Why 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.