Give Me Your Talent and Nobody Gets Hurt!

digitally doctored graphite drawingWhy buy the cow when you’re gettin’ the milk for free? As crass as the expression is, it describes pretty neatly something more dangerously pervasive than ‘easy virtue’: artists‘ consistent problem of being undervalued and, subsequently, of undervaluing themselves. Those who take their creative work seriously are often not taken seriously themselves and their output is treated with the disrespect of being assumed effortless and frivolous.

Interesting, isn’t it, that people will loudly praise and admire successful self-made business owners and talented self-taught tradesmen and not generally assume, on the basis of this entrepreneurial zeal and autodidactic achievement, that those folk will unhesitatingly hand over their goods and services for free. But if the successes in question happen to be in the realm of, say, storytelling (via song, dance, picture or book) or the production of beauty for abstract philosophical purposes–these same admirers have no qualms about asking the artists for freebies on a regular basis, whether supposedly justified by a Good Cause or simply out of egregious ignorance of what it takes to produce these great stories and experiences.

I’m quite willing to explain to well-meaning people why it took me multitudinous years of steady study and practice to get to that level where I can “effortlessly” produce a fairly refined poem or drawing or essay in a couple of hours, never mind all of the expensive materials and grueling hours I’ve gone through en route to that one ‘keeper’. Yes, I’m that version of the proverbial “overnight success”. In this I am not so far different from the electrician that ordinary folk, however grudgingly, know they must pay because otherwise they will either wire their home just sufficiently to electrocute themselves, or to get sued by someone else who does. And then they can pay a $600-an-hour lawyer to assist them in their defense. No, my work is scarcely life-and-death. I am not going to offer anyone cranial surgery–nor am I charging anything like the going rate for that–though perhaps I have occasionally considered doing a free midnight trepanning on people who insisted on demeaning my work, and me through it.

Ultimately, though the personalities most typically drawn to creative fields of work are rarely equally skilled at and fond of marketing, self-promotion and business administration (and are often expressing themselves through creative outlets specifically because other forms of interaction and production are less pleasing and natural to them) it is up to them–us–to defend the arts. To tell the rest of the world that these antique yet constantly expanding and changing forms of communication, documentation, and explication are not merely decorative, though that would be enough, but shape our entire social fabric, our history and our sense of ourselves as humans. They express our cultural sameness and differences. They allow us to imagine and design and build new things that in turn can move all of humankind toward greater health, wealth, safety and comfort. Who do people think invents and designs their shelters, their transportation, their tools, their clothing? Who challenges us at every turn to uncover our darkest failings and to discover our better selves? There may be no other broad area of endeavor or lens through which we see our lives that covers so much needful, practical ground, quite contrary to the typical ‘outside’ view of the arts.

I’ve heard so many sob stories about how much people admire my work but can’t possibly afford it–all of them undoubtedly true enough–from the very people who ought to have a fairly good reason to recognize my equally impecunious state (not least, with my being an artist married to another artist and all) but who plow right ahead without batting an eye at asking me to donate my artworks to their organization’s fundraiser, my graphic skills [Ed: not many non-artists seem to understand the separation between various media and techniques, let alone when complicated by and applied through technology] for their brochure or book, my photographic services to document their special event, and on and on. I know all other artists get this same petitioning constantly.

And we acquiesce. Because the causes are great. Because we love and/or are related to the petitioners. Because we love what we do and we were going to do it anyway and somebody with money might see it and commission us for a serious work or offer to represent us in their gallery or decide to publish our book. For all the right reasons, we give in, over and over, and kick ourselves in the morning when we get up with generosity-hangover. Especially after the third person in line yesterday got our extra-special condescending explanation of Why we wouldn’t give it away for free ever again, even though she was standing right behind petitioners one and two who did get something, and we actually like her better than both of them put together and now we just know we are the biggest creep in the whole wide world and should be burned at the stake.

And here I am telling you to stand firm for the cause. Scurrilous scold that I am! No, do what you must, of course, and more importantly, what you want to do, and not what I tell you to do. Always keeping in mind that the reason you’re asked for these benevolences is because you are good at what you do, and because the persons asking can’t do it themselves but really do want it, and because if it has that much value, why then, you should jolly well be comfortable in expecting them to treat it as valuable and pay accordingly. And I apologize in advance for what a rat it may make you feel you are. Until you finally get a little much-deserved pay and can feed your family, your art, and the causes of your choice.

And for any non-artists out there who might have accidentally read this rant: consider giving a truly welcome and desirable gift that, emotionally at least, really does Keep on Giving: pay for some art. Buy a full-price ticket to a concert or the hard-backed version of a book; pay the asking price for an original painting or a hand-crafted piece of furniture; solicit donations for a fundraiser for the local Art Guild or Poetry Society or Contemporary Dance Theatre instead of soliciting from its membership for someone else’s fundraiser. Give a child a box of crayons and a tablet of paper without any expectation that she must make a picture to pay you for it. Teach a teenager to get music out of an oboe as skillfully as he gets it out of his MP3. They will all be eternally grateful. They will start to make a living and perhaps be able to afford your rates for roof repair, for legal advice, or for Great-Auntie’s home medical visitations. And you, you will thank yourself for enriching the world in so many ways.graphite and colored pencil on paper

29 thoughts on “Give Me Your Talent and Nobody Gets Hurt!

