Lahire, 2006; Sapiro, 2007), filmmakers (Alexandre, 2015), dancers (Rannou/Roharik, 2006) or circus performers (Cordier, 2009).

2Nor has that aspiration been dimmed by either the low success rate of those artists both to live from their art and to be recognized within their “art world” (Becker, 1982), coupled with the objective multiplication of employment and work difficulties experienced over the course of time – hardship, low wages, a high temporal availability level and, notably, permanent flexibility (Buscatto, 2012, 2015).

3The past twenty years have seen a proliferation of empirical investigations detailing both the perilous living conditions of artists in contempora­ry societies and the subjective conditions justifying such an commitment in the various art worlds, whether it be literature (Heinich, 2008; Lahire, 2006; Sapiro, 2007), poetry (Dubois, 2012), the circus (Cordier, 2009), electronic, techno or rap music (Jouvenet, 2006), jazz (Buscatto, 2004), classical music (Lehmann, 2002), “popular” music (Perrenoud, 2007), blues (Grazian, 2003), classical, contemporary, hip hop or jazz dance (Faure, 2004; Fleuriel, 2010; Rannou/Roharik, 2006; Sorignet, 2004), visual arts (Abbing, 2002; Heinich, 2008), theatre (Bense, 2006; Cardon/Pil­mis, 2013; Katz, 2015; Menger, 1999; Paradeise, 1998; Sinigaglia, 2017) or, further, film (Alexandre, 2015).

4Two recurring conclusions stand out in research done on the subject to date. First of all, only a small minority of artists end up being recognized for their artistic expression by the public, their peers, by cultural intermediaries and art critics, and thus develop a high reputation. And this is the case despite a vast majority of struggling artists abandoning their artistic trajectory along the way, usually after a few years, as Philippe Coulangeon has, for example, proven statistically for French musicians (2004) or Trine Bille and Soren Jensen (2016) for Danish musicians, visual artists, writers, actors and dancers. Moreover, most of these artists who have persisted in their artistic project and claim to be doing art, already in a vast minority with regard to aspiring artists having tried to become artists, either engage in multi-activity (Bureau/Perrenoud/Shapiro, 2009; Buscatto, 2004), or ha­ve a “breadwinning” job outside their artistic world and lead “double li­ves” (Lahire, 2006) while accepting low levels of artistic recognition, often limited to their close relations – friends, neighbours and local intermediaries, – and defined by a specific geographical space – a city or region for example.

5In addition, a “vocational” call (Heinich, 1995, 2005; Moulin, 1983) un­derpins the initial engagement of these artists in the early stages of their trajectories and is so in the various arts studied empirically – e.g. in hip hop (Faure, 2004), contemporary (Sorignet, 2004) or classical dance (Laillier, 2012), in jazz (Buscatto, 2004), electro, rap or techno (Jouvenet, 2006) or classical music (Lehmann, 2002), in literature (Heinich, 1995; Lahire, 2006; Sapiro, 2007), in the visual arts (Abbing, 2002) or in the circus (Cordier, 2009). This “vocational” call is often associated with a subjective engagement born by a strong passion for artistic creation, something that remains steady throughout their trajectories (Buscatto, 2015).

  • 1 ______________________________ The main conclusion here points to a weak artistic recognition for a (...)
  • 2 ______________________________ “Ordinary artists are artists “who do the job”, the “trade”, and who (...)

6In other words, most artists, young people and not so young people, are in fact “modest” artists, in the sense that, like the “ordinary artists” descri­bed by Marc Perrenoud (2007), these women and men have not obtained a high level of artistic recognition1 and could hardly live from their art in the way they had hoped, insofar as, according to the telling expression employed by Marc Perrenoud, these women and men are “neither rich nor fa­mous” (2007). But, notably unlike the “ordinary artists” described by Marc Perrenoud, these “modest” artists persist in their activity bound to a profound artistic ambition. They maintain themselves as artists in order to achieve their artistic “vocation”, even if modestly and in a way little recognized by their art world, in order to express their “deep being” and respond to quite personal aspirations (Buscatto, 2004, 2012, 2015). “Modest” artists, unlike “ordinary” artists, “do not do the job”2, but rather seek to express themselves deeply through their art, even if recognition and remuneration for their artistic effort are weak.

