10 Stupid Questions You Get When You Work In The Arts (And Their Answers!)


I have been writing for over three years now, doing it full-time for over two. Since I began writing full-time, I’ve done nothing else, and have lived my life (and paid my bills) as a writer. You can even buy my book in a real store with other books, if you are so inclined. And receiving these questions — to this day — would be surprising, if my father, who has been a full-time illustrator for 20 years, didn’t receive the exact same ones. It seems that everyone, unless they are a household name, is destined to hear them — and if you work in the arts, you’ve definitely heard them, too.

1. “So what do you do all day?”

Answer: This question is most often directed at people who freelance (I’m lucky, in that I at least have an office to go to that gives people the illusion that I have daily tasks to execute). But the idea behind it is that someone who is working on their art from home mostly spends their day watching TV, eating junk food, surfing the internet, and drinking as soon as it hits 5 PM. As anyone who has worked from home can attest, the reality is spending 50 percent of your time executing projects frantically before deadline, and 50 percent of your time searching for work in the hopes that you will be able to make rent this month. Being snidely asked what you do all day on top of that is truly adding insult to injury.

2. “How does that make money?”

Answer: A price is set for the goods and/or services that I provide for employers and/or clients, and we exchange said goods and/or services at this set rate, until one of us decides that it is no longer financially/personally beneficial. Rinse and repeat.

3. “What do you really do?”

Answer: I know that part of the problem here is that a lot of people say “I’m an artist” when what they really mean is “I’m a barista who has a DeviantArt account.” And so it’s not necessarily stupid to ask someone to clarify when they say that they work in the arts, but it is rude. And following up someone’s response to your “what do you do?” question with an even more pointed, judgmental question, is just not something that should happen in polite party conversation. We do what we just said that we do, there is your answer.

4. “What are you going to do when the economy gets really bad?”

Answer: This is always a weird one, because it has so many impractical ideas behind it. First, it implies that the economy is definitely going to get worse for everyone, which is debatable. Then it implies that, in order to combat this upcoming worse economy, it is best to abandon your job where you are being paid for your skills to work some other, undefined job that will be more resistant to the upcoming economic worsening. We all know people in every sector who have lost jobs or taken pay cuts — wouldn’t the best solution in any economy be to do the work you can do, and which you get paid for? The short answer to this question is, maybe one day I will lose my job, but maybe you will, too. And until that day, I am working.

5. “Hey, will you do this [insert incredibly complicated job] for free?”

Answer: There is something almost charming about the obliviousness with which people will ask you for free work. Sometimes you can tell that they are aware they should be paying, and those people are bad, but sometimes people just genuinely don’t understand. You’ll get small business with clearly limited budgets who come to you with so much earnestness that you almost forget they’re totally undervaluing your work and your competence. And we all fall into the occasional pro bono trap, but most of the time, the answer is “Would you ask a plumber to fix your toilet for free? Even if you were really tight on budget? If not, please don’t ask me to trade my services for a smiley-laden email.”

6. “Don’t you want the exposure?”

Answer: You overestimate your exposure potential, and underestimate my love for receiving compensation for my work.

7. “Hey, would you check out my stuff?”

Answer: It never gets easier to get out of this, does it? Friends, family, random people you met once at a bar and got into a conversation with, old acquaintances on Facebook with prog rock bands — they all want to hear what you think. They want measured criticism, and tailored advice, and free promotion, and you don’t know how to say the truth: “This puts me in the really awkward position of either working for you for free, or having to tell you that I don’t think your work is very good. Either way it’s not a situation I want to be in.”

8. “[Insert incredibly awkward question that is clearly just trying to find out how much money you make here.]”

Answer: In some ways, I honestly prefer when people come right out and ask me how much money I make, because there’s something refreshing in its clarity. Watching people dance around the question like it was poisonous (because it IS, socially speaking) while still wanting to get the info is frankly exhausting. Whatever amount you have in your mind, assume it’s that much, because your opinion on my tax bracket is not going to have much bearing on my life one way or the other. And the more it is, the less you’ll like it anyway, so it’s probably better to imagine we’re all scraping by with nothing.

9. “Why don’t you want to go to [vaguely artistic event]?”

Answer: Ahh, the Facebook event for random artistic events that have nothing to do with your work. How familiar, and yet how difficult to navigate in practice! There is something about working in the arts that leads everyone to believe you are automatically interested in everything “artistic.” And the reality is that most of these events would be more enjoyable as a bag of chips and a Netflix marathon. (And we know that, if we have an event, most people feel the same way about ours. Attending them is a sign of friendship, not of real interest.)

10. “Are you still doing that… what do you do, again?”

Answer: Yes, I am still working “that job.” I’ll let you know if anything changes.

image – Brianna Wiest