Think of the exposure!

As a working artist I am, just as many of you are, often contemplating how much I should make, why should people pay me, why society should value and pay for art… or not. I understand the frustration when my fellow artists lash out at the people who ask us to do something for free or for the promise of “exposure!”. Do people really not value me or my work when this is asked of me?

As most things in life, it is never as simple as that. There are other things going on, some I’ve written about or discussed before. Some I have been thinking about after reading other people’s thoughts. Things like how difficult it is to quantify art (Is Art History a “soft” subject?) or since art is more emotion centric it isn’t as valuable as more “intellectual” pursuits (Art isn’t free. Can we stop pretending it is?“. You know, that whole rational/irrational, reason/emotion dichotomy so much of our modern day thinking is based on.

After once again reading about how businesses keep asking for creativity but either resist creative thinking or keep the creative individual marginalized, (such as in this article, "We need creativity to survive. So why are we so suspicious of it?”) this got me thinking about a societal disconnect I believe I am observing.

Even when people ask artists to donate their work I think it is too simple to think they don’t value art. Obviously they do or they wouldn’t be seeking it out. I think what is happening is that art is valued but somehow the artist isn’t. For all the “people want it for free” thinking about Napster, the point I think easily overlooked is that they wanted it to begin with. No one bothers taking the time to download something they don’t want, especially in the early, mostly dial-up internet days when Napster first hit the world.

I do believe it is hard to argue that our society doesn’t like art. Who doesn’t listen to music either via the internet or even simply on the radio? Why do people get so up in arms when something is created that they don’t like? People do care. But for some reason they don’t care about the artist.

It’s almost like people are saying,

“Well, you know, I could have created this if I wanted to.”

But you didn’t. Just like you could have built all the furniture in your house (or even the house), or the plates and bowls you eat out of. Or even most of the food you eat that you could have grown by yourself. You bought them. Or your parents bought them for you.

Back to the article earlier, “Why then does the organizational immune system kick into high gear whenever exposed to the very thing it needs to survive?” I have no doubt that the systemic cause goes to our educational system, such as Sir Ken Robinson points out, “Do schools kill creativity?”. Or as other innovative individuals like Buckminster Fuller or Picasso say, how school beats the creativity and artistry out of students.

Let’s look at this exercise from another article, ““How old is the shepherd?” — The problem that shook school mathematics”:

There are 125 sheep and 5 dogs in a flock. How old is the shepherd?

Obviously the answer is indiscernible. But that is not what an education system teaches as its nature. What an education system teaches is this (from the article):

Students are taught that their role is to consume knowledge, even if without understanding, and to acquire skills, even if without context. Students have limited space to develop intuitions or to explore concepts beyond the confines of the curriculum.

Creative, or more specifically “outside the box thinking” is not only discouraged, it is assumed as unnecessary. Creativity is consumable. It isn’t something to partake of and be an active participant. Save for the commercials, listening to music on the radio or watching the shows or movies on TV is free. Even, as a friend recently pointed out, “Rembrandt isn’t getting paid anything for his art today”.

Bringing this back around to the perpetual “Think of the exposure” carrot so often dangled. What the people who offer this “service” seem to miss is that the creative content is the draw to sell ads, not the other way around. But why would they think otherwise? A creative individual is not to be valued, even if their creativity is. We are taught this from school and reinforced at work.

This is not the end of the discussion. Sometimes the artists need to come to terms with the idea that, at least with the current level of output, the work is just not yet compelling. It just isn’t worth paying money for, yet. This is not to say the work is not important. An artist has to go through a lot of bad art to get to the good stuff. It is simply the process.

Artists, maybe as a defense, become consumed about the process. Non-artists are always interested in the “behind the scenes” stuff. But as much as artists and even non-artists find the process interesting, it isn’t the art. At the end of the day, the work has to stand on its own. The artist or biographer won’t always be there to explain how something came into being. We know almost nothing about Vermeer or Shakespeare. But the work is compelling on its own, without the artist to stand on.

And sometimes only time allows for this. Bach was not considered the best in his day. Neither van Gogh, and many other artists we consider among the masters. Time is the ultimate judge of art. Sadly, this does not always pay the bills for the working artist today and further illustrates how an artist is undervalued (if valued at all) but the work is still important.

Further, while we artists are regularly on the brunt of underpaid, we can’t forget that even professionals like lawyers, doctors, architects, and even accountants find ways to donate their services for the betterment of humanity. We should also be considerate of causes that resonate with us. You never know whose life you may touch. If art really is an essential of our nature, then it shouldn’t always be about the money.

My advice to young freelance artists is usually the same when considering what work to take on. The project has to have one of three elements—either the money is interesting, the work is interesting, or the people are interesting. Sometimes we want to support someone who really can’t afford to pay us anything, much less what we may be worth. Sometimes the work is so interesting, just being a part of it is valuable enough. Sometimes we just need to pay our bills!

Every once in a while we’ll get two of those things. Those are moments that can confirm our calling. Once every ten-twenty years we’ll get all three! Cherish those times because they don’t happen that often.

But what is the answer to all this? I do think it is a complex issue, but I still come back around to community and truly, actually, loving your neighbor as yourself. Sadly it seems often the ones who want to take advantage of us the most are our friends and family. But true love will see we are each valuable and worthy of our time and support, even if they don’t see it in us. It is easy not to value someone you don’t know. It is harder (although unfortunately not impossible) to not value someone we do know.

Sometimes, maybe the solution isn’t to simply give your work, but to give your time to help our neighbor find a more appropriate solution. For instance a painter can’t simply write off donation of a painting on their taxes. The most they can write off are the costs in materials. But maybe the one asking can find a donor willing to pay the artist and then donate the painting to the cause. We should always be looking for ways to give back, to support our friends and family. Chances are high we did not get to where we may be without their help and support.

The workman is worthy of their wages not just because we value the work, but because we value the workman.

Just some thoughts in an ongoing process of my own.

Thanks for reading!



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