7However these same studies reveal little both as to how some, from an earliest age on, continue to define themselves as artists or, on the contrary, abandon such a rocky path, or as to the rationalities underlying the choice of these “modest” artists who, after reaching the 35-40 bracket, continue to create, to make works of art, while at the same time their recognition as artists is weak and they find themselves subject to the conditions of acceptance put in place to justify such a step. Some studies certainly evoke the painful and necessary “reconversion” experienced by certain solo artists from their youth on in classical music (Wagner, 2015) or classical dan­ce (Laillier, 2012). And we know that, after forty, most still active visual artists (Marguin, 2013), performing artists (Sinigaglia, 2017) and jazz musicians (Buscatto, 2004) are hardly recognized as artists by critics, the pu­blic, cultural intermediaries or their peers. But in fact, little is known about what these artists, either poorly or unrecognized, really experience after 40 and about how they exercise and justify their artistic evolution when their situation is in fact not one of “reputational” success – being recognized by a wide public as well as by art critics, cultural intermediaries and recogni­zed peers. Still less is known about the ways in which some, nonetheless a minority, and from a youngest age on, persist in their artistic activity despite the difficulties whereas numerous others reconvert themselves and leave an artistic trajectory’s steep path before even reaching 30.

  • 3 ______________________________ The few empirical investigations dealing with the complete trajector (...)

8That is precisely this special issue’s goal: shedding light on the subjective and objective resources underlying the maintenance of “modest” artists – that is the vast majority of artists – in artistic expression, both in the early years of their trajectories, and beyond the 35-40 age bracket, once their trajectories are relatively stabilized3. As already indicated, these artists are “modest” in the sense that their artistic recognition is weak, that they must find other means of subsistence than creation and that these men and women, driven by their artistic ideal, still create art – and have thus not abandoned creation faced with the difficulties experienced because of a profound sentiment that that is their personal vocation. Should we rather see here the fruit of a “passion trap” (Ballatore/Del Rio Carral/Murgia, 2014) which would make it impossible for these artists to abandon their first vocation even when its exercise is so thankless and hard to establish? Should we rather conclude that the artists who maintain their efforts “despite everything” find other justifications for their act? Since they cannot make a living with their art, do they find other ways to finance themselves – an inheritance, a female or male companion offering financial support or a “breadwinning” principal activity – leaving free time for creation? Art worlds certainly vary as to the possibilities offered to these “modest” artists: whereas poets and writers mainly practice trades related to writing, like teaching or journalism (Dubois, 2012; Lahire, 2006), jazz musicians (Buscatto, 2004), dancers (Rannou/Roharik, 2006) and actors (Paradeise, 1998) are more likely to evolve in multi-activity within their artistic world. But beyond the differences between art worlds, how are we to think about the ageing of “modest” contemporary artists over the course of their trajectories in a sociological and anthropological manner?

9This special issue brings together seven empirical works carried out within six art worlds – music, literature, theatre, visual arts, circus and dance – in five Western countries – France, Finland, Poland, Sweden and Switzerland. In reading the seven texts published in this issue, in connection with the existing literature already mentioned dealing with artists evolving in Western countries, several lines of questioning emerge aimed at better grasping “modest” artists maintaining themselves in their activity over the course of time despite the failures and objective and subjective difficulties encountered along their artistic paths.

II. In the first stages of the trajectory, an entry and maintenance born by the artistic “vocation”

10In reading the texts of this issue, the force of the “vocational” call explaining the choice of an artistic trajectory, and persistence in that choice, appears clearly in the trajectory’s first periods. Confronted with the numerous objective and subjective difficulties that the choice of becoming an artist represents from the outset for the majority of young writers, visual artists, musicians, actors, dancers and circus performers studied, the men and women who persist in their efforts up to around 35 are primarily driven by an artistic ideal. As they themselves put it, these women and men had no choice, even if – for most of them – that choice means living in po­verty and finding themselves busied with rather unrewarding peripheral activities while confronted with an economic and personal situation that is often precarious and hard to assume.

