I’ve made up my mind to stop trying to share my artistic universe with an audience, to be understood and to get a break… I know full well that nobody’s interested in my decision either!!! Due to mounting personal problems and misunderstood health issues that lead me to be marginalized, stigmatized and rejected, I have lived in isolation and solitude for far too long. Not to mention the rudeness of the audience, of the art and music worlds where people make snap judgments without really knowing what they’re talking about, and also the low blows and attitudes that force people into isolating and quarantining themselves… I’ve decided to give it all up to take care of myself instead of letting that continual indifference and rejection destroy me…
I wish you all well.”
Yohan, email dated 4 May 2016.
This message sent by an artist1 to his entire list of contacts illustrates one of the possible outcomes for artistic careers characterized by a lack of recognition or success2. Exit is frequent in these occupations: roughly one in four artists leave the artistic job market within two years after their first job, and over half leave within five years (Cardon 2011). Still, the accumulation of hardships, be they socioeconomic (insecure employment, low and irregular income, issues with access to housing and healthcare, etc.) or professional (a lack of integration into professional networks, efficient resources, recognition, etc.), does not automatically lead these artists to end their careers.
This paper focuses on ordinary artists, under the definition proposed by Marc Perrenoud. This term does not imply a judgment on the quality of their output, skills, or supposed talent; it refers first to their working and employment conditions, and second to their position in the professional space3. Unlike the stars of show business, ordinary artists know “neither fortune nor glory” (Perrenoud 2007: 8). In France, the majority work as intermittents (contract workers in the entertainment industry); some are self-employed as auto-entrepreneurs (a recently introduced, simplified freelance status), and a few of the least professionally integrated live on minimum benefits. Their activities are generally irregular, difficult to schedule, and generate fairly low income4. These people very often have multiple jobs (Bureau, Perrenoud, Shapiro 2009), with one or two secondary activities inside or outside the artistic field. They are far removed from the dominant poles of the artistic field, and only rarely or partially gain access to the forms of consecration available in the field consecration by peers (in the internal hierarchy of the field) or by the public (in its external hierarchy)—which are the main prizes in the market of symbolic goods (Bourdieu 1985). These ordinary artists may have varying trajectories, be “young intellectuals, old proles, or the other way around” (Perrenoud 2007: 8), but this paper mostly examines artists from humble social backgrounds. This is firstly because they are the ones who most often hold dominated positions in the artistic field5. Secondly, as they have generally been socialized outside the artistic field, the gap between subjective aspirations and objective chances is the widest them: the less one knows about the reality of an artist’s life, the more one’s representations tend to be idealized, making it difficult to face reality, and leading to feelings of disappointment, frustration, and in some cases, career exits.
The objective of this paper is to show what happens when expectations which spurred engagement in a vocational occupation are not met. Why do artists continue their careers despite relatively precarious “objective” living conditions and often insufficient symbolic rewards to make up for them? This paper proposes the hypothesis that the careers of ordinary artists are largely shaped by very unequal abilities to exploit their aspirations. While in the most frequent cases of social reproduction there is an “immediate correspondence between structures and habitus” (Bourdieu 1974: 5), when the sites of socialization widely differ from the social spaces in which individuals enter or aspire to enter, the correspondence is less immediate and depends on the agent’s dispositions and resources. The process of learning the rules which structure the professional space, through trial and error and in relationships with peers, allows artists to find (or not) their own “place”—meaning they to aspire to objectively likely outcomes, and subjectively reject what is objectively inaccessible (Bourdieu 1990).
By focusing on the trajectories of ordinary artists, and particularly those with humble backgrounds, I unveil several mechanisms involved in the production and reproduction of social inequalities in artistic careers. Although the artistic field presents itself as an “open market” (Paradeise 1998) with seemingly small “costs of entry” (Mauger 2006a), observation shows that those with the least capital, often from less privileged backgrounds, are quickly excluded from it or assigned to dominated positions. Not only do these artists share a number of social properties and experiences that do not predispose them to accessing dominant positions, but these properties also lead them to adopt behaviours and strategies that reinforce the likelihood of becoming ordinary artists.
Following the recommendation of Everett Hughes (1996), the structure of this paper follows the stages of a career: entry, maintenance, and exit. Each of these stages provides an opportunity to observe aspirations at work: first, they are reduced, so that inaccessible childhood dreams do not constitute an insurmountable obstacle from the early days of their career (1); then, they are adjusted to formulate expectations that match their objective chances of success during in their career (2); and ultimately they are converted into a new career plan, limiting the costs of a career change when sustaining an artistic career is no longer possible (3).
Fieldwork and methodology
This paper is mostly based on material gathered during two stages of interview (N=74 and N=14) conducted between 2010 and 2012. The interviews were designed to examine the trajectories and the working and employment conditions of ordinary performing artists (in music, theatre, dance, and circus). They took place in the north-eastern French regions of Alsace and Lorraine in professional spaces situated relatively far from the dominant poles of the artistic field. Interviewees were selected according to five main variables: gender; occupation; sector of activity; degree of professional integration (a combination of indicators including employment status, career stage, income level, etc.); and main place of work (to avoid bias relating to local settings). This research was supported by the French Ministry of Culture’s department for studies, strategic foresight and statistics. Findings are summarized in two reports: “Être heureux dans l’emploi culturel. Qualité de l’emploi et du travail des femmes et des hommes du spectacle vivant” (2011) and “Le rapport au territoire des équipes artistiques. Cartographie socio-ethnographique du spectacle vivant” (2012).
Career entry is a decisive time in the professional life of performing artists—particularly for those who did not have the opportunity to acquire the dispositions specific to the artistic field in their socialization. At this time of professional transition, between the initial formulations of the desire to make a living from their art and settling into a more or less stable form of professional integration, a number of aspirations come up against the actual functioning of the professional space of performing arts. The reduction of subjective expectations is therefore a virtually obligatory crossing point in the career entry of ordinary artists.
