Transparency in the Business of Art

There is an insidious double standard that operates, whenever an artist makes a business out of their art.  Everybody and his dog feels an entitlement to criticise the fact that the artist is trying to survive in a world that demands cash just to survive, saying that they should be happy to make their art for free, while conveniently neglecting to talk about the fact that they, by the same standard, ought to do whatever they do for a day job for free, too.  You should paint, pot or make music for free, but filling in tax forms, or assessing insurance claims – that’s something that ought to reward you handsomely.

Also, if an artist happens to make a decent business out of their art practice, then they are subject to criticism for the way they spend and risk the money they earn.  People are less critical about the way bankers spend their bonuses, to be frank.  Nobody views the art business as a nascent enterprise, with all the same risks and rewards that go along with running a restaurant, or opening a pet grooming salon.

If you announce you’re a professional artist, then people immediately assume you live the life of Riley, either sponging off the State, or else lying around like some wastrel, chest deep in ten pound notes, unable to decide how to spend all your money.  When the truth of your finances is shared and revealed, then people feel compelled to tell you how you’re wasting your time or spending your money in foolish ways.  This doesn’t happen to people that open a retail store or start a service business.

I read this article and it got me to thinking:

Compare and contrast how the owner of an art-based business is treated and regarded, with other kinds of start-up companies.  Start a technology start-up company and you’re permitted to cover your living expenses.  A roof over your head and regular square meals are not considered an extravagance.  They’re essential for your success.  Start a band, though, and you’re expected to sleep in your fifteen year old van, with the equipment and subsist on a bag of hot chips, once a week.  A technology start-up can buy expensive and exotic hardware and software tools and this is considered to be an investment in their future, but buy a few hard shell guitar cases, to prevent your instruments, upon which you rely to make your living, from being splintered into small shards and people think you are spending like a drunken Lord.

When you compare the public reaction to technology or other entrepreneurial start ups to bands, potters or painters, also starting their artistic careers, you quickly realise that most people don’t regard the work of an artist as “real work”.  Why is that?  The hours, effort and preparation required to be a musician, or a painter, far exceed the rigours of becoming a quantity surveyor or accountant.  For one thing, a level of originality and distinctiveness is required of artists, which is not a requirement of becoming a tax inspector or an auditor.  You can audit in the most journeyman-like, routine, trite way, like all the other auditors before you and still you are considered worthy of earning a living.  Go out as a painter and paint in the style of some great master, exclusively, and you’re a worthless hack.

Why is a technology start-up a sacred, if wholly misunderstood, religious artefact, but a start-up art business, like a band or professional painter, not?  I call for transparency in the double standards of the critics.  You cannot both demand the production of unique, outstanding works, never before seen and executed to the highest standards of craftsmanship and quality, yet insist that your four year old could have knocked one of those out at nursery school.  The standard required of artists, to be accomplished and wholly original, is incompatible with insisting that it’s all right, but not like the old masters used to make.  When critics hold the quality bar so high, why do they simultaneously insist that anybody that reaches it do so for next to no monetary reward?  They don’t hold themselves to the same high standards.

In the minds of critics and the vast majority of the general public, an artist should make art for the sheer love of it, not to earn enough to keep their family from penury.  However, their own jobs as columnists, legal counsel or financial advisors, or market traders, are clearly worth a lot of money.  You never hear of a lawyer doing the work for the love of law.  Market traders don’t make trades for the love of the market.  Financial advice isn’t dispensed for the sheer joy of working in finance.

Interestingly, the same “for the love of it” argument is often used against software developers in technology start-ups, who work extreme hours, but earn meagre wages and have little stock participation, because they are told that they “are getting to do something they love”.  Why should loving what you do be accompanied by financial penalties?

Since when did doing something you love become an offence to society, or a transgression against those that don’t have the courage to try to do what they love?  Why is doing what you’re best at considered to be some kind of self-indulgent, lifestyle option, instead of the natural state of things?  Why do we make the assumption that we are destined to have to do things for a living that we utterly detest, to prevent our own starvation?  Why do we believe there is no alternative and that it’s the way it should be?  That’s a controlled society, by definition.

Art is about purity of intention, but so are many businesses.  Could we, as artists, do without money?  Sure, if everybody else throws the shackles off at the same time, but why should artists, uniquely, be martyrs, eschewing making a living within the current, utterly corrupt, unjust, fraudulent, inequitable and broken monetary system, when everybody else acquiesces and upholds the stinking, rotting edifice it has always been.  Artists might be able to tear down that cancer on humanity, one day, but they need not commit suicidal, blood sacrifices in order to achieve it.  Feed the artists and they will show you the way to a better future.

People say that music, art and information want to be free and ought to be free.  I would agree only if food, shelter, warmth, transport, tools, supplies and utilities were free too, but they aren’t, so for the moment, the only way you can get music, art or information for free is in one of three ways:

  1. The maker gives it to you (in which case, they’re covering the costs of its production for you)
  2. Somebody buys it for you and gives it to you as a gift (in which case, they’re covering the costs for you, often for ulterior motives)
  3. You outright steal it from whoever paid for it (in which case, you’re a common thief)

Which kind of free art are these critics expecting?


About tropicaltheartist

You can find out more about me here: There aren’t many people that exist in that conjunction of art, design, science and engineering, but this is where I live. I am an artist, a musician, a designer, a creator, a scientist, a technologist, an innovator and an engineer and I have a genuine, deep passion for each field. Most importantly, I am able to see the connections and similarities between each field of intellectual endeavour and apply the lessons I learn in one discipline to my other disciplines. To me, they are all part of the same continuum of creativity. I write about what I know, through my blogs, in the hope that something I write will resonate with a reader and help them enjoy their own creative life more fully. I am, in summary, a highly creative individual, but with the ability to get things done efficiently. Not all of these skills are valued by the world at large, but I am who I am and this is me. The opinions stated here are my own and not necessarily the opinion or position of my employer.
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2 Responses to Transparency in the Business of Art

  1. taja36 says:

    This is a custom that needs that change. It is almost shameful that artists get over looked when in reality we work harder and more passionately and are unique because we don’t live to the standards of doing our work for others to take credit for it. I hope to see a change in this in our future especially because more and more creative people are coming out of the woodworks. Thanks for sharing.

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