11If we take the example of the Finnish visual artists studied by Sari Kar­tunnen, their vocational call not only encourages them to accept unrewarding employment and activities to live, but above all to finance their own capacities for creating art for lack of sufficient outlets on private markets or with public institutions. While these women and men may define themselves as professionals dedicated to their art and expert artists, their means of subsistence are no less precarious, uncertain and weak; it’s up to them to assume all the risks entailed by their artistic activity and the possibility of recognition of their art by circles beyond their close relations and local environment. We are far removed from the star visual artists studied by Alain Quemin (2013) insofar as these young artists are from the outset “modest” artists who must cope with objectively difficult employment and work situations and slim hopes of seeing their art recognized. That has moreover led a good part of them to consider that given the service their art renders to society, a decent minimal income should be set up to support the visual artists actually dedicated to their art – as they themselves are. For the author, this propensity of visual artists to depend on public funds and their frequent passage through the schools of art that trained them as artists has simply had the effect of amplifying the propensity of an ever increasing number of young Finns to engage in artistic activity and remain in it at least up to the age of 35 – the author has centered her study on visual artists under 35 – despite the objective and subjective difficulties encountered over the course of time – precariousness, poverty, low artistic, professional and social recognition, multiple employments far removed from their artistic activity, coupled with the obligatory self-financing of their art…

12In the same vein, for the Swedish fiction writers studied by Henrik Fürst, a question arises as to their persisting in their activity as serious wri­ters if, after 30, they have not yet obtained their first publication. For if everyone can write for her/his own pleasure and if most writers hardly live from their art, even once it is published (Lahire, 2006), these women and men define themselves as “real writers” and tend to feel legitimized in their aspiration to write novels or poems once they have broken through the barrier of publishing their first novel or collection of poems. Since the absence of publication of a first text by 30 tends to be interpreted by them as a sign challenging the legitimacy of their literary aspiration, they may either let their aspirations “slide” and gradually give up their project, or, on the contrary, redouble their efforts and hence allow a sense of the urgency guiding their writing activity burst forth. Henrik Fürst then descry­bes in great detail the elements constituting these two “strategies” implemented by such writers aspiring to a literary career. Confronted with the rejections of their first manuscripts, certain writers gradually give up their project of becoming writers. Other aspirations take over – university study, managing their family life for example – at the very time that the conviction they had “embraced” for writing peters out, or even disappears in light of the lack of interest their writings have engendered. For those aspiring writers, their vocational call has burnt itself out. Whereas other writers rather consider that reaching that symbolic age obliges them to devote themselves to a serious project capable of interesting a publisher. The attitude taken by the publisher – encouraging or harsh – to the first manuscripts rejected as well as the possibility of finding other substitutive sources of satisfaction for the vocational ideal – studies, educating children, work considered interesting in another domain – thus play a key role in these aspiring writers’ implementing one or the other strategy – slowly giving up and redirecting their efforts towards other projects, or doubling down and completing a manuscript to be sent to a publisher at around 30 years of age.

III. Fabricating gendered, social and “national” inequalities

13Thus in the light of these two original investigations what other empirical investigations have proven in the various art worlds appears indirectly. The vocational call as the ability to sustain it over time, beyond the capacities of some to live from their art and to be recognized by their art world, is the fruit of extremely inegalitarian social processes which tend to accumulate over time, in return justifying an intersectional approach (Buscatto, 2016). From the first moments of their trajectory, the maintenance or withdrawal of “modest” artists from their artistic activity as well as their chan­ces of success on the artistic path are underpinned by demonstrable social, gendered and “national” inequalities.