While as a rule ordinary artists begin to practise their art fairly late and rarely with professional ambitions, the biographical narratives elicited from them in interviews all share the language of vocation. This reflects both the construction of occupations in the performing arts as vocational occupations and the artists’ adherence to this belief. As predispositions to feeling a sense of predestination are strongly correlated with artistic socialization at a very young age, some differences come to light. Ordinary artists from more privileged social backgrounds more frequently report having developed a taste for their art at a tender age (‘ever since I was small’) and being preternaturally and remarkably gifted as children. This is the case for most highbrow music practitioners (Coulangeon 2004) and dancers, especially women (Sorignet 2010), who began to learn their art early in training institutions that were carefully picked by their families, and who were able to project themselves into this possible destiny at quite a young age as a result. Conversely, lowbrow music practitioners, who more frequently come from less advantaged backgrounds—although still a minority (Coulangeon 2004)—more often begin playing during adolescence with friends, outside of any institutional framework. Despite their later introduction to the practice, they still reconstruct it in terms of predestination: often, the evocation of a “revelation” upon seeing a performance during childhood, especially for actors (Menger 1997) and circus performers (Garcia 2011), gives meaning retrospectively to a personal commitment that happened years later. Gaston, 56, the son of blue-collar workers in a provincial small town, had no artistic training or experience outside of playing in a family rock group. When he relates how he became a comedian, he starts out by mentioning a vague recollection of watching a Marcel Pagnol play at his primary school. Yet he only began working as a street clown at 40, motivated by the desire to “escape” a struggling professional career in which he held a wide variety of menial jobs in the industrial and service sectors. Many ordinary artists also report being inspired in their vocation by “stars” they admired. Forty-year-old Hervé, the son of blue-collar workers in a small industrial town, explains that he learned to play the drums as a teenager by imitating the drummer of his favourite band (Lars Ulrich of the American heavy metal group Metallica), faithfully reproducing all of the songs of their first album on pans borrowed from his mother (and later on a real drum kit in a band with his friends). Vocations are partly nurtured by media representations of the artist’s life—both as an unattainable dream and as the only way of envisioning the job. In the words of 33-year-old Albertine, “When I was a kid, I didn’t know there was such a thing as non-famous actors, I thought either you were a star or you were nothing at all!” After obtaining a bachelor’s degree in the performing arts to “reassure” her mother, a schoolteacher, she left university and joined a small semi-professional company to try to achieve her dream of being an actor, “like movie stars,” and, in particular, the theatre actors she had seen on television6.
Beliefs in the ideology of the gift and of predestination, in the inevitable consecration of the talented, constitute an illusio that is necessary in order to belong in the artistic field. These beliefs are particularly strong when combined with a very low level of knowledge of concrete job realities. Hence, the first career steps are the occasion of a sometimes-brutal confrontation between fantasized representations of the artist’s life and the mundane facts of everyday life for professionals in the performing arts. Far from the “professional rationality” of the inheritors and their families (Lehmann 2002), who anticipate the possible outcomes of learning an art at each step of the way, from the choice of instrument to the choice of school, the less endowed aspirants are exposed to setbacks because they often underestimate the importance of professional integration and recognition.
The first difficulty lies in learning the rules of the employment status of French performing artists—intermittents du spectacle. While in theatre, socialization to working and employment is progressive—taking place both in school (Katz 2007) and in companies (Proust 2003); it is relatively common for musicians to find out about the very existence of these rules upon securing their first contract—a guitar player illustrates this:
“With the band we were always sort of winging it… We played our tunes, lived off the RMI7 but we didn’t give a shit… That went on for four years, give or take ... And then at some point we realized it was daft, since we were starting to play quite well, so we decided to become pros, to get paid to play… But we knew absolutely nada about that stuff! I remember, the first time we went to a bar, we told the bloke we wanted a fee, and the bloke went, ‘OK, sure, we’ll go through GUSO8’… and we didn’t even know what that was! I was nearly going to ask him, ‘Oh yeah, and who’s that GUSO?’ We looked daft! [Laughs.] So yeah, before that we’d play for free in bars or small restaurants, village parties, sometimes they’d slip us a coin, often we just got dinner and drinks on the house, so all that stuff with GUSO, intermittence, annexes supplementary income, and all that, we weren’t exactly there yet!”
(Tom, 31 years old, guitar player with intermittent status; blue-collar worker father and mother unemployed.)
During the first years of his career, Tom had to acquire a practical mastery of the multiple rules governing artistic activity and constituting the “intermittent occupation” (Sinigaglia 2007), a staple of the difficult transition between amateur practice and professional status. Many discover that artistic work involves a great deal of administrative tasks: keeping personal accounts, filing declarations on social contributions to the relevant organizations, and in some cases writing applications for subsidies, meeting institutional partners, handling communication before, during and after projects, etc.—all tasks that seem far removed from the romantic figure of the artist who devotes their entire life to art.
Finally, especially for those who aspire to walk in the footsteps of their idols, the third main challenge faced by these artists is to manage interactions with the public. The first performances of amateurs may take place in near-professional conditions (on a stage with good lights and sound), but their audiences often comprise friends and family members who do not need winning over; some artists even experience local forms of recognition (Morinière 2007). When artists take their first steps away from the “home turf,” to use a sports metaphor employed by a musician, their experiences can be very different: nearly empty venues, inattentive audiences, scattered applause, people leaving more or less discretely during the performance, etc. These at times radical departures from earlier experiences of the stage can lead artists to reconsider their professional and personal lives. Thirty-year-old Boris, a guitar and bass player in several bands, relates a long anecdote about performing in a casino with his band, playing pop-rock covers he did not like to an audience that clearly did not care—a time when he suddenly and painfully became aware of his place:
“This happened to me once, I was playing bass in a casino with the party band… I drew a complete blank, I just stopped. The guys stared at me, they didn’t get it, they left me like that and at the end of the song they took a break… and there I was asking myself, what the fuck am I doing here, I feel like I’m punching the clock, I’m bored as hell, and I’m playing shit! You know… I couldn’t get into that: I was just playing at functions. I’d tell the others, ‘listen, hire some other guy. I can’t take it anymore, I quit! It’s dreadful. You know nobody’s listening.’ [...] Actually, sometimes we tested them: once I played a Lou Reed bassline on a Bob Marley tune, rubbish—well, no one notices! Once we even sang the lyrics to Walk This Way over the music of [Michel Polnareff’s] On ira tous au paradis, which was supposed to sound horrible, and it went like a breeze, like nothing … It’s depressing, actually.”
