Monday, August 13, 2012

Do you want to have a career?

Rainy path. 20"x16". Oil on canvas panel 
I’ve been thinking lately about what “a career as an artist” (let alone “building career as an artist”) might mean for different people. This particular train of thought was set off when I read a comment left by Paula Roland on Joanne Mattera’s recent blog post about Ivan Karp . Paula Roland recalls, fondly, how he asked her (and I quote from her comment):

 — Do ya wanna live in a beautiful place with great weather, or do ya wanna have a ca-reeeeeeer?

(She lived then, and, per her G+ profile, still lives, in Santa Fe. He, of course, lived in NYC). 


I won’t claim a sufficient naivety not to understand what was meant, yet this didn’t make my mind "itch" any less, returning to this comment again, and again, and again; or maybe it was just the right time for me to think about whether I want to “have a ca-reeeeeer” and what it is that bothers me about this concept (or even conceit?).

Since I did pursue a career for a large chunk of my life, a career in linguistics, I tend to resort to dictionaries when in doubt. Here is what they told me about “careers”.

According to the Oxford dictionary of English, a career is 
  • an occupation undertaken for a significant period of a person’s life and with opportunities for progress. 
The Free dictionary by Farlex distinguishes two distinct meanings here: 
  • A chosen pursuit; a profession or occupation. 
  • The general course or progression of one's working life or one's professional achievements
So does the Merriam Webster Dictionary, but in a slightly different way: 
  • a field for or pursuit of consecutive progressive achievement, especially in public, professional, or business life; 
  • profession for which one trains and which is undertaken as a permanent calling. 

Have you noticed the distinction between one’s own commitment and fuel (“significant period of a person’s life”, “training”, “permanent calling”) and the expected course, or progression of achievements? A duality (somewhat underplayed by the Oxford definition) perhaps not surprising from this word, which, before entering English from French, has travelled across several Romance languages, vacillating between the meanings of “vehicle, wagon” and “road, path” it travels. Notably, Oxford understates the “road-like” component (reducing it to vague “opportunities”), while Merriam Webster highlights it as the first meaning (and the Free Dictionary is somewhere in-between).  It’s just that now we are the (horseless) wagons, and there are various paths set for us to “progress” as expected. The wagon has to be there, to be sure, and it has to propel itself in one way or another, but what is the expected path and its progression?

Leaving the etymological residues aside, the way the word “career” is used now invokes rather the image of a ladder than a path: that’s why we can talk of “the height” of one’s career (and it is not necessarily it’s endpoint). A career is not a road we travel but a ladder we climb (or eventually fall from). The steps of this ladder can be described in one of three ways:
  • Each next step is a more significant accomplishment than the previous one.
  • Each next step is a more prestigious position (job, show, gallery, collection).
  • Each next step brings one more income than the previous one.
    I am almost sure there are professions where these aspects of career ladders nicely harmonize with one another (at least until one reaches one’s level of incompetence). This would naturally happen if the significance of accomplishments strongly depends on experience (successfully leading larger research projects or institutions, for example, or taking on a higher level of responsibility). But in most cases I am aware of, this is not quite the case; moreover, these ladders quite often lead in different directions – so that taking a deliberate next step along one of them, you fall crushing from one or both of the others.

What is even more important, come to think about it, is that the first aspect, the crucial one, cannot even be expected to be a ladder. One can always hope to achieve something more significant next time (be it a research project, a book, a movie, a painting, a sculpture), but it almost never happens quite like that. Nor should it, really – insofar as taking risks is a prerequisite for any significant achievement. Nor is this path a paved road with a known destination, but rather a barely visible trail in an undiscovered country. There are no careers there.     


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