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A scientist and an artist walk into a bar…

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On January 7, 2019

And they found out they had many issues in common. It’s not a funny joke.


I was the typical third child: I knew it had all been done before; the first words, the first writings, the first math calculations. My two older brothers were very bright boys, so I had to differentiate myself in a way that my parents would notice. Studies have shown that, because of this, first-borns are often very intelligent, whereas third-borns are more creative. I was a cliché: I would sing all Disney-movie soundtracks flawlessly, I’d start drawing Sailor Moon as soon as I got a hold of a crayon, I’d write poetry the moment my vocabulary expanded sufficiently to include enough words to rhyme.


I grew up to find art much more interesting than math, science or languages. I wasn’t particularly bad in those fields; I just didn’t feel I could differentiate with all the competition present, both at school and at home. My craving for being creative was insatiable: at 14 years, I developed an interest in fashion and started drawing my own clothing line; at 17, a friend and I were positioned third at national level for music in the ‘Kunstbende’ with the band Suewave; at 18, my friend and I were considering a musical career. Yet, time and time again, I was redirected towards sciences: my teachers and parents would emphasize the uncertainty of an artist’s job. With a scientific degree, I would have a steady future, job security, and a nice salary. They were right. About the nice salary, not about the first two. As an academic scientist, there is hardly any future to think about if I don’t publish continuously. The job security depends entirely on me getting my projects funded. There is an awful lot in common with the professional life of an artist, who depends on getting sufficient exposure and applying for all possible art subsidies from governmental bodies.


My Suewave-friend became an opera singer and travels the world singing. I became an academic scientist, and get to travel the world to show my research as well. But make no mistake: being an artist requires a lot of training, personal financial investments and a way of living (your voice is your work, no sore throats allowed). As an academic scientist in Belgium, I get to enjoy a comfortable salary. Unfortunately, many artists don’t get a decent salary but live in precarity.


It’s not clear to me how both professions can share many challenges but are rewarded differently by society. One may argue that scientists do research that benefits society, for instance by developing novel technology. However, even as a scientist, I have to admit that ‘Earth’ without ‘art’ is just ‘Eh’. Art is a universal language, like science, and can be enjoyed by anyone, like science. Moreover, it is the ideal distraction in case an experiment fails…


We need to better define salaries, job security and career perspectives for artists. All professions make the world go round; precarity should not be part of the 21st century.


A scientist and an artist walk into a bar and talk about their common issues; the scientist listens to the artist’s struggles.

Last modified: January 7, 2019

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