(Boris, 30 years old, guitar player with intermittent status; father social educator and mother a nurse.)
Before becoming an intermittent, Boris worked as a contracted nursing auxiliary at a public hospital. As his amateur rock band became fairly successful locally, some of the musicians left their jobs to pursue professional careers. But the group turned out to be insufficiently active to generate regular income. After a few months, everyone founds themselves busy doing their multiple jobs on the side, and the band split up. Unlike other musicians, Boris received the assistance of intermittent friends who helped him get enough jobs to remain eligible for unemployment allowance. But his career is far from the life he imagined.
In the face of such challenges, of the dissatisfaction and frustration created by the gap between subjective aspirations and objective reality, many artists become discouraged and opt for what Catherine Paradeise calls “realistic disengagement” (Paradeise 1998: 34). Those who go on do so generally because they have enough resources and relations to derive sufficient material and/or symbolic gratification from their activity. Yet they have to scale down their ambitions.
Entry into an artistic career, for creators and performers alike, is a succession of trials: they have to participate in showcases for young talent, apply for awards and various subsidies, secure enough jobs to have access to unemployment allowance, etc. Each of these trials allows artists to gain a degree of awareness of their place in the professional space and of their likely future. Of course, whatever selection they operate is not between initially equal aspirants. Their outcomes unveil inequalities that are largely the result of divergent social trajectories. The best endowed aspirants, trained in prestigious schools and armed with large amounts of social capital, often get a fairly early breakthrough. An example of this is provided by thirty-year-old Camille (whose father is a doctor and mother a teacher), who graduated from the national conservatory for the dramatic arts. The company she created with her boyfriend when she was studying performing arts at university was immediately granted a permanent residency at the university theatre; since graduating from the conservatory, she has been regularly receiving public subsidies that allow her to balance the budget of the now professional company. These signs of growing recognition suggest a rather promising professional future for her. For those less well off, repeated failures reduce the field of possibles and make having high aspirations somewhat incongruous. This is to the case for 29-year-old bass player Michael. Although he is the youngest of the five children of a musician in a national orchestra (who was himself the son of a blue-collar worker), he can hardly be considered an inheritor: he began to learn his instrument late, in a small rock band with a few friends, and left the education system without a degree to try his luck with music. A fan of world-famous funk bass players Jaco Pastorius and Marcus Miller, he pictured himself eventually embarking on large international tours. But in light of how difficult it has been for him even to find jobs in his provincial small town, he has curbed his ambitions (“now I know I’ll never get to play the Olympia! [A prestigious Parisian venue.] Oh well.”) and makes a virtue of necessity to the extent of manifesting a “form of love of necessity, amor fati” (Bourdieu 2000: 146): “I’ve been doing caf-conc’ [coffeehouse gigs], giving some lessons, ultimately I’m still doing what I love.”
In interviews, early dreams of stardom are retrospectively attributed to the “lack of awareness” of beginners as regards the relative worth of their “talent,” the way the professional art world works, and of the mechanisms in place to access fame. The most emblematic figures of consecration—celebrities of the pop and film world—are frequently dismissed as trivial or behind the times in discourse that denounces “assembly-line” pop stars “manufactured” by the entertainment industry. Starting a career therefore appears to require ordinary artists to rid themselves of such illusions as soon as possible. This is evidenced by an interview with thirty-year-old songwriter Loïc. After a degree in marketing and a short stint in business, he got into music at the age of 25 with a clear goal in mind—that of becoming a singer and blending the sensibilities of UK and US pop-rock groups such as his first idols, Radiohead, with mainstream French pop.
“Fame is a dream that you tend to have when you begin your career, because you’re sort of clueless at first, you go ‘I’m going to make it, ‘cos I’m good!’... But you always have a lack of recognition… You feel you’re missing something… At first I had a very clear vision of success: playing in front of 500 people who loved me! [Laughs]… Well the thing is, you’ve got this ideal image of musicians doing these big tours in sold-out venues… like Zazie, Calogero [French pop stars], all that… But then everyone reduces their aspirations… It’s fine to have a dream, but once you’ve accepted you’re not going to have a villa on the Riviera, well now you’re better off! [Laughs.]”
(Loïc, 35 years old, singer-songwriter with intermittent status, both parents employees.)
Despite a short but intense burst of recognition (he was selected to participate in the showcase for a prominent national festival, then reached the finals of a well-known TV talent show), quickly followed by a return to anonymity, these early experiences caused him to make “realistic” (Bourdieu 1974) adjustments to his dreams. Yet early-career trials are not the only factors which lead ordinary artists to gain awareness of their place and redefine their expectations. The peer circle functions as a “club of mutual admiration and reassurance” (Mauger 2006b: 243) that helps overcome moments of doubt, but it also allows ordinary artists to reinforce their “sense of limitations” (Zunigo 2008), to avoid exhausting themselves by pursuing exceedingly lofty goals. Yet this process, which is not necessarily deliberate or conscious, is difficult to analyse because “adhesion to an order may exist without anyone having sought to adhere” (Bourdieu 2015). Often, beliefs endure even when necessity has been internalized, as in the following two cases:
“Us artists, what we dream of is getting in the media: being recognized… It’s the worst fiction, or the worst disaster that can happen… In music, the first thing you have to let go of, really, is recognition! You have to internalize the fact that you’ll never be understood, recognized, called all kinds of names, or acclaimed—people will think you’re shit… But then again, I can’t see how you can play music in public without the slightest bit of recognition.”
(Victor, 31 years old, percussionist, RSA recipient, father mid-level manager and mother employee.)
“As far as I’m concerned, my goal in life isn’t to be famous, it’s to make a living from it… To be honest, we’re all looking for some recognition, if it happens that our work starts to do better than we can reasonably expect we’ll accept it gladly… But if it continues to go like it’s going now, it’s alright, I do gigs, I meet a lot of people, I play nice little venues, it suits me fine.”
