Last week’s blog post seems to have a hit a nerve, and I got a lot of comments via e-mail and Facebook from frustrated artists who are fed up with a number of things, chief among them the wide-spread practice of expecting artists to pay for the privilege of practicing their trade. While the post generated a lot of response, I don’t feel that it did a great job of analyzing the issues with much depth. It was more of a drive-by rant, in retrospect probably triggered by that terrible warehouse fire in Oakland. (Side note: For God’s Sake, fire codes exist for a reason, people!) Since then, I’ve been thinking a lot about the role of artists in our society, and in turn, the projections and attitudes of society towards artists. I started writing what I was hoping would be a sage, cultural critic-like, in depth analysis of the issues, but very shortly into it, my brain short-circuited and I completely lost my mojo. I’m sorry to say I can now only eke out a smattering of scattered thoughts, then I need to return to my normal shallow waters or I'll get the vapors from too much hard thinking.
To quote my talented artist friend Frankie from a recent Facebook comment: “Hanging fees, entry fees, reading fees, registration fees, are just a few of the ways artists get screwed in this town. Everyone wants to make money off of the artist but no one wants to pay for the work.” She’s not having it anymore, and until all other artists rebel against it, too, the system won’t change. The same goes for writers who continue to pay contest entry fees and submission fees. As long we allow people to make money off of our gullibility, they will.
I believe in Yog’s Law: Money should flow to the writer. I also believe there is a period of time in which it is appropriate to provide work at no cost—when you’re first getting established and you need to get your name out there and build up a reputation. Unfortunately though, for most writers and artists, this period tends to extend far beyond its rightful expiration date. I think some of this has to do with our infamous low self-esteem. For myself, I know I harbor a fear of charging for my work. I’m embarrassed about selling my books at poetry readings. I have some weird hang-up about getting money for them that makes no sense. For the few literary magazines that are actually able to pay, I usually just donate the money back to the magazine. For me, it’s a bit of a moot point, since I’m never going to make much off of a single poem or short story anyway. But it would be much different if I were writing for a living. Or, if a miracle happens and my novel actually gets published. In that case, I’m going to have to get some business sense pretty damn fast, which is not something that artists are known for.
On that note, famous comedian Kathy Griffin once went on a rant about artists who brag about how they have no business sense. She rightly pointed out that it’s our job and our responsibility to understand the business end of the profession, and that it’s inexcusable to be lazy about that aspect of it. So when we get taken advantage of, perhaps we need to take a look at our own culpability as well.
Carolyn pointed out in a comment on my blog that the romantic myth of the starving artist is still very much in play. I think we as artists to some degree buy into that, which ties into our general unwillingness to be business-savvy. But I also suspect there is something of a punitive aspect to it that comes from the rest of society—this idea that if we’re going to “indulge ourselves” in this way, we have some spiritual and moral obligation to live in poverty. Or, maybe it’s tied up in the idea of purity—that art is seen as some angelic, untouchable thing that should never be sullied by something as crass as money.
Heck, I don’t have the answers, people. I’m just as much of a mess as anyone else who swims in these waters. I hope you will weigh in with your thoughts and observations. These are mine for whatever they're worth. I wish I had better answers, but I don’t, so here’s a video of the world’s most brazen raccoon. Enjoy!
P.S. I found this article, sent to me by aforementioned Frankie, to be quite illuminating.