14Various studies have thus shown how social, gendered and “national” inequalities are at work inside schools of art, from entrance examinations to the end-of-program orientation (Buscatto/Cordier/Laillier, 2020; Laillier, 2012; Mauger, 2006; Provansal, 2016; Rolle/Moeschler, 2014; Thibault, 2015) according to complex social processes – stereotyping, networks, roles, and social standards in particular. The artistic trajectory maintenance in the vocational ideal is also partly linked to an economic and social capital which, notably, a favorable social or “national” origin (Bourdieu, 1992; Friedman/O’Brien/Laurison, 2016; Roux, 2015) or a gen­dered belonging (Buscatto, 2007, 2018; Coulangeon/Ravet/Roharik, 2005; Naudier, 2010; Ravet, 2011; Sinigaglia-Amadio/Sinigaglia, 2017) may provide: a man rather than a woman, a non-racialized person, or a person of favorable social origin.

15The qualitative and quantitative research carried out in French-speaking Switzerland among “ordinary” musicians by Pierre Bataille, Robin Casse and Marc Perrenoud supports an analysis of artistic trajectories seen in the prism of the social, scholastic and gendered inequalities founding them. Based on a systematic analysis of incomes earned in their activity over the course of their careers, a fine analysis of their ways of exercising their musical activity and their social determinants takes shape. In the first moments of their artistic trajectories, these musicians go all-out on the music stage to try to find their niche in the Swiss musical landscape as music professionals. Their incomes are composite and their sources of revenue numerous, even if the first structuring differences between trajectories are taking shape, differences which will only be confirmed in the following decades. The 30-40 age bracket is indeed a time of professional stabilization which will endure after 40 – the investigation only deals with men and women who carried on in their careers – confirming a principal and perennial anchoring in one of the three following sectors of activity: living mostly from their musical creation; living mostly from teaching music; living mostly from live music concerts. But the social profiles of the men and women evolving in one or the other of these three sectors of activity reveal deep social, scholastic and gendered inequalities. Whereas the men, very much in the majority, are over-represented in the sector of musical creation – the sector most valued on the artistic level and most remunerative on the economic level –, the women, notwithstanding a vast minority in the activity, are, moreover, under-represented there. Evidence of gendered inequalities is convincing and systematic here. In the same vein, even if to lesser effect, musicians with favorable social origins are more likely to be present at the creative pole than other musicians. And finally, graduate musicians tend to be over-represented in the music teaching sector. Being a man, of favored social origin, and having studied, all prove to be social determinants structuring artistic careers that are stable and built upon the first experiences of professionalization encountered in the 20 to 30 age bracket.

16The qualitative study carried out by Beata Kowalczyk with “modest” Japanese classical musicians settled in France and in Poland is also enlig­thening here. In constructing their project of mobility towards France or Poland, a double intention immediately became apparent. On the one hand, these male and female Japanese musicians certainly came to study in a European country in order to perfect their musical education, but also to emancipate themselves from social and economic conditions rather unfavorable for them in Japan. Thus, whereas the men were trying to escape from a saturated job market and a trade whose social image is rather wear worn, the women were emancipating themselves from a gendered order unfavorable for pursuing a musical career after 30, the social role of women of the middle-classes in Japan being centered rather on marriage and educating children. Moreover, once these women or men decided to remain in France or Poland to construct a musical career corresponding to their artistic ambitions, the musicians were confronted with specific obstacles related to their migratory situations: conflicting “racial” stereotypes, unfavorable legal constraints, and the objective impossibility of returning to a country they left long enough ago to preclude their professional re-establishment there. These “modest” Japanese classical musicians have thus had to find how best to grapple with an artistic ambition that is ever present – having justified their departure and settlement in Europe – as well as a strong need to maintain themselves legally and economically in their host country, with a job market and rules of immigration that are rather unfavorable to them. If migration often represented better chances of work for them – for the women – and seeing themselves recognized as artists – for the men – taking into consideration what they might have experienced in Japan, the objective obstacles lived in Europe – and taking into consideration notably what their European musician colleagues go through –, are nonetheless daunting and the need to “make do with” too. If their settling in Europe allowed them to escape an unfavorable destiny in their country of origin, it is also accompanied by constraints and difficulties that are sometimes hard to cope with and to assume in the host country.