(Aurore, 30 years old, musician and actress with intermittent status, both parents schoolteachers.)
Indeed, adjusting one’s expectations does not require (or allow) a break with the illusio, the belief in the game, and in one’s ability to play the game (Bourdieu 2000)—on the contrary, it makes it even stronger. For instance, even if the most publicized forms of consecration are decried, examples of “more underground,” “less commercial” success are acceptable models to many. Several rock musicians mention Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke, whose merit, they claim, is precisely that he did not “seek out success,” but found it anyway9. While it is highly unlikely that ordinary artists, especially those living in small towns, could experience a similar destiny, there is no evidence to say they have no chance whatsoever. Even fantasized, these models allow artists to continue believing that if they simply keep doing their job earnestly and sincerely, consecration might one day come. Aurore’s phrase “if our work suddenly started to do better than we could reasonably expect” is significant here: she claims to know (“reasonably”) that her objective chances of attaining consecration are very small, but she still believes (“if our work suddenly started”) that things could go differently. All this work on aspirations, which is conscious to varying degrees and both individual and collective, but is always determined by the social conditions of the production of habitus for the agents concerned, appears to paradoxically reinforce the shared belief in the doxa of the artistic field: the innateness of the gift, the randomness of discovery and the consecration of talent.
While giving up one’s initial aspirations is a staple of career entry for ordinary artists, the void left by the “dream” in which the vocation used to be rooted must be filled. “Hopes of [material or symbolic] gain” (Menger 1997) can of course go some way towards explaining that artists begin and continue careers, but these hopes have to be credible in the eyes of those who have them—meaning that “the agent has to have chances of winning which are neither nil (losing on every throw) nor total (winning on every throw). In other words, nothing must be absolutely sure, but not everything must be possible” (Bourdieu 2000: 213). If “the trial of uncertainty [on the course and outcome of an activity] gives creative work… its greatest rewards” (Menger 2015), repeated failures are just as important a source of dissatisfaction and moral suffering. My interviews suggest that the adjustment between personal (economic, cultural, aesthetic) dispositions and the opportunities offered by the structure of local spaces of professional artistic practice of varying sizes (job opportunities, state of the competition, etc.) is a core feature of mechanisms that both facilitate career maintenance and lead each agent to be assigned “their own place” in the professional space. In other words, the strategies at the disposal of ordinary artists may allow them to pursue their careers further, but at the same time they keep them in the dominated spheres of the artistic field.
The adjustment of aspirations is partly based on a degree of objectivized mastery of the space of play (including knowledge of the rules of the game, of effective resources, influential actors, and opportunities available in a given space), but it is also characterized by agents’ adaptation to a way of playing with their place within this space. Indeed, place structures agents’ behaviours—the game is not played similarly in the dominant spheres of the artistic field, where material and symbolic rewards for artistic work and the chances of reaching consecration are obviously greater, as in its dominated spheres, which is where most ordinary artists are active.
For creators and performers who can hope for some form of recognition of their talent (and feel allowed to entertain this hope), remaining somewhat consistent in their artistic choices is key. Thirty-two-year-old Amélie, a graduate of top school for the dramatic arts, explains that she cannot accept “just any role” or work with “any company.” Thanks to her parents’ financial support (her father is a lawyer and her mother an engineer), she does not have to spend time on other work or constantly look for paid jobs; she can afford to select only projects that fit her “artistic universe.” What is at stake for Amélie is clearly to “save face” (Goffman 1956) insofar as being well employed, both in the sense of having work and of having roles that suit her (Duvignaud 1965), is a defining feature of a performer’s identity—of the way they perceive themselves and are perceived by other actors in their professional world. This strategy is made possible by her high levels of cultural and economic capital, and allows her to preserve the hope of reaching consecration.
Conversely, artists who have the least effective resources and who are in more precarious professional and social situations resort to another strategy, namely diversification10. On one level, this strategy does not necessarily constitute a hindrance to the imperative of being a “singular” artist (Heinich 2005) and does not require all aspirations of recognition to be abandoned. Faced with the difficulty of selling and touring their shows, some artists decide to adapt their form to the budget of the venues where they play, in particular by reducing the number of artists on stage. A provincial theatre company went so far as to emphasize this adaptability by calling themselves “TGV EST”—the name of the high-speed train from Strasbourg to Paris, except their acronym stands for Troupe à Géométrie Variable Exerçant Sans Tabou (literally “variable geometry troupe playing without taboos). This strategy is implemented by numerous musicians. Twenty-four-year-old Fabrice, a self-employed musician with auto-entrepreneur status, believes that “small venues” are no longer able to pay bands sufficiently beyond a certain number of musicians, and says that “you also need to know how to move things around—be able to change depending on how it might turn out.” Forty-year-old Paolo, who was recently awarded a creative residency to finish his new album and prepare a tour, is similarly disillusioned:
“With the new project now, there are six of us, that’s how we created the show during the residencies, and that’s how we recorded the album. I’d need to find loads of gigs to promote the project, sell the record, but I can’t! They’re only three to six hundred euro affairs, and there are six of us, so it’s not going to work out… And they’re all intermittents, I can’t ask them to come and play for nothing, I don’t want to… I’m still going to have to do those gigs, though, to promote the project, so I’ll do solo shows, or a two-piece if there’s enough budget. But you know, it’s a drag to spend that much time coming up with something really good, with elaborate arrangements, backing vocals, working on rehearsals… and then end up going to play by myself with my guitar!”
(Paolo, 40 years old, singer-songwriter with intermittent status, father blue-collar worker and stay-at-home mother.)
This practice of adjusting the number of professionals (artists or technicians) on tour to the employer or booker’s budget—a form of heteronomization of artistic production that requires consideration of principles beyond the artistic field (here economic ones)—is not a new development, but it is one which seems to have been used with increasing frequency in recent decades11. However, while this strategy puts other musicians in a difficult situation, as their work opportunities depend on available resources, such formal changes do not fundamentally affect the bandleader’s chances of being discovered and recognized.