  1. I am not sure that constantly petitioning people for items for fundraisers is a good idea. It’s a very well expressed ‘rant’ and put in a very gentle way. I hoped it helped to write it even if it doesn’t change the reality artists’ work and time being undervalued by many in the wider world.

    • That pretty well sums up ranting in my experience–just yelling at the universe so as to get something out of my system for a bit, but not expecting the universe to listen, let alone agree with me! So yes, this serves its purpose for me. πŸ™‚

  2. Kathryn, you astound me with your artwork, through both images and words. For so many years, I have been under the misguided impression that if someone liked my art, they would actually ask to pay for it. Then I grew up, rather belatedly, and realized that I was the one that actually did not value my work. I still may not sell anything, but at least now I see it as worth asking a price for. If I should choose to give away something, it is exactly because I do value it and recognize that the gift is worth something. Thank you for your encouraging words to us timid souls that have quaked at the mere though of asking someone to pay for what we produce.

    • I suppose my ‘going off’ yet again on this age-old topic is primarily to remind myself of two separate but equally important truisms. 1: That if I value my work, time and self and others claim to by asking for a piece of any of those, I owe it to both self and others to exact the price of that value. 2: If I *really* value my WT&S, I owe it to myself to keep forging ahead whether anyone will share the valuation and support it with money or not. Both parts of the equation are important.

  3. Poignant observations indeed.

    I harbor no illusions that my writing, songs, and verse will ever produce a living wage and therefore will not waste time even trying to go there.

    There are far more talented knaves than I attempting the same goal, and as my chances being a screenwriter (a field dominated by elite friends of Hollywood, a giant fraternity of insiders of which I will never belong), I’ll be earning my keep in a year by teaching children how to read and write.

    I’ll not be alone — inside every teacher of English there yearns a writer straining to get out. And I’m sure, hundreds of interesting unpublished works.

    And yet, I’ll continue to scribe and dream and publish via blogs for my own amusement and the possible entertainment of others.

    Who knows who will read them and become inspired?

    • The response of appreciative listeners, readers and viewers has great value too, so when, as you say, someone takes inspiration (and pleasure, to be sure) here, *that* is great payment as well. There certainly can’t be many among us Artistes so deluded as to think we’ll make our fortunes in the arts, so clearly that can’t be the main motivator!! πŸ™‚ Here’s to all of us that work in the trenches at both Real Life and our own worlds of creative endeavor.

  4. Bravo! This is such a struggle for so many of us and you worded it so succinctly. I would like to post a link to this on my facebook page in the hopes that on the odd chance someone might actually read it and take it to heart, if that would not be offensive to you. I read this to my mother, aunt, uncle and son just now and you got a big high 5 from my auntie who is another undervalued creative soul.

    • Link away, my dear! I’m honored that you wish to do so. And I know nobody on earth understands this stuff better than you (and no doubt you can easily see that our conversations have helped to shape this post!).

  5. As a teacher, I was always hit up by kids for every single thing that was being sold for every single thing they were involved in. I bought from the first whenever I could and that took care of the matter. And I know businesses go through that a lot and it must be a drag some days. But I hadn’t thought about “causes” coming to artists for a donation of a work to help the cause. Shows how much poems are worth – no one is coming around asking for a free one! πŸ™‚ As for “no one buys the cow when getting milk for free”, I used that as one of the main lines of the villanelle I wrote about young women – “To Be The Treasure” (which you probably read, but I’ll leave the link anyway”.

    • Yessir, I have indeed read your poem ‘Treasure’ and remember it well. Obviously we both learned the aphorism in the same original context.

      As for getting hit up, oh yes, *everybody* does. But I think artists of every kind may get it a bit extra because non-artists don’t necessarily understand art as commodities and intellectual properties and such in the same way that they understand those characteristics in other fields of endeavor.

  6. I’ve a few friends who are going to enjoy this post and I can’t wait to share it with them. We’ll know our country has grown up when every school district has a fully funded arts program.

  7. Pingback: Day 208 – It is Just a Hint of Color…. « Cfbookchick – a Girl, a Camera, a Challenge…

  8. Artistic endeavour is certainly undervalued in today’s society. I know this from first hand experience having two sons who are professional artists. One is an ex dancer and now an internationally successful musician in a niche area of music. Despite knowing this people still ask me how he’s going, and when is he going to get a “proper” job? The other, a dancer and musician as well, just returned from touring with a show which lost money to the promoters due to less than satisfactory attendances. Many people I knew who were involved in this type of dance through their children didn’t go to the show as they thought the ticket price too high, even when I explained to them the huge costs involved in putting on such a show, having produced a show once myself. Artists love doing what they do and are inclined to work for little in order to do it, perhaps that is why they have come to be taken advantage of and not treated seriously when it comes to financial reward (except for the mega popular of course) – the answer? – I don’t know, but I enjoyed the rant, (your rant that is). :).