IV. Finding other funding sources to become a recognized artist, from early youth onwards

17If certain artists define themselves as “modest” from their youth on and are supported by their vocational ideal alone without seeking recognition or hoping to live from it, most of the young artists sociologists of the arts meet are sustained at that age by the hope of managing to gain recognition and become artists sufficiently recognized to be able to live from their art, under these conditions: the creation of works of art expressing their initial personality and its fundamental creative energy. Within one same art world, that creation, defined as personal, may take on very variable forms depending on the individuals concerned. For example, a visual artist may aspire to seeing herself recognized as a video artist, a graphic designer, a performer, a painter, a photographer or a sculptor… and choose highly varied personal topics – from the expression of her intimate memories to the denunciation of inequalities while including the realization of original for­mal works. But, exceptions apart, rare are the artists who succeed in being recognized as artists for their personal creation beyond their circle and live from it from their youth on. Most of these young artists must thus find other means of living during this phase of their search for fame.

18As seen through the various investigations presented here, the way “chosen” by young artists to provide for their needs, or even to finance their artistic creation, depend on the structural conditions organizing their activity. They thus depend in part on the functioning of their art world and the opportunities for peripheral employment it offers – for example while theatre and film offer many peripheral employments in social and cultural animation, business theatre, dubbing or figuration (Paradeise, 1998), poetry or writing novels hardly lend themselves to peripheral artistic employment and rather presuppose supplementary employment, notably in teaching or journalism (Dubois, 2012; Lahire, 2006). These ways also depend on the family resources available to the person concerned – depending on whether or not she/he can see herself/himself financed by parents or a male or female companion. They are finally dependent on social protection systems and State financing of their activity – scholarships, social benefits, unemployment compensation or residences for artists. But for most of these women and men, the rule is indeed maintenance in the artistic activity based on financing obtained by complementary forms of activity or aid received.

19If we take the example of the business actresses and actors studied by Cécile Ferro and Marie Buscatto, these under 35 women and men consider that activity as a breadwinning job while finding their place in the theatrical, cinematic or audio-visual world. No business actor was trained in a specific way for that activity. Business actors and actresses are recruited in the television, cinematic or theatrical world, that recruitment being carried out via casting, following up a recommendation or by an active search for “talent” carried out by an agent at show sites. However, the study reveals that if access to this activity indeed involves all actresses and actors, whatever their training and level of studies may be, the youngest consider it more as temporary and a breadwinner in the first period of a professional trajectory then guided by their ambition to reach more prestigious and developed arenas of theatrical or cinema activity. The actors mention the financial interest inherent in business theatre, both because it occupies the “slow” periods and because it is rather well, or even very well, remunerated compared to other stage experiences. But fear of being locked into what is a low-valued sector on the artistic level just as much as the feeling that real theatre lies “elsewhere” – in classical theatre, the cinema or in television –, makes them see business theatre as a temporary experience, which shouldn’t last once their “artistic careers” are well on their way.

20On the other hand, after 35-40, for the men and women who play (or have played) in various contexts – in theatre, cinema, café-théâtre or television – but have not found sufficiently stable employment there, business theatre comes to be considered as a worthwhile way to both live from your art and continue to practice your acting profession without exhausting yourself with irregular jobs that are poorly paid, uncertain and unstable… From breadwinning jobs, the same employment has been reinvested with new social and artistic senses by these “modest” actors and actresses who haven’t found their niche, as we will see further along for the visual artists, circus performers, dancers and musicians. How are we to explain this transformation?

V. The artistic “vocation” at the basis of choosing to persist in artistic activity after 35-40

21What in fact happens to men and women who, once installed in a “modest” position with little chance of transforming itself as they grow older, nonetheless choose to persist in their artistic activity at the very time that it provides neither major artistic recognition, nor stable remuneration in the terms they had envisaged early on in their artistic activity?

22Whether they be business actresses or actors, Japanese classical musicians, dancers, circus performers or visual artists, women and men who have maintained themselves in their artistic activity after 40 retain a part of the artistic ideal at the foundation of their initiative. These women and men are not just “doing the job”, as the “ordinary” artists described by Marc Perrenoud (2007) would, but are rather retaining an artistic ideal that was primal in the construction of their trajectory. After 35-40, the business actors and actresses studied by Cécile Ferro and Marie Buscatto already mentioned thus see in their professional business theatre activity a way of continuing to live their actor or actress’s dream and exercise their theatrical art even if it may no longer correspond to their original ideal.

