I had a drawing professor in college who specialized in painting with human urine. She had jars of it all over her house, experimenting with different diets, donors, and ages to see what colors each produced. She even experimented with other, erm, excrement, but found that it faded over time and became essentially transparent. (From the posterior = not for posterity. Life lesson.)
She was a fantastic professor, and without question an “artist’s artist.” She created because she had to, because she had something to say that she couldn’t, um, hold in. Is she a tremendous commercial success? I doubt I have to answer that question. Is she happy with what she’s doing? I’m not sure I know the answer to that, but I have a sneaking suspicion that, if she truly wanted to be making commercially accessible oil paintings of landscapes, she would be doing that instead.
Of course, there is a market for urine paintings. It’s not a huge market, though I would imagine that sealing the paintings in airtight frames would increase it marginally, but it’s out there. If she managed to find that market (urolagniacs? Freudian psychologists?), she could probably sell a decent amount of art, but even the most hardcore urine fetishist is only going to need so many piss paintings.
I’ve since seen artwork by her that focuses more on plumbing and toilets, the vehicles as opposed to the actual excrement. I believe she’s still making her urine art, but by branching out, she’s opened her market up to a group of people who can appreciate the quirky subject matter without the more visceral side of, you know, actually hanging some stranger’s pee on your wall.
Being a “working artist” means sometimes diluting your message, assuming you like things like eating and having a roof. There’s no need to abandon it – I’m not suggesting you start selling paintings of fish by the beach or Ed Hardy knockoff designs (unless that’s your thing), but if you aren’t making art to sit in your storage unit, you need to make something that someone else will want to have and, ideally, will want to pay you for. Sure, there are people who get paid to cover themselves in raw meat and stand in a gallery for a week, but there aren’t a whole lot of job openings in that particular field. If you want a reliable income from your artwork, you need to figure out your market and create something they’ll want.
This is just as true for other career paths, of course. Any service or salable item that needs a market needs to figure out what that market is. I think most businesses realize that, but there’s this rarefied air about being an arteeest that somehow makes people forget that, if it’s something you want to make money at, you’re still just a merchant with a product.
Stop navel-gazing and get over yourself. If you’re an artist who wants to die young and be remembered as a genius, do whatever you want. If you want to be an artist on the side and have a “real” job by day, great. But if you want to be an actual working artist who makes money for yourself and not your grandchildren, you need to find that universal note and sell the hell out of it. You have to make a product that people want, and you have to find the right people so they’ll buy your product. The more customers you find in your specific niche, the less you’ll need to branch out. Yes, that means spending time marketing yourself (or, ahem, hiring someone to do it for you).
It should go without saying, but don’t copy just because you know someone is going to pay you for it. It may pay off in the short term, but you’re losing your artistic integrity and will end up without a platform, catering to the next trend and running mildly successful but depressing booths at craft fairs for the rest of your life. You have a vision; own it. Just remember: Toilets are funny! Actual urine is gross.
Photo by Flickr user Vitor Sá – Virgu, used under a Creative Commons license.