There’s been a recent resurgence on the importance of paying artists for what they produce – but more importantly, changing the cultural consciousness until this is not some sort of far-out, radical concept.
Art is subjective. And because art is subjective, artists have internalized the idea that what we do is merely a hobby or aspiration until someone else comes along and validates us. It’s pretty awful. Yet many of us live this way – not necessarily by choice, but because we need to make art, and this is just the way life is.
Is it? Yes. Does it have to be? No.
I expect the counter-argument to be: ‘You’re producing the art anyway, why should someone else pay for it?’ That’s a fair point, only insofar as it applies to the art we make and distribute on our own with no expectation of reimbursement. I don’t expect someone to pay me for this blog unless they’re getting something, like advertising revenue, in return. That doesn’t apply to people, businesses, studios, or web sites who take our labor, profit from us, and expect us to be happy with “exposure.” Which isn’t to say exposure isn’t useful, though much less useful than the days before anyone with an Instagram account could get ‘exposure,’ but we’re perfectly happy to expose ourselves, thank you very much, and what we’re looking for when we sign on to do a job is the same as any accountant, private investigator, or construction worker – we’re looking to get paid.
When did the idea of earning money for art become rare, rather than the norm? For far too long we have convinced ourselves and each other that art is a holdover from the apprenticeship system, that we have to start at the bottom and do all the dirty work before we rise through the ranks and finally achieve master status, then perpetuate the cycle. And if that were actually a reliable system, if the dreaded unpaid internship guaranteed a well-paying job, I might be okay with that. I can tell you from personal experience that there’s no such guarantee; I’ve had multiple paid and unpaid internships that led me absolutely nowhere. Maybe I didn’t do it right. Other artists succeeded this way, and I did learn a thing or two, but those are excuses. Companies who are getting something shouldn’t expect us to be happy with nothing, and moreover, at this stage in my life I can’t afford to risk another dead-end internship for the tiny possibility of it some day leading to full-time work. The cost of living isn’t willing to be put on hold while I work my way up.
Let’s return the practice of working for free to pad our resumes and portfolios to college students who can at least earn college credits. Let’s stop pretending that it’s okay for other people to use what we make without the cost of labor or some sort of tangible exchange. This won’t change the fact that art is a culture of exploitation, and too often we accept that as the price of doing business. But why are we, the content producers, the only ones paying that price?