Tuesday, July 23, 2013
“I usually get in trouble when I expose myself for free”
Let’s talk about this whole “working for free” conundrum and it’s corollary again, shall we? It’s not exactly like beating a dead horse, because I guarantee you that horse isn’t dead. In fact, that horse seems to be getting around an awful lot.
It’s not news to anyone that in economically difficult times, private individuals as well as municipalities, schools, and all manner of public funding sources generally cut their spending on the arts. Is it because they don’t consider it necessary? I think not, because that seems to be when you hear so many stories about artists being asked to do something for free “because it will give them great exposure”, or to accept an unpaid internship in the hopes that some day, somewhere down the line, they’ll be offered a paid position. Society in general doesn’t want to live without the arts, it just doesn’t want to pay for them. I think people have been party to enough discussions about the arts and their benefits to have assimilated the view that art is important. If the arts are an important part of society and the education of our children, then to refuse to provide the music for an event or to volunteer for a public art project ‘for exposure’ is surely a miserly thing to do, no?
The assumption is that if an artist can get enough name recognition during the down times, then when things pick up, that artist will be rolling in the dough. But let me ask you this - who is going to be willing to suddenly pay for something they are accustomed to getting for free? You know the old story about ‘free milk and the cow’. The more common it becomes to find musicians and artists doing work without remuneration, the more difficult it becomes to get them a fair wage down the road. Most all of the people I know who are trying to make a living as artists (whether visual, literary, performing, or music) are struggling against the whole “work for me for free and you’ll get some great exposure” attitude. An artist and writer friend of mine recently said his stock answer to a request like that has been “I usually get in trouble when I expose myself for free”. We need more artists to give an answer like that. My personal favorite response is "People die of exposure, you know..."
When I bring up this subject, the corollary rears it’s ugly head. I often am asked why I don't produce oodles of little "saleable" (read *cheap*) things, or do pet portraits, or other presumably high demand work. The implication in that question is that I’m being unreasonable in expecting to create what I’m driven to create, rather than “what the market demands”. I don’t know that I would be suddenly successful with that anyway. Is there a demand for that? Do we suffer from a dearth of cheap products purchased on impulse? But I have two reasons for not taking that approach – 1) art is creativity, not mass-produced retail products. There is precious little creativity in churning out inexpensive and expendable little gewgaws to capture an impulse market. To expend your energy doing that leaves preciously little for creating what you find fulfilling. Pet portraits are a perfectly valid artistic endeavor, and if that’s where your passion lies, then you can possibly make a nice living on that and be fulfilled. But that brings me to number 2) it would be drudgery for me. That's not where my passion lies. If I am to make a living by doing something I consider drudgery I will get a job which at least provides a regular paycheck.
I can almost hear the voices – “Who do you think you are, that you should get paid to do what you love, rather than work a dreadful job with dreadful people like most of the rest of us?”
And I would answer “Who do you think you are, that you shouldn’t?”