23The artistic ideal sometimes even remains whole for these older artists despite their not having obtained a high level of artistic recognition. Apart from any major social recognition or the ability to live from their art, certain artists thus manage to justify what are very hard living conditions – only speaking of the economic level. This is assuredly the case for some of the visual artists studied by Zoé Haller who, on the one hand, resort to social allowances or breadwinning jobs and, on the other, develop what is certainly a “modest” artistic project, – with regard to the conditions of artistic recognition –, but first in their maintenance in artistic activity. Thus, for Mathieu, 40, a visual artist Zoé Haller met, who mainly lives from a subsistence level social allowance (the French RSA or active solidarity income), his maintenance in artistic activity is above all subjectively determined – he places artistic creation at the heart of his life and considers that he belongs to the artistic avant-garde – and objectively – he devotes the essence of his time and energy to artistic creation and regularly exhibits in local contexts. Even if he earns very little from it and his recognition is of modest proportions, his artistic existence comes to rely on what is certainly a fragile and often modest membership in local social networks that give a meaning to his creation via collective exhibitions, workshop visits and artistic encounters with strong subjective significance for this artist – driven by an artistic ideal. If other visual artists accept more stable employments – teaching or administrative employment, for example –, although far removed from their artistic ideal, that artistic ideal remains there, still first in the maintenance of their creative activity, beyond high recognition. After 35-40, the “modest” visual artists Zoé Haller met have gradually built up conditions for their maintenance that are just as compatible with their artistic ideals and economic needs as with their personal values and temperament; these women and men are no less guided by their artistic ideal and desire to create their art in studios in an autonomous manner. “Doing the job” can never concern the essential part of the subjective and objective definition of what it is for these men and women to be artists. “Modest” certainly, but that doesn’t mean they accept being “ordinary”.

VI. After 35-40, the artistic “vocation”, yes, but not only…

24The ways in which “modest” artists maintain themselves in artistic creation while at the very same time they cannot manage to feed themselves, and their art may even cost them money, are multiplied after 35-40. While certain artists become art teachers, others turn their efforts to breadwinning employments or administrative and technical employments in their artistic world, whereas still others live thanks to social allowances, family financing or employments unrelated to their art. Thus each and everyone of them find other ways of living in agreement, according to her or him, with her/his artistic ideal (Taylor/Littleton, 2008). While a clown may learn how to get himself recruited for commercial animation shows, a visual artist may prefer to rely on a regular social allowance and “under the table” manual odd jobs, a female writer may choose a teaching job, a Japanese classical musician may develop a position as a free lance musician or an actress rely on regular employment on a business stage…

25Along these same lines, Marine Cordier and her colleagues describe in detail the myriad ways in which maintenance in artistic activity plays itself out in the case of dancers and circus performers not only confronted with poor recognition of their art and the impossibility of making a living from it, but also with their bodies’ ageing, sometimes necessitating, after 35-40, a withdrawal from overly intense creative activity due to physical wear and tear. On the one hand, the researchers describe the various strategies used by these performing artists dependent on ageing bodies in the exercise of their art to delay as much as possible, and if possible avoid, withdrawal from the activity for lack of a body adapted to their art’s demands: learning warm up practices, studying and executing gestures that better protect the body; refusing exhausting working conditions or developing new ways of exercising their art that spare their bodies. These men and women shift from an ethos fostering corporal sacrifice and the denial of in­jury and sufferings to a posture aimed at preserving their existing physical capital as long as possible. On the other hand, confronted with the need for finding modes of subsistence considered to be compatible with exercising their art, these dancers and circus performers are not short of ideas: from teaching related employments, cultural animation, technique, to body care practices, administration… And for the men and women, albeit rare in the investigation, who give up their art and make a reconversion, their professional bifurcation assumes the form, as they tell it, of the construction of a new professional stage on which their past skills – taking on a role, managing a public or speaking with ease – are reinvested: the new trade is thus redefined as a social role in which it is possible to exercise their abilities to be passionate and handle social situations with zest.