The same cannot be said for the second level of diversification, which consists in creating (or being involved in) very different artistic projects. This is a strategy used by artists who have even less of a professional footing and do not succeed in working enough and deriving sufficient income from their own artistic project. This strategy of play requires the artist to have given up on their aspirations of recognition entirely and to have internalized the status of ordinary artist. In jazz, pop, or hip-hop, for instance, interviewees would be working on five or six musical projects on average. There is an economic argument at work there, but the strategy is different. It consists in creating or joining bands, playing a range of styles to be able to play more venues: projects which lend themselves to the network of subsidized venues, others to small acoustic venues, small-scale local festivals, or functions. The cases of intermittent musicians Jeff (a 40-year-old drummer, the son of blue-collar workers) and Boris (a 30-year-old guitarist, whose parents hold mid-level positions in the medical/welfare sector) perfectly illustrate this situation: with the dozen bands in which they are active (running the whole gamut from a jazz trio to a ska brass, a hard-rock cover band and a French chanson band), the two of them cover much of the regional spectrum for the diffusion of contemporary music. Not all their projects demand the same level of commitment: Jeff is a leader in one of them and a supporting player in another. Creative projects require daily work, whereas function sets only call for a rehearsal the day before the event. The numbers of jobs and salary levels also vary: in general, small festival and coffeehouses pay little, whereas casinos, local authorities and company advisory boards tend to be more mindful of the rules governing work contracts and minimum wage. Here, Boris explains how most of his projects were conceived with possible venues in mind from the start, and speaks very candidly of his sometimes very distanced relationship with them:
“Well, the rock band sort of combines the fun side of rock and coffeehouse jobs, ‘cos I like bars quite a bit, they’re cool… But it gives you about ten to fifteen gigs a year, not more than that… The rockabilly band is for putting food on the table, sort of, I still have a blast with it because we do nice ass-kicking rock’n’roll, but we clearly set it up to get paid… In rock bars or at small local festivals it goes down really well! The mambo rock band has the same musicians, but with an additional singer, it’s softer stuff, but really, again, what it’s all about is getting paid, we go and get the job done, but I’m not interested in it all! We didn’t get a lot of gigs with that one… The pop covers band is a project that really doesn’t turn me on, it really doesn’t, it’s not my instrument, either, I play the bass in that band; but I’m not dissing it either, ‘cos it gives us a lot of hours, we’ve done quite a few restaurants, casinos, and we’re doing it with mates… and actually we get nice fees, like 150 euros, net—it makes up for the small gigs in bars… well, that job I call the casino ball… And then I have the brass band, that one really caught on quickly and we do some nice touring with it, especially in summer, because that gets us into the ‘street art’ circuit a bit, and apparently there’re a lot of subsidies up for grabs there; so we have no trouble getting paid the minimum wage, even though there’re a lot of us.”
(Boris, 30 years old, guitar player with intermittent status, father a teacher and mother a nurse.)
Their efforts to diversify go even beyond their involvement in these projects. Jeff, whose girlfriend is a schoolteacher, has set up a music show for kids in kindergarten and primary schools to supplement his income. Boris has a network in theatre, and works with a small regional company that plays a show on sustainable development in secondary schools. Working on multiple projects and in multiple places allows them to remain eligible for unemployment allowance and keep their careers afloat. Yet this diversification appears incompatible with the ideal of artistic “singularity.” They do not feel that they are fully artists, as they do not defend an original artistic project—hence falling short of the imperative of authenticity—and are not identified as such by their colleagues and other professionals in the sector—thus lacking credibility.
The objective conditions in which ordinary artists manage their careers lead them to adopt reasonable behaviours in the sense that they are adjusted to the place they occupy and to their objective chances of reaching another position. Depending on the nature and amount of their professional and social resources, this nearly invisible adjustment of aspirations, which is the result of a progressive internalization of objective constraints, reflects the narrowing of their field of possibles. Once they have passed that stage, most ordinary artists manage to maintain their careers, but those with enough resources retain a chance of moving up in the professional space while those with fewer resources find themselves confined to the most dominated positions.
Another way of adjusting aspirations consists in challenging the rules and stakes of the artistic field13. The field was formed around a principle of selflessness (art for art’s sake) that is based on refusing to submit to economic and market imperatives (bourgeois art) and to putting art at the service of political or activist objectives (social art) (Bourdieu 1995). As we have observed, the process of the reduction of aspirations leads some ordinary artists whose objective chances of success are low to reject the market consecration that characterizes large-scale production and the cultural industries. Similarly, artists whose objective chances of gaining recognition in the restricted sphere of the artistic field are slim or non-existent challenge the model of art for art’s sake and promote socially useful art. While they are not in a position to change the stakes in the field, by decentring the interest of the game, they give their careers an objective that extends beyond the boundaries of the artistic field, while retaining a position (albeit a dominated one) in that field.
While some artists talk in dismissive terms about performing at various functions or doing cultural mediation jobs (which they might do in addition to their other work or as a counterpart to receiving a public subsidy), others present them as what drives their engagement. In interviews, some claim to enjoy playing the role of “passing on,” or “transmitting” their practice and knowledge to a variety of amateurs in schools and elsewhere, and particularly to “struggling” publics. Acting for others, “making a difference in the world,” giving some attention to isolated, ill, or excluded individuals gives them a sense of usefulness that compares to the experience related by paid and voluntary community workers (Hély 2009; Simonet 2010; Sinigaglia-Amadio 2011) and health and personal care providers (Paperman & Laugier 2005). Olivier, a 36-year-old musician who had had his moment of glory in his region a few years before, has always tried his best to avoid such supplementary activities, at the cost of living in relative poverty (being from a working-class family with an experience of unemployment, he claims to be used to “living on little”). But when his musical activity dwindled, he was forced to diversify to avoid losing his unemployment benefits. A musician friend offered him the chance to play in prisons and hospitals for an association in which he was involved. Although he accepted very reluctantly, a few months later he speaks of this activity in very positive terms, to the extent that he sometimes emphasizes its “usefulness” when discussing his job.
