“It seems that we never get paid what our labor is worth
That’s why we often in a daze on the way to our work
And when we get there, we can’t wait to be out
So let me tell you what it’s about…”
The above is from a song called ‘Proletariat Blues’ by the Blue Scholars. It offers one answer to the question: how do you earn a living as a professional artist? Well, a whole lot of the time…you don’t. In fact, next time you’re eating in a restaurant, you might try asking your server when they received their MFA. In addition to funneling art degrees into the restaurant industry, many trained artists are able to pay the bills doing work adjacent to their field. According to NACE’s 2012 Student Survey, the students most likely to receive job offers within their field, majored in: accounting, engineering, computer science, economics, and business administration. Except artists took out student loans just like everybody else. And while they may not be making bank at it, they aren’t letting their talents lie fallow either.
Let’s look at a real life example. One painter who is singing the Proletariat Blues graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with an MFA in 2009. She currently works 9-to-5 doing graphic design for $20,000 a year. For two years she has been paying off her student loans at the rate of $875 per month. For those of you kicking yourselves right now for not majoring in accounting, that’s over half her monthly earnings. For two years she has been graphic designing 9-to-5, painting 6-to-11 and living off of rice and beans. Our painter friend is a prime example of someone who benefit enormously from switching her loan repayment plan to an Income-Based Repayment plan. Doing so would provide her an infinitely more manageable monthly payment and would also offer loan forgiveness after 25 years of making her minimum monthly payments. The problem is that no one at college or grad school made her aware of how to best manage her debt. The good news is that it’s not too late for her to change plans and get back above the poverty line.
What’s even more heartening is the extraordinary will of our artists to persevere in a society that views humankind’s miraculous creative capacity as an obvious budget cut. But we need our artists. We need them to create wholesome and innovative environments in which to help our children learn. We need them to write songs and paint pictures reminding us that there are parts of ourselves we can’t afford to sacrifice in the rushing daily torrent of this instant age. And perhaps we need them most of all to reflect the truth of our missteps. James Baldwin once wrote, “the peculiar nature of [the artist’s] responsibility to his society is that he must never cease warring with it, for its sake and for his own.” It should come as no surprise that our artists are finding student debt a compelling subject matter.