Amanda Palmer and the Art of Asking

I was recently introduced to musician Amanda Palmer’s TED talk, which is titled the same as her novel “The Art of Asking”. In the nigh fourteen minute segment, she describes her first out-of-college job as a living statue on the streets of Cambridge, Massachusetts and other places. This is the jumping off point for her belief in the free sharing of art, the connections we build as artists and art-lovers and humans and the trust in people to be willing to help when you have the courage to ask. That’s about as far as I’m going to paraphrase her story. Spare the fifteen minutes and watch or listen to the talk; I promise, you’ll get it too. You might even get a little teary-eyed, and I think that’s great.

How she spoke specifically to me:

As a teenager, I found most of my self-expression through art. Photography, ceramics, writing, painting. When I enrolled in college (because college is what you do), I listed my major as Fine Arts, emphasis in Photography. Wouldn’t it just be something if I could be an artist for a living? If I could take something I love to do and provides me with enormous amounts of pride and pleasure and relaxation and release, wouldn’t it be the dream to create as a career? Wasn’t a college education the way to get that done?

However, two years in, I was married, itching for a baby and realizing that the death of my absolute favorite thing, darkroom photography, was imminent. In protest of the digital usurper to my primary source of creation, I turned my back on art and switched my major entirely.

Fast forward seven years, and I have two kids and a part-time career that relates to neither of my baccalaureate concentrations. I started a side business doing calligraphy to hearken back to how I felt about art as a teenager. It was extremely important to me. But anything that takes time away from life (kids, work, husband, household) has to make money. Charging for my artwork has always felt disingenuous. It has always felt like something I have to do, not something I want to do. I want to earn an income, sure. Praise and gratitude and pride in my work don’t put clothes on my kids’ backs or food in their mouths. I have base prices for my products based largely upon market trends, even leaning towards the cheaper side. I have to push aside my mountainous self-esteem issues to charge even that; I never feel like my work is worth what I ask for it. But I have to make money doing it if I want to do it at all.

I recently turned down a job working for a nonprofit art program because it would not have paid enough to justify the time spent away from my kids and the money it would have cost for childcare. I asked my husband, “What if the woman who runs it is amazing, and the office space is fun and wonderful and the work is fulfilling and I feel great about doing it? Isn’t that worth something?” He told me, “Yes, of course, it’s worth something. But it can’t be worth everything.” And he was right. Maybe this job would have been the puzzle piece that magically completes the picture of my life. Maybe it would have filled something inside of me left by the void of abandoning both a career in art or one in public service. Who knows? The money wasn’t enough for me to even take a change to try.

The point is, I believe her. I agree with Amanda Palmer. I would love to feel the trust she feels that people will help if you just ask. I would love to create something just for the pure enjoyment of creation, for the intrinsic value, for the joy it brings to my heart and somehow know that it’s also earning me the means to give my kids the lives they deserve. I’m going to work on that.

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