The artist’s life course – a study on young artists in Finland in the 2000s

Mikko Piispa and Mikko Salasuo

This study examines the growth and socialization process of a group of young artists in Finland in the 2000s. The study material consists of biographical interviews of 29 artists. The interviewees represent several different fields of art, and they have all achieved success relatively early in life.

The material is analysed using the research framework of the life course approach. This makes visible the processes, social networks, capitals, transitions important to life course, and the individual’s own actions, through which the person becomes an artist. At the same time, the life stories are linked to time and place – an ever-changing Finland at a crossroads. According to the study, the crucial factors for growing into an artist are family background, transgenerational factors, and the family’s social and cultural capitals. However, at least for the artist generation that has now reached young adulthood, the Finnish welfare state has also provided resources for discovering and absorbing fields of art and culture that are independent of the capitals available at home.

The search for important transitions in the life courses of successful artists highlights one that is above all others: the realization of what it is to be an artist. This is a point of intersection where the cumulated capitals are revealed in a new light and where art appears as a possible career choice and as a life worth pursuing. Education is also an important factor. It is a channel for growing into an occupation and, for many artists, a self-evident aspect of their course of life. Informal learning in art schools and the social networks gained through this process also play an important role. The first years following the completion of art studies are particularly important. These years can be called the critical period when becoming an artist takes on concrete form. The trip from art school to becoming a creator of art is a period of searching that helps define the subsequent career and success.

The study material justifies the observation that, for growing into an artist, it is important to have experiences of success that cumulate, lead forward and in this way provide the opportunity to follow one’s vocation. In this study, however, vocation is not understood as mystical predestination; instead, it is seen as the relation to an artist’s work and its contents. In essence, the issue is that artists have the opportunity to create art – to do work that they enjoy. On the other hand, in today’s world, success in the fields of art requires strict professionalism. It means concentrated, disciplined and effective working. The line between work and leisure becomes blurred, and working hours are drawn out.  At the same time, the artist’s work is marked by uncertainty, which also afflicts the current work life on a wider scale. In the field of art, however, the requirements for the effectiveness and productivity of work have a difficult relation to the historical roots and contents of the work: what is important in the end, the “usefulness” of art or its intrinsic value?

The life courses of the artists interviewed for the study can be divided into four story types. These are stories that describe the growth and development of an artist. The normal story that emphasizes capitals inherited through the family is the most typical story of growth among the artists interviewed. The drifter’s storyis literally a description of a drifting young person who is struck by the idea of becoming an artist only after having wandered aimlessly for some time. In self-made stories, transgenerational cultural and art capital plays a relatively minor role, and being an artist is defined by the artist’s own actions. In stories of chance, a single or surprising turn of events has led the person to art and finally to become an artist.

Apart from these four story types about growing to become an artist, one collective story connecting all other stories arose from the interview material: the story of success, where the precondition for artistic success proves to be loyalty to one’s own values. The artist’s work is guided by internal motives and honesty towards oneself. Only in this way can artists both succeed in their own work and achieve external rewards, such as financial success and publicity. However, the artists interviewed believe that far more important than fortune and fame is the experience that one’s own work gets recognition and has relevance.