This is a subject I’ve been meaning to write about for a while and I keep putting it off because I know it will make me sound more than a little grumpy, but today’s the day. I suppose I have been slightly triggered off by the closing of an opera company in Ottawa last week. I made the mistake of reading the comments (forgetting what is perhaps the most essential rule of the internet), many of which predictably said that it was the company’s own fault for setting ticket prices too high, that art isn’t a priority for people right now, and that if artists want an audience they should offer their work for free.
This is all nonsense.
We are a society that loves art. I suspect this is true world-wide, but I’ll stick with Western society for today. We love it to the extent that it is very rare to find a person who doesn’t appreciate it, at all. Really. Try and think of someone you know who doesn’t like any movies or television shows, doesn’t enjoy any music, does not have any pictures they like to have up around their home or as the background on their computer or phone, and never reads any stories. If you like even one of those things, you like art. (I left out sculpture, going to the theatre and probably some others.) This is (obviously) not to say that everyone likes every kind of art, or that we like all kinds of art equally, but as a society, we don’t just like art. We love it.
We play our music (different kinds, sure) all over the place and throughout the day. We put up images in almost every space we move through and occupy. We are storytellers and lovers of story; currently television is probably our most popular way to experience them, but that doesn’t change the basic truth that we make stories an important part of our lives as well – Appointment Television – as the immense success of Game of Thrones and Walking Dead easily attest. So let’s set aside the idea that art isn’t important to us. Demonstrably, palpably not the case.
Our problem is that we don’t then seem to want to support the people who create all these things. Put bluntly, we don’t want to pay the artists. Yes, of course, there are musicians and actors and writers who are stupendously wealthy. However, if you spend a little time speaking with people in artistic fields, you will quickly learn that it is Bloody Difficult. It’s extraordinarily hard to make a living, or part of a living, from art. It is really a rare few who are able to support themselves entirely from their art, and thus devote themselves to it completely. Most artists do one or several other jobs to support themselves, and then get the art in where they can.
Many people will now be thinking that this is the expectation, and you’re right that it is. The ‘starving artist’ is a cliche, and one that we tend to laugh at. There are endless jokes about waiters and actors. We seem to regard it as basically fine that if you want to be an artist, you will probably be poor and probably have to do other things to pay the rent. In the popular mind, it’s part of the gig, this despite our love of art noted above. (You would think, given our love of art, that we would cherish our artists and support them lavishly. Not how it seems to work out.)
We don’t do this with other professions, though. You don’t graduate from university with your MBA (remember that many artists have been to university and have one or several degrees in their field, and their craft) and then get told that the understanding is that you’ll work serving tables most of the time, squeezing in your business work between shifts and hoping to have an understanding boss, while you gain experience and hope to make your reputation. It isn’t expected that you will do a lot of it for free (for the exposure!) and put off making any money from your labour to some distant day. We don’t make jokes about the ‘starving biochemists’ just getting started in their field; absolutely, every trade has its ‘entry level’ and the expectation that you must work your way up, but not the expectation that you will do a whole other job to subsidize perhaps getting started in the work you want to do.
Artists do these things because they love their art. It is a great gift to create and (here I speak from experience) leaves one very sad to stop. They persist, as long as they do, in their craft because it is just that important to them, that they are willing to scramble around and find ways to Make It Work while still doing their art and expressing what is inside them. Of course, it brings them pleasure. It should bring them more than that.
The reason it is so difficult for people to make a living in art is, increasingly, that we don’t want to pay for it. We don’t want our tax money goes towards art (it is inevitably the first thing cut when a budget appears difficult to balance, and objections are usually minimal), and we are relentless in wanting to get our art for cheaper, and hopefully for free. Want a crowd? Lower ticket prices. Want someone to read your book? Put it up for free download on the internet. Both of those things will probably work, but leave unanswered the question of how these artists are supposed to support themselves in their craft.
Art does require work, constant work. Besides the actual creative process – whether that is learning a part, rehearsing your songs, or writing – you need time to practice and study your craft, to stay at a level where you can produce good work. You may need to do research, speak to other artists, and hopefully to your audience, too. Increasingly, you’ll need to spend some time promoting and marketing yourself as well. Of course you can do none of these things if the rent isn’t paid and there’s no food in the house, yet.
Many wonderful, creative people give up on their art because they just can’t afford to continue to support themselves in it; these are singers we will never hear and writers who we will never read. We love art, we want it to surround us and to consume it, but we’re reluctant at best to support the process by which that art reaches us.
Now there is, unquestionably, some level of market demand stuff going on and no, not everyone who likes to create is thereby instantly entitled to a living in the arts. As in any field there will be successes and failures, somewhat (although I suspect not as closely as we might think) tied to levels of skill and talent. So it goes, but I can’t help but feel that the pendulum has currently swung quite heavily against our creative people, in recent years. Our next great painter may be giving up on their craft because they need to work more hours to pay the bills. You may never hear your new favourite musician because they have no place to play and no way to be heard. Now, many people will say that if you give up, you just didn’t want it enough, but that’s the sort of thing that’s easy to say when one is not making that choice in the face of this month’s unpaid rent cheque.
Artists, ultimately, need to get paid. It isn’t being entitled to say, in our relentlessly capitalist society, that you should get at least a little compensation from the enjoyment something you created brings. Art does not need to be, and shouldn’t be, a road to instant riches. It shouldn’t, however, be one where the wolf is constantly at the door, either. The expectation that art should be free, especially a free download, is very common and seems to be growing. People seem increasingly to think that anyone expecting to earn anything at all, nevermind a living, from their art are fools and dreamers. If the government (any level) announces that it is spending money on art and culture, the accusations of waste are inevitable.
Meanwhile in Canada we live in a country that spent an immense amount of money on stealth snowmobiles (truly) and on advertising to remind us how grateful we should be for the things our government does (although that, I suppose, is a kind of art!) and yet the idea of spending to support artists in their work seems to gain little traction. Certainly there are different sizes of audience for different kinds of art and some kinds of artistic endeavour will not succeed. However, if we don’t support the creation of various kinds of art, how will people ever have a chance to discover it, and perhaps love it? Our forms of art are treasures, they are to me the very best of our cultures, and we owe it to future generations (as well as our own love of art) to keep them alive.
That only happens if we pay the artists. If you have art that you enjoy having in your life, support an artist if you can.
(I realize that this is all quite self-serving, given that I am a writer who has work for sale. I recognize my own self interest, here, but I also know that I love many kinds of art, am fortunate to know artists and to cherish them and their work, and so believe very strongly in supporting their work as I can.)
On a less crotchety note, this past weekend we did the official launch of The King in Darkness at a wonderful event which also cracked bottles of champagne (not literally) over 3 other new titles from my publishers at Renaissance Press, and then one more from my friend S.M. Carrière. It was a lovely, energetic afternoon full of the love of writing and it certainly stoked the fires to Write More. Thank you to my new friend Kevin Johns for taking this picture of four scribblers at the end of a good, good day.
And now, Can-Con approaches! There is still time to register, if you haven’t, and come to see an amazing array of panelists talk about all sorts of SFF-related topics, participate in a workshop, and meet other fans and creators of amazing fiction. I will be on three panels through the weekend and I’m quite excited to see what that will be like.
Renaissance Press will be selling the full line of their products (including mine!) in the vendor’s room, which is open to the public, so you can come in and buy some books without having to register, if that’s what you want to do, although it seems a shame. I will be at the Renaissance table at least some of the time, although I don’t yet know precisely when. I’ll update here, and on my Facebook page once I do. It should be another exciting weekend and I’d love to see you there if you can make it.