This type of engagement is also found in more openly activism-oriented formulations in artists working in disadvantaged neighbourhoods. Being often from a working-class, immigrant background (Italy or North Africa here), these artists are uncomfortable in the “bourgeois” world of art, and highlight their involvement in a form of popular education. This is the case for 52-year-old actor David, the son of Italian workers who moved to France in the early 1950s. He has been leading associative workshops in poor neighbourhoods for around fifteen years. While he would probably have given less time and significance to that side of his work if his acting career had turned out differently, it now constitutes an essential part of it, in the sense that it offers him the greatest satisfaction and “gives meaning” to his professional engagement.
“In the company, I’m more in charge of the workshops, the educational activities, because I know how to do that stuff, and I like to do it, too. I came in with a proposal for a workshop for the city’s neighbourhoods… because I’ve worked there for a long time [with a local director]. I get a lot of enjoyment and satisfaction out of it… it reflects a political conception of the job, I have to say: those workshops are not just something I do on the side. The same goes for going to those neighbourhoods… If there’s work to be done, it’s with those [disadvantaged] neighbourhoods, I don’t want to idealize them, but the kids are there, it just seems so right to me! You know you’re not going there for nothing, you’re in your place.”
(David, 52 years old, actor with intermittent status, father blue-collar worker and stay-at-home mother.)
In addition to their working-class, immigrant social backgrounds, these artists often have similar trajectories of activism in common. David has never been a “card-carrying member” of any organization, but he has participated in many demonstrations and been involved more or less actively in pacifist, ecologist, and anti-liberal movements. Saïd (a 57-year-old actor and director, the son of Algerian immigrant workers) also leads workshops in disadvantaged neighbourhoods with explicitly political and emancipatory aims. He used to be an active member of Communist unions and parties before joining more libertarian movements. Both strive for the same goal of being politically useful (by providing critical tools to reflect on society) in their artistic practice: a good play, Saïd explains, is one that “makes people think” and, above all, “want to act.” Their socialization in activism encourages their “vocation of heterodoxy:” being both insufficiently endowed with effective resources and holders of dispositions that are partly at odds with dominant standards in the artistic field, their dispositions for activism lead them to conceive the principle of art as a politically useful endeavour as an instrument for “ennobling” their activity (Bajard & Perrenoud 2013), and have a morally (and financially) rewarding experience of their work.
Yet, in this case, too, there is a clear adjustment between aspirations and position at work—as David says, “you’re in your place.” The choice of partly or entirely devoting their artistic practice to social and/or political ends is largely determined by their social and professional trajectory, and just like the strategies of diversification, it contributes to keeping these ordinary artists in the dominated positions of the artistic field.
Adjusting one’s aspirations is not always enough to maintain a career in the artistic field. The lack of recognition, insecurity of employment, loss of unemployment coverage, the practice’s toll on the body, a biographical rupture (Bessin, Bidart, Grossetti 2010) or any other “turning point” (Hughes 1996) may lead artists towards disengagement, the first step of a “professional rupture process” (Denave 2015). The desire for a career change, which is a good indicator of degree of job satisfaction (Glaude 1989), is widespread among artists. Yet radical ruptures from the performing arts remain fairly rare. This can be easily explained by the fact that vocational occupations give the agents a strong sense of identity that induces a “structural difficulty in conceiving a career exit” (Sorignet 2004: 114). The most spectacular career change I have observed is that of Ethan, a violinist turned baker. After completing a high-level music education, he worked as a “sub” (under intermittent status) in several regional orchestras while sitting exams to become a full-time member. A few years later, tired of failures and insecure work, he decided to “start again from scratch” and prepare a vocational training certificate (CAP) to become a baker. He has since opened his own bakery and never touched his instrument again. In most cases, however, new careers are doubly linked with the past career in music, as they reinvest some of the specific capital accumulated in the artistic field and allow the transfer of aspirations.
The transmission of skills in all its forms (workshops in schools or community settings, various types of intervention in art schools, etc.) is among the most frequent secondary activities for ordinary artists. Most sing the merits of teaching and the benefits of their relationships with students, including for their own creativity. Yet, a few exceptions aside, they consider such work as a day job that puts food on the table and stabilizes their finances, but takes time they could otherwise use for their creative activities. As careers progress, teaching often ends up taking up most of their working hours and providing them with most of their income, but this does not necessarily entail the redefinition of their professional identity. The transition from performing to teaching, although they are two separate occupations, is not always conceived as a career change. Teaching for a long time—and in the same discipline (music, theatre, or dance)—appears to foster a sense of continuity in professional trajectories, which is reinforced by the conception of teaching as a “form of conversion of capital intrinsically linked to the acquisition of specific expertise which cannot be traded on other labour markets” (Sorignet 2004: 128).
Two examples of trajectories may be mentioned. The first is that of former teachers (in primary or secondary schools) who return to their first occupation. David, who was discussed earlier, began his professional career by making the “safe choice.” The son of immigrant workers, he became passionate about theatre at secondary school, but becoming a professional actor was unthinkable for him at the time—or at least he did not consider it. He studied literature at university, took exams to become a teacher and worked in secondary education for a few years. Meanwhile, he carried on acting in a small theatre company of amateurs and professionals. Following a biographical rupture (a divorce), he decided to “try his luck.” He secured leave from the national education system (three years, renewable for a period of up to ten years in his career) and, with the support of his theatre company, obtained intermittent status within a few months. A few years later, particularly after the implementation of the 2003 reform to unemployment insurance for intermittents, he is increasingly struggling to remain eligible for unemployment allowance, his income is less and less steady, and acting jobs have become scarce. He spends most of his time on school and community work, which require him to travel often and for extended periods of time in unsatisfying conditions for too little pay. As the end of his leave is coming up, he is seriously considering returning to his initial teaching career.