    • Dancers getting this sort of ignorant disrespect, of all things! Most of the people who have such ridiculous attitudes about dancers will thoughtlessly dish out enormous sums of money for sporting events on a regular basis, never considering the incredible athleticism required of dancers along with the enormous skill and art. Yikes! I am simply baffled at times by folks’ utter inability or unwillingness to think things through thoroughly.

      Given how many generations this has gone on, however, I can only assume there is no actual answer or solution, only the ongoing struggle for balance–so I still say we just have to be willing to work on in our obscurity for pure love of it but be willing to defend our honor when called to task! I love that you do that all the time yourself without fussing about it.

  9. Well put!
    It’s sad, too…My youngest step-son is a talented sculptor, with his undergrad from Washington University, a Master’s from Goldsmith’s, and currently working on a doctorate at Berkley…but in Theory. “Do you get studio time?” I asked him on his last visit home.
    He hemmed and hawed…”Uh, no…but, maybe…”
    “You’ll miss it, ” I told him, thinking of my own abandoned music, and long-dormant writing. “It’s part of you.”
    “Yeah, well…nobody was going to pay me for it anyway…”

    • Heartbreaking indeed. I think I might have to write a post about my experience with that when I was an undergrad and someone special surprised me with the challenge to follow my heart and not be so ruled by my practicality. I’m so grateful for that “permission”–which Mom and Dad had always given but had to be reinforced elsewhere, as is so often the case!! (Not that you would know about any such thing! πŸ˜‰ )

  10. And yet all of us here, you and we other bloggers leaving comments, are giving our work away for free (at least monetarily; other people’s appreciation is a form of recompense too, and of course there’s the enjoyment of creating). You may have heard of proposals to make the Internet run on a system of micro-fees: each time you visit a site, for example, you might pay a tenth of a cent. It’s not enough to be a deterrent, and at least the people who create the contents of all those sites would get some payment; over time those micro-amounts could even add up to something spendable.

    Steve Schwartzman

    • I know it’s different for artists, craftsmen and sculptors, but I’ve been posting my writing and screenplays ‘for free’ for quite a while, in hopes of attracting positive readers who might be in a position to fund a film or a book or –gasp– a paying job in the literary field. At this point, it’s looking very hopeful for the screenplay –details yet to be worked out.

      I’m not concerned about someone ‘stealing’ my works as they’re automatically copyrighted and digitally fingerprinted (at no charge) by a service called

      If you keep a blog, the entire blog can be registered at that above site, as well as each individual entry, automatically every time you post.

      Good Luck

      • Yes, gents, you are both talking about the whole new vistas for problems of this sort and the cloud of new and complicated questions they generate–but also about some of the potentially useful solutions that might be possible as we go forward. New can, same old worms; new ways to reload them in the can??? Progress always seems to be by two steps forward, one and a half back.

        Meanwhile, it *is* quite amusing to talk the bigmouth talk about standing up for my right to compensation for my creative output in the very forum where I choose to give it away. At the moment, I’m content that the recompense of others’ response is payment enough. As I move forward, I will certainly have to keep reassessing and adjusting any and everything as best I can. I’ll keep you posted! I certainly appreciate your responses and insights to help me along the way. Thanks!

  11. I need to share this one. There are many artists in my life following their bliss around full-time desk-jobs, school and families. It shouldn’t be free. Art should not be free. And I think it’s important for everyone to know that every time someone downloads an mp3 of a bit torrent site, or takes a high-res photograph of a painting to print, or records a concert to share on YouTube, or any of the other socially acceptable ways we steal media, that the artists – the person that made those beautiful, resonant, funny, insightful, or moving things – gets nothing. Good rant, Kathryn.

    • Share away, m’Love–if we’re willingly giving so much of our creative stuff away in our blogs, the least we can get in return is a platform for venting with each other about what it costs us! πŸ˜‰ Oh, the irony. But a sweet one, because blogging really does pay in its own ways: community with like-minded peers and inspiring muses, and exposure of our art and our hearts to audiences we couldn’t reach if *we* had to pay for the privilege every single time (don’t get me started on what a gallery installation for showing my work cost *us* every time I did one!). Funny world, innit! πŸ™‚ xoxo!

  12. Wonderful rant, worth ranting about, beautiful art and poetry! Sorry I’m late, but I made it! I’m still playing catch up and am not sure I’m winning! I’m so glad I’ve “met” you, Kathryn. You are such an inspiration and I always appreciate your feedback~ xx

    • Thank you, thank you! I’m so happy that anyone bothers to go back and look at past posts. And I, too, am thrilled to have connected with you, Lauren, and gain so much pleasure and insight from our correspondence and your marvelous work. Hugs!

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