26However, as this issue’s other articles also show, at the foundation of these various professional or social choices aimed at providing for the artists’ needs, other intersecting rationalities emerge, making their desire to maintain themselves in creative activity acceptable. If the artistic vocation’s appeal or creative need indeed remain primary in the choice to maintain oneself as a “modest” artist, it is in turn articulated around one or several of the following rationalities, which in fact allow them to ensure a compatibility between their artistic ideal and the daily life accompanying it.

27A first rationality founding the choice of such and such a source of “breadwinning” activity parallel to artistic activity is its supposed compati­bility with artistic expression. If the gainful activity does not allow them to concentrate on artistic creation in a regular and satisfactory way, it tends to be abandoned or, in the case of a contrary choice, to indeed endanger artistic creation and move the artist away from her/his creative activity in a temporary or definitive way. The teacher, the social aid recipient, the busi­ness actress, the Japanese freelance musician or the clown animating com­mercial events already cited thus define their “choice” as having various advantages linked to artistic creation: giving them free time for creation at certain moments and in a spirit compatible with creation; maintaining artistic competencies even if the goal (notably commercial or social) is diffe­rent from their artistic goals; keeping them in the artistic world to maintain the network needed for artistic employment; or, further, freeing the spirit from all constraints considered contrary to the creative spirit. Quite often these “modest” artists have explored various employments and various possibilities before choosing one or the other possibility and settling into a certain lifestyle for a while or the long haul, connected to the idea that this source of funding is quite compatible with artistic creation.

28Another rationality that may underlie the “choice” of such and such remuneration source is its compatibility with private life, particular for wo­men and men who want to be able to create and care for their children in a way they judge satisfactory, far from the flexibility constraints, precarious­ness and poverty artistic creation often presupposes. Business theatre and teaching, stable jobs that pay and with schedules adapted to a “normal” fa­mily life, thus prove to be particularly favored by women and men who prioritize that component of their lives – yet without wanting to sacrifice their creative activity.

29A third rationality noted in the examples studied is making the “choice” of activity or means of public or private financing obtained coherent with the values and lifestyle the artist esteems. Whereas some see in business theatre the achievement of a social mission in service to downtrodden company employees or else a comfortable way of exercising one’s art because of its high pay levels, others see an activity in service to profit and business incompatible with the life of artists and their critical role and therefore reject it. Or else social benefits or family financing may seem to be effective ramparts against the need to become an employee responding to managerial, artistic or social injunctions opposed to primary values – resulting from a critical involvement in capitalist society.

VII. Conclusion

30If these “modest” artists maintain themselves in creative activity, and do so at every stage of their trajectories, the artistic “vocation” is first in their choice not to abandon, unlike what a vast majority of aspiring artists choose to do: leaving artistic activity in the first ten years of their professional lives. Indeed “modest” artists thus define themselves by a triple reality: weak artistic recognition – by their peers, institutions, the public, cultural intermediaries and critics –; a weak capacity for living from their art in a principal manner; a primary aspiration to express their “vocation”. Through this last trait, these men and women are fundamentally distinguished from “ordinary” artists who, “neither rich, nor famous”, “do the job” to maintain themselves in the art world chosen in an early phase of their artistic life (Perrenoud, 2007). The “modest” artists, if they very often accept carrying out tasks distanced from their artistic ideal to live, if they “do the job” to maintain themselves in artistic activity, are nonetheless dri­ven in a principal way by the artistic ideal which guides as much their choice to maintain themselves as artists as that of the tasks judged by them to be coherent with the realization, however modest, of their artistic ambition.

