‘Artist’ (‘Umetnik’) was often used as a slur, rather than a description, in my mountain town.
Honest people worked with their hands, farmers and laborers and surgeons. Dishonest people worked with their mouths, lawyers and politicians and teachers. Artists did not work. They created. And what they created was chaos and danger and change. Or, in popular parlance, useless shit.
Few words carried as much venom and disgust. Artists were horrible people. Layabouts. Alcoholics. Time wasters. Drug addicts. Bums. Deviants. Lazy. Dirty. Poor. Probably corrupters of the youth, too.
I was putting up a small exhibition in my last year of high school. Cartoon drawings of sheep in satirical poses. Very self-aware 18-year-old stuff. A cleaning lady came and stared at what I was doing.
“What’s this then?”
“But what is it?”
“It’s art. I drew them.”
“They’re shit. They’re not realistic. What do you think you are, some kind of artist?”
Unspoken behind the word artist was an appraising glare. When would I degenerate into alcoholism, sinking into my own presumptious vomit and self-important excrement? When would I confirm the purity of her hard-worker-nature?
At university I involved myself in student politics in my first year. It was a great experience. A student representative candidate from my faculty accepted my art for a series of student election posters. Silence followed. A week later I saw my work, but redone by someone else. I was never paid, because art isn’t work. It’s not even dishonest work. Indeed, it’s worthless.
I internalized all this, of course. Every teenager does. It’s the essence of socialization, the building of that fun super-ego complex that follows you like a demented rainbow unicorn. It’s good to conform quickly and early. Art was like masturbation. Something faintly embarrassing and best done in private. And certainly not anything that should be rewarded with something useful like money.
For a small ethnic group so determined to define ourselves by language and poets and writers and culture, we Slovenians sure hated the arts and the artist.
However, I was badly socialized. I never stopped arting. I just didn’t use that word.
After I graduated, I went to work in an advertising agency as a copywriter. I moved into graphic design as a field that was almost-like-art but still had the respectable patina of proper work. After all, there’s little difference between someone pushing around pixels on a screen and someone pushing around papers or someone pushing around warehouse trolleys. So long as you’re pushing things around for a living, you’re a good worker, a good person. Not a worthless layabout.
So that’s what I was for ten years. A creative worker.
After I left Slovenia, I experienced three things. People liked art and said so. People who wanted art paid for it. People told me that my art made their days better.
I’ve been gone from Slovenia for over five years now. I still feel dread when I hear the word artist, but I see it for what it is now. More often than not I can look past the scare quotes, the connotations, the italics.
I’m a person, a designer, a reader, a Slovenian, a writer, a gamer, a husband, a political scientist, a metalhead, and a European.
But I can also come out of the closet and admit to myself and to the world. Yes. I am also an artist.
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Post Script: I have some advice for artists in Slovenia. Indeed, for young people in Slovenia. Leave it. Leave it as soon as possible. Leave it for long enough that you can experience a different culture and different way of being. At least a year or more. It will do you good to see beyond the dangerous rivers and the high mountains and the dark forests of your imagination.