The second type of trajectory is followed by artists who reach a point in their professional cycle, and more broadly in their life, at which maintaining an activity as a performing artist becomes particularly taxing. This stage may occur at various moments depending on the artist (age, gender, family situation, and level of professional integration are all factors) and discipline. Actors, and to some extent musicians, can continue their careers as long as their health allows it when they are sufficiently well integrated professionally (Cardon 2011)—especially men, as women have shorter career spans (Menger 1997). But when fatigue sets in, teaching can constitute an honourable exit. Fifty-eight-year-old actor and director Maurice reports feeling “worn out by travelling and touring.” After a happy career, this son of blue-collar workers would “quite fancy ending [his] career in a drama school—if possible under the sun!” and is taking a state diploma in theatre teaching for that purpose. For dancers, who are some of the most vulnerable artists (Honta, Juhle, Salamero 2015), careers have very different temporalities: around the age of 40, the body is no longer reliable enough, injuries become a handicap and make a career change inevitable (Sorignet 2004). In this case, too, the transfer of aspirations reinforces a sense of continuity between the two occupations. For Laurianne, 38, who has just ended her career as a dancer, teaching is not very different from her work as a choreographer: she creates a show with her students, the season ends with a performance attended by journalists, local politicians, funders, etc. Forty-year old Séverine (builder father and stay-at-home mother), who does a form of contemporary dance that she describes as “less physically demanding than classical ballet” envisions pursuing her activities in a company for several more years. But she has a state teaching diploma, and would like to end her career at a music school. Like Laurianne, she sees advantages in that transition in terms of job stability, but also of her relationship to dance itself. A teaching position would give her the opportunity to “work with trained bodies,” which she has seldom had the chance to do during the course of her professional career, having never had enough resources to work with a professional company. By becoming a teacher, she would fulfil aspirations that were always out of reach when she was a professional choreographer.
As well as teaching, having a “support” role (Becker 1982)—either technical (from roadie to sound engineer) or in cultural administration (from artist management to production)—is one of the frequent forms of pluriactivity in ordinary artists and thus constitutes another possible career change option. Like the professions concerned, these paths are highly gendered: technical occupations are predominantly male (from 65% of technicians to 93% of technician managers); cultural administration jobs are more female-dominated (56% of production managers) (Patureau 2006). In both cases, the possibility of a career change is enabled by the mobilization of specific capital and the transfer of aspirations from artistic creation to creative support.
While intermittent musicians (more than 80% of men) often “do the sound” for friends at shows, thus occasionally taking on the role of technician, the shift (in French basculement, a recurrent term in interviews) towards operational technique is often experienced in terms of a surrender. The reason why they “fall back” on this “second job” (Lahire 2006) is that they are unable to make a living from their art. Yet embarking on this path requires technical skills, social capital (a “network”) and symbolic capital (“reputation”), which are not equally distributed among musicians. Forty-two-year-old Julien (father blue-collar worker and mother employee) “struggled for years” as a bass player before progressively turning to sound engineering. Having always liked this technical side of art, he has taken several training courses and now makes a comfortable living from the job. Not having an artistic activity is a source of frustration that is partly compensated by the transition from living “from” music to living “in music.” Julien feels at ease in the world of contemporary music, where most of his friends are, and draws some pride from being an important part of what makes a show work—and what makes a show good. According to him, a “good sound engineer” is not only someone who can work a brand new digital soundboard, but someone who “knows how to give sound the colour that matches the artist’s atmosphere and temperament.” Giving “colour” to sound obviously requires advanced technical skills, but the language he uses is not technical (he does not talk about frequencies, compression levels, spatialization effects), belonging instead to the realm of inspiration: colour, atmosphere, temperament, etc. But while this career change allows these people to maintain close ties with the performing art worlds by extending the social relations that have been forged during their careers, working alongside artists can also serve as a constant reminder of personal failure. In such cases career changes are tainted by frustration, even though the sense of contributing to art yields a form of professional satisfaction.
Artists who turn to cultural administration follow a roughly similar path, in the sense that both their skills and their aspirations are transferred. This route is followed chiefly by actors, and actresses in particular. Indeed, the professional space of theatre remains more structured and institutionalized than music and other disciplines in the performing arts and draws more on public support. As a result, job (and by extension career change) opportunities in production, promotion, and communication are more abundant. Moreover, the increasing scarcity of resources, combined with the growing complexity of applications for subsidies and of management rules, makes cultural administration professionals increasingly indispensable to artistic teams. Mélanie, who has a bachelor’s degree in theatre, attempted to make a living from her practice for a few years without managing to stabilize her situation. As she handled the administration of her small company by herself, she acquired basic accounting and management skills and began assisting other small local companies with those tasks. She has slowly transitioned, both objectively (she spends more and more time doing this) and subjectively: she enjoys the work, she continues to work in a field that she likes but without experiencing the frustration on account of repeated failures in her acting career. At 29, she decided to return to university to pursue a master’s in cultural management (under the VAE procedure), after which she spent her time managing three local companies, no longer acting at all. Her artistic vocation was thus converted into a “cultural vocation” (Dubois 2015).
While branching out into management, technical, or teaching jobs is a form of biographical transition in the sense that these are somewhat likely outcomes for artists, other career shifts are better described as biographical bifurcations, i.e., “major and brutal changes in the orientation of a trajectory, whose timing and outcome are unpredictable to the actor as well as to the sociologist” (Bidart 2006: 31). This applies, for instance, to career shifts towards hospitality and healthcare jobs. While the latter require putting very different skills to work, they are both based on the same idea of reconnecting with the public—a connection that is one of the sources of job satisfaction for artists (Sinigaglia 2013).
Jobs in the restaurant and hotel industry are frequently mentioned by artists seeking a change of career, not with the prospect of working as a service employee (as a waiter concierge, etc.), as some have done “on the side” during their artistic career, but of owning or managing somewhere. They consider such projects accessible, regardless of the financial aspect, in the sense that they do not require them to resume their studies and get a degree. Those who most seriously envisage this are artists who have already had the opportunity of managing a company or an arts collective. Their accounting and management skills is capital that can be transferred to a new professional space. Camille (mentioned previously) for a few years did most of the production and management work in her company, which did not have sufficient resources to hire a professional. Should her situation worsen, she is considering opening a restaurant with her boyfriend. She looks at this project as an opportunity to transfer her skills, but also to safeguard some of the aspirations on which her artistic career was based: cultivating human relationships, and developing a bond with people. Likewise, Lucien, a 42-year-old actor and programmer, whose father was a cafe owner and mother an employee, is contemplating opening a guesthouse (“a farmhouse, a few rooms, a small restaurant and a stage”)—he sees this as a way to keep giving exposure to plays and concerts and promoting the arts to a wide audience, in employment and working conditions that he assumes will be more stable.
