In the popular imagination, artists tend to exist either at the pinnacle of fame and luxury or in the depths of penury and obscurity — rarely in the middle, where most of the rest of us toil and dream. They are subject to admiration, envy, resentment and contempt, but it is odd how seldom their efforts are understood as work. Yes, it’s taken for granted that creating is hard, but also that it’s somehow fundamentally unserious. Schoolchildren may be encouraged (at least rhetorically) to pursue their passions and cultivate their talents, but as they grow up, they are warned away from artistic careers. This attitude, always an annoyance, is becoming a danger to the health of creativity itself. It may seem strange to say so, since we live at a time of cultural abundance and flowering amateurism, when the tools of creativity seem to be available to anyone with a laptop. But the elevation of the amateur over the professional trivializes artistic accomplishment and helps to undermine the already precarious living standards that artists have been able to enjoy.
But it is, nonetheless, a job. The risk in separating the labor of making points and differences from its worldly reward lies in losing sight of the fact that it is labor, and therefore has a value that is material as well as abstract. In March, the National Endowment for the Arts released a report estimating that more than two million American workers identified themselves as artists, and noted that they had, since 2008, undergone the same bumpy, piecemeal recovery as other workers. An earlier report, from 2011, calculated that “the production of arts and cultural goods and services contributed $504.4 billion to the U.S. economy,” or 3.25 percent of gross domestic product. It may be relevant to note that the single largest category of artistic endeavor was advertising — a sign, perhaps, that the distinction between art and commerce is finally moot — but the upshot is that what artists do represents a significant quantifiable share of the nation’s wealth.