31Yet, beyond 35-40, their maintenance in a position of “modest” artist – a case very much in the majority since few artists will enjoy professional recognition beyond a restricted circle and live from their art in accordance with an artistic ideal – will also have to transform themselves in adopting a lifestyle compatible with the exercise of art but also acceptable in connection with other rationalities. Depending on their values, their relationship with the world and with art, each of them will build, often on a trial and error basis, a lifestyle judged to be compatible with the expression of their art. Thus the professional activity or means of financing chosen should certainly allow artistic practice in giving them free time, in permitting access to useful social networks and, notably, in maintaining their creative, relational and technical skills. But the breadwinning activity or external fi­nancing – family or social benefits – must also be compatible with the artist’s fundamental values: educating children in a stable and constant manner; being of service to individuals and/or society; (not) participating in for-profit activities; participating in the development of a daily social and political critique; living comfortably despite the sacrifices induced by creative activity thanks to “remunerative” employment; constructing one’s financial independence and not depending on family money…The artistic vocation, yes… But not only and not just anything!

32Through the case of “modest” artists the great strength of the ideal of self expression at work in contemporary societies appears in relief (Giddens, 1991), already empirically observed just as readily in an insurance company (Buscatto, 2002) as in the jazz world (Buscatto, 2004). If an increasing number of people with rather solid social and economic resources – artists tend to come from advantaged families and were able to “choose” their professional orientation – opt for and maintain themselves in artistic activity despite the difficulties both in living from their art and in seeing their artistic ambition recognized beyond a restricted circle of relations, we can see the trace here of the modern ideology valuing the individual and the expression of his or her profound being. Hence “modest” artists most closely incarnate this ideal – measured by material sacrifices – low inco­mes, precariousness, flexibility, availability – and subjective – low recognition, breadwinning jobs or slightly valued social benefits – accepted to achieve the ideal of self expression.

Haut de page


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1 ______________________________ The main conclusion here points to a weak artistic recognition for all of these “modest” artists: their works of art are hardly known to the public, little or never discussed by the critics, programmed in pla­ces and in events with weak (or non-existing) artistic renown, not (or little) financed by private or pu­blic players… The sociological sense given to what constitutes a high artistic reputation may vary from one art world to another (according to the concurrent definitions present in such and such art world of what a “true” artist amounts to), or even from one artistic style to another (pop is not jazz, a performance is not conceptual art, the theatre is not television, for example). But in all the cases which concern us, these writers, musicians, actors, dancers, filmmakers, visual artists or circus performers are “modest” insofar as they have only obtained weak artistic recognition and this is the case whatever the criteria of judgment. But they do not give up their artistic activity and continue to express themselves through art over the course of time, thus finding other sources to fund their activity.

2 ______________________________ “Ordinary artists are artists “who do the job”, the “trade”, and whose creation is far from being auto­nomous and [is] removed from commercial constraints and a concern for adaptation to the public” (Bois G., Perrenoud M., 2017, p. 12).

3 ______________________________ The few empirical investigations dealing with the complete trajectories of the artists mentioned here (including those presented in this issue) observe that the period around forty is one of stabilization of trajectories: the level of artistic reputation reached is generally regarded as something acquired, the choice of remaining in or abandoning artistic activity has generally been made, the mode of exercising artistic activity and parallel activities – educating children, financing creation – is stabilized… That does not of course mean that beyond the 35-40 bracket, these artists will not evolve, in both their private lives – divorces, forming a couple or remaining single, moving, inheritances, departure of children, health incidents – as well as in their professional lives – reorientations, developing new activities, abandoning creation… But that may rather signify that in view of existing empirical works, the trajectories of “modest” artists may be analysed in two phases: an intense period of construction of the artist’s reputation allied with a search for financing allowing creation until around 35-40 (with a high rate of abandonment of the trajectory of artist since most of them cannot sustain themselves in this activity in the first years of its exercise); a stabilization in the modest reputation and in ways of finan­cing their artistic activity (teaching, subsistence jobs in art, jobs outside of art, social or family financing…). Future empirical investigations will surely allow us to better understand both the social, econo­mic, educational and political determinants in abandoning or persisting in the artistic trajectory as well as the stages of construction of the trajectories of these artists. There may also be further refinements in the periodization of the careers of these “modest” artists (representing the vast majority of living ar­tists) revealing a greater number of objective and subjective stages the latter go through.

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Marie Buscatto

Professor of Sociology. IDHE.S, Paris 1 Pantheon Sorbonne University – CNRS.

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