A relationship with people can be even more directly at the heart of career change strategies, as is observed in the few artists who turn to an occupation in the field of care, and more specifically to art therapy14. The artists trained (or in training) in art therapy describe a homology between their artistic practice and that form of care, owing in part to the techniques used (requiring a mastery of body and voice) and to the relationship with a public (spectators or patients). Loïc, who still defines himself primarily as a singer-songwriter, is finishing a training course in “energy and art therapy,” and hopes to be able to start receiving patients within the next few months. For now, he is mostly seeking to secure some form of financial stability by diversifying his activities in voice-related occupations: concerts, singing lessons, radio, voiceovers, singing therapy, etc. But if he were no longer able to derive enough income from music, or if the lack of recognition should become too big a burden, he might consider devoting his entire time to these activities. For 45-year-old dancer Sandrine, the switch to art therapy was a real turning point. After a long and full professional career which gave her a great deal of recognition, she spent a few difficult years, being less in demand, working on less legitimate artistic projects and losing her intermittent status. She first turned to art therapy to “heal” from the frustration she felt during the later stages of her dancing career, but gradually came to envisage it as a possible career change that would enable her to safeguard part of what she valued in her work: “You feel useful when you bring something to people through art.”
Exits from a vocational occupation appear to be generally connected to the transfer of artistic aspirations. Career change plans, whether they are objectively an extension of the former job or a rupture from it, draw on the skills and knowledge accumulated during artistic careers (degrees, technical or management knowledge, vocal or bodily skills, etc.), which form capital that can be repurposed for another job. Ultimately, it is the possibility of reinvesting part of the meaning and motivations of the artist’s life into a new activity which allows the agents not to perceive their career change solely as a failure.
This analysis of the ways in which ordinary artists play with their aspirations evidences the connection between the social properties of ordinary artists and their position and trajectory within their professional space in the artistic field. The combination of a lack of consecration (or of credible prospects of consecration) and fairly insecure employment conditions does not automatically and immediately lead artists towards a career exit, partly thanks to a number of mechanisms facilitating the adjustment between subjective and objective chances. These mechanisms do not function automatically (there are examples of consecrated artists who initially had little capital) and are not observed solely in artists from working-class backgrounds, but the latter are clearly those most exposed to experiencing their consequences. Through trials and interactions with other agents in the field (starting with peers), they each learn to find their “place” and to be content with it, at least to some degree. The least endowed aspirants from the most modest backgrounds are the first to have to lower their ambitions, which are generally founded on idealized representations of the artist’s life. As their dispositions are not adjusted to the demands of the artistic field and they lack effective resources, they come to adopt professional strategies that make the prospect of consecration increasingly unlikely: they “choose” local careers and perform on less legitimate stages; some diversify their activities to the extent that any claim to singularity becomes impossible; others yet value heterodox postures, confining themselves to dominated positions in the artistic field. In most cases, these strategies are sufficient to allow them to keep pursing their career. When, for different reasons (economic instability, a change in family situation, biographical rupture, etc.) this is no longer the case, career changes tend to be conducive to the transfer of part or all of the skills (artistic and otherwise) accumulated but also of aspirations described as drivers of engagement in the career.
Social origin and trajectories are of course not the only factors involved in the distribution of place within the artistic field. Geographical location, especially in terms of Paris versus the rest of the country (Menger 1993), and age (Marguin 2013) also play an important role. Many studies have also evidenced the impact of gender in the production of inequalities in access to and success in artistic careers, particularly in female musicians (Buscatto 2003; Ravet 2011). The need to juggle the professional and domestic spheres further reinforces inequalities between men and women, as the latter are more often in charge of domestic and familial activities, which makes them less available for strictly artistic activities (i.e., creating or participating in original projects) and affects their careers (Sinigaglia-Amadio & Sinigaglia 2015; 2017). The effect of real or assumed ethnic origin should also be investigated—as attested by recent debate in the French media about the lack of “diversity” (a euphemism referring to people of black, Arab, Asians, etc. ethnicity). Ideally, researchers should be able to consider these social relationships of class, gender, and race together, in an intersectional approach (Crenshaw 1991), but this has proven difficult to implement for statistical reasons (not to mention the fact that statistics on ethnicity are banned in France). Still, the accumulated studies on several of these dimensions largely confirm the existence of relations of domination within the artistic field—as in many other areas of social life, they deconstruct the myth of equal opportunity, including if not mostly, in spaces that value individual gift or talent and that purport to be the most removed from social determinism for that reason.
In this respect, it is worth noting that, while in the dominant space of the artistic field, “talent appears to be the main driver of artistic success—the ‘necessary’ albeit ‘insufficient’ condition for consecration” (Thibault 2015), the word is largely absent from the spaces in which ordinary artists are active. In practice, on the scale of values, talented is at odds with ordinary. This does not mean that there are no “inter-individual differences of skills and success” (Schotté 2013: 151) among ordinary artists, but rather that their qualities have not been recognized as remarkable (and remarked) skills. In fact, while the middlemen of artistic work (agents, managers, etc.) play an important role in the mechanisms of consecration (Lizé, Naudier Sofio 2014) and by extension in the production of inequalities in the arts (Jeanpierre 2012), they are relatively rare in the spaces frequented by ordinary artists, and those who are there generally do not have the necessary resources to facilitate the discovery (i.e., the social acknowledgement) of the artists they support. In this sense, this research shows that considering potential differences in quality (Menger 2015) among ordinary artists is irrelevant, as these artists are active in spaces in which these aspects are not addressed in such terms.