Blog / 2023 / Mistake #9: Feeling Guilty About Wanting to Earn a Proper Living with My Art

July 17, 2023

Back in May, my art career officially turned twenty. To celebrate this milestone artiversary, I’ve been talking about some of my most mundane mistakes, things like trying to be like everyone else and blaming myself for being too nice. Because if I had to point to one main reason why I’m still creating after all this time, it’s that I refused to let these everyday failures defeat me.

Today’s installment of the Carnival of Errors is all about the worry that people will think I’m greedy because I want to be paid well for doing work that I love.

This mistake stems from a thoroughly weird belief which, unfortunately, a lot of people share with me: that hard work demands suffering, and that only suffering can make the work worthy of reward.

I’d prefer to not have such a twisted relationship with the concept of labor, but, as I reflect on why I have so much trouble asking for proper wages for making art, that’s the only conclusion that makes any sense. People who work boring jobs or ones where the environment is harmful—like in factories where physical dangers abound or in any kind of social situation with the daily assault of sexism or racism—should obviously be paid well. And teachers, in particular, should be earning at least three times their current salary. After all, they’re doing the vital work of forming our future, and, more often than not, it probably feels like there’s no more punishing way to spend your time than by attending to the minds and hearts of kids as they try their world on for size and discover (or don’t) a lifelong love of learning.

Art-making, on the other hand, is an iffier proposition.

I have a kind of “if you can’t take the heat, get out of the kitchen” attitude towards my job. I mean, I know I go on and on about how much art matters, and I’m convinced that’s true for the art I experience as an audience member. But I’m not sure I’ll ever believe that my art is a basic necessity in the same way that air, water, food, shelter, health care, and art by other people is.

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None of the mistakes I’m writing about are easy for me to deal with: that’s why they’re mistakes. But, of everything I’ve addressed so far in my blog series covering twenty years worth of blunders, this wrong-headed idea is the most insidious.

The shame that surrounds wanting to make money as an artist cuts to the core of art’s place in our society, and it cuts to my core too.

Feelings of inadequacy have plagued me in all aspects of my life since forever. It’s why I’m less of a go-getter and more of a paint-myself-into-a-corner-in-order-to-motivate-me-er. I never feel like what I’m doing is very good, and it’s certainly not enough.

For that reason, following a logic that no sensible person would want to untangle, I decided that the activity I was going to make my living with is one you only get to pursue if you can persuade other people that you’re allowed to do it because you are good and you are enough. It’s a special kind of self-torture that leaves me certain about one thing only: that people will judge me as greedy for wanting to make art all the time and get paid to do it.

figure made up of measuring tape with a scale for a face, holding a bank statement and phone with all their zeroes on social media, surrealist art by Gwenn Seemel
Gwenn Seemel
Too Much and Not Enough, Based on All Available Data
acrylic on panel
18 x 14 inches

But, earlier this month, I received a gift from the dead. In preparation for my father’s memorial, I searched through some of his files, looking for old photos to include in the slideshow of his life. Along the way, I discovered letters that Papa had sent to his older sister when he was in his twenties—letters that my cousin had sent back to him after my aunt died. These messages reveal a touching uncertainty about his abilities. My father was humble! And that came as a shock.

I’m not saying that my dad was an arrogant person, but, in my lifetime, his self-belief never seemed to waver. Maybe it’s that I was his kid, so he didn’t want to share his doubts with me. When I was younger, that was a kindness, because his certainty gave me something solid to rely on. But as I became an adult, I would have liked to hear more about Papa’s struggles.

Learning that he wasn’t sure he deserved the confidence that his parents and siblings had in him healed something for me.

What if everyone is unsure of their worth? What if we’re all just looking for confirmation that we matter to those around us? What if every last one of us just wants to be enough?

close up of figure made up of measuring tape with a scale for a face, holding a bank statement
detail of Too Much and Not Enough, Based on All Available Data

This figure made up of measuring tape and sporting a scale for a face is all about measuring up. The image is part of Everything’s Fine, my series of surrealist paintings about mental health which will be on display at the Princeton Public Library starting next month!

Princeton Public Library
65 Witherspoon
Princeton, NJ 08542

Open: August 7th through October 15th
Hours: every day, visit PPL site for times

In-person artist talk and reception: August 16th at 7p

The original piece is for sale for $1600 plus shipping (and tax if you live in New Jersey), and there are prints and pretty things here in my print shop.

Maybe this post made you think of something you want to share with me? Or perhaps you have a question about my art? I’d love to hear from you!


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