This is something that’s been bothering me for a while. It goes hand-in-hand with the fact that we don’t value art and culture. I mean, as a society. And this isn’t about throwing public money at the arts, so I’m just going to head that whole ridiculous argument off at the pass.
What bothers me is when I hear someone (usually someone who is not in favour of public funding of arts and culture) say : “Art for the sake of art…”, a statement that is usually followed up by something like : “is fine, but why should I have to pay some fop out of my own tax dollars to make ugly paintings that I don’t like?”
I’m going to completely disregard everything that’s wrong in that question except for one part. The part about “art for the sake of art”. I’m going to break that down a little.
The theory here is that artists create because they are driven to create. And, by and large, this is true. Our lives are not livable if we’re not engaging in the things that give our lives meaning. And this is true for everyone on the planet, whether you’re a pipe fitter, a farmer, a dancer, a writer…whatever ‘er’ you are, you find meaning in doing something. For artists, that ‘something’ is applying our creative skills and imagination to produce something that evokes emotion in others (and it’s not always a lovey-dovey “oh, isn’t that LOVELY” emotion we’re going for, either). We want to create something that others appreciate.
It is for this reason that you’ll never find a work of art that appeals to everyone. It is for this reason that it’s exactly important to value art whether the individual works are what you like or not. The deal with public funding for arts and culture is that you as a consumer acknowledge that arts and culture *are* important, and that even if you don’t like a book or a painting or a dance performance, you understand that the things you *do* enjoy are *also* forms of art and culture. The movies you watch, the television programmes you enjoy, the magazines and books (online and print), the design of your couch, the clothes you wear, the news you consume, the music you listen to, the sports you and your kids enjoy – all of these things are supported by people who value them.
I’m going to change direction just a wee bit here (fair warning) because I said I wasn’t going to get in to the whole public funding of arts and culture discussion and I kind of tripped over some philosophy I left lying about.
The idea that the only reason artists create these works is because we are driven to, however, is a little less than half of the story. Like any passion, the ultimate goal of most of us is to be able to earn a living from doing what the thing(s) we are passionate about, whether that’s art or pipe fitting. The electrician who goes through years of schooling and training and opens her own practice does not do it *simply because she enjoys electrical work*. If that were the case, the renovations at my house would be free.
We all of us have to invest in that which we are driven to do, and anyone who continues to work at something they detest will never be fully committed to their work. As artists, most of us have to work at other jobs to support our career. There are many reasons for this, and anyone who argues that the sole reason there ought to be public funding for the arts is so that all artists can earn a living “at the government teat” is missing a large part of the picture.
If you’re an electrician in the middle of the desert where tribal peoples don’t use nor need electricity, you’re not going to make a living. It’s as simple as that. The people living in the middle of that desert simply don’t value electricity because it’s not important to them. Sure, you can argue that they’re missing out on great things like lights! And ovens! And computers! You can tell them that electricity will allow them to work longer and be more connected to the rest of the world! And someone might say, “my whole world is here in this village. I am already connected to them. I wake with the sun and work while the sun is in the sky, and when the sun sleeps, I sleep. I cook my food over a fire. I have no need of your gift.” And the electrician will have to find some other way to earn her living if she wants to remain with that tribe.
Now, I can argue that electricity is not a necessity (which I actually believe) and that therefore it’s very dissimilar to arts and culture (which I believe are necessary for life), and so that example breaks down at its very core. The point I’m trying to make is that very, very few artists create art “for the sake of creating art”. We do it because we’re driven to, and our goal, our dream, is to be able to make a living at it. The flip side to this is that if we *can’t* make a living, it becomes extremely difficult for us to create the artworks that fill our lives.
There are some artists who are very, very good at marketing and selling their works. And there are far more of us who really just want to spend our time making stuff and having other people market it for us. And the other people are arts and culture producers. Galleries, publishers, agents…these are the folks who connect the creators (the artists) with the consumers (the people who pay us to do what we do).
I think there is a shift happening. Some people are starting to understand that creators need to be paid for their work. YouTube(tm) has begun to pay content creators (sources: CMS Wire, May 2013 and Time Business & Money, October 2013) through the sale of advertising and paid subscriptions. It’s not a lot of money, but it is the beginning of a public admission, I think, that creators need to be paid for their work.
As a volunteer for non-profit organisations, I cringe whenever someone suggests asking an artist to donate works for fundraisers, or a musician to play “for exposure”, or a writer to contribute to an online showcase or anthology “to get noticed”. This idea that the only way to get your name and your work out there is by providing it at no cost is ridiculous. We volunteer for causes in which we believe because we know they are important. And maybe that electrician will rewire the entire 100-year-old church because she wants to give something back to the community. But at some point, she has to pay her bills too.
We pay top athletes. We pay tradespeople. We pay professionals. We pay cashiers. We pay rubbish collectors and security guards. We pay for the services which we deem important and which we value. So the challenge for artists is to get rid of this stupid idea that we create works for the sake of putting work out there – that’s not why we do it. Well. I can’t speak for ALL artists; maybe there are some of you out there who really don’t care if your work is appreciated, or even seen or noticed. Maybe you don’t care if anyone values your vision.
I do. When I offer to edit for you for no cost, that’s a gift. Because I’m good at what I do, and I deserve to be paid for my expertise; I have paid a lot for my education and I’ve been doing this for 20 years. When I offer to write for you, that’s a gift. Because I’m good at what I do, and I have been working at this for 30 years. You deserve the best, and the best sure isn’t free.
I do not write for the sake of writing. I write to entertain. I write to educate and to inform. I write to make you cry, to make you laugh. I write to make you question, to make you think. I write so you might understand me a little better, or so you might meet some of the people I get to know intimately because they live in my head. It’s…rather crowded in there sometimes. I write because my words have force; they carry meaning. They sometimes strike a chord inside you that reverberates and connects you to me in so personal a way it’s like we’ve always known each other. I write because there are stories that haven’t been told, smiles that haven’t been smiled yet.
So please, don’t tell me that I write just to see words fill up a page. Don’t suggest that what I do is some kind of self-indulgent narcissism that makes me feel important. Or clever. Or whatever it is you think someone who does something just for the sake of doing it feels. There is a goal here.
Take this gift (and it’s okay if you TL:DR, because this is a fairly loquacious post) of words and mull it over. This I give to you freely not because I want to write it, but because I want to connect with you. I want to communicate. (And practise is always good.) And if you don’t want the gift, that’s fine! I’m okay with that. Maybe someone else does, though, and so I will keep writing because she is out there.