People are baffled why I care so much about income inequality. What’s that got to do with art or making things? The argument goes that I should leave the super rich to what they’re doing, turn myself into a mindful, happy, zombie, blissfully ignoring what they’re doing and just focus on making better art. Sounds great, doesn’t it? Insulate and isolate yourself from the concerns of the global economy and simply get on with painting and playing guitar.
At one level, that might be a survival strategy, but in abandoning any form of dissent against income inequality, what impact do I have on other artists and artists of future generations? Do my opt-outs have any influence on the opportunities and prospects for those artists? After all, with lots of super rich people out there, they must buy more art, surely.
A new study shines some useful light on the question:
Let me state at the outset that I regard professional artists as a species of entrepreneur. They are making something economically viable out of talent and hard work. Typically, they have to be their own commercial organisation and have to take care of business as well as being creative.
What the study cited in the article concludes is that it’s not an entrepreneurial gene, or unusual appetite for risk that makes you a successful professional artist or entrepreneur; it’s your safety net.
Access to money is what allows you to take risks. With family money behind you, if you fail and fall, you don’t fall very far.
When basic needs are met, it’s very much easier to be creative. This is because survival costs money and when that money is scarce or absent, you spend most of your creative energy solving existential problems. How you will craft the structure of your seventh symphony falls down your priority list, somewhat.
When you know you have a financial safety net, it’s easier and more comfortable to take risks and you’re more willing to do so. In some sense, you are insulated and protected from the worst that can happen, if you fail. You won’t face existential issues.
If one does not come from a family with money, the chances of becoming an entrepreneur drop quite a bit. We like to believe in social mobility and being able to pull yourself up, out of poverty, by sheer determination and hard work, but the actuarial facts tell a completely different story. When you start with nothing, by the time you are well into your professional artistic career, you’ll still have most of it left. In other words, it is exceedingly unlikely you will succeed, as a creative entrepreneur, without some backing.
The best way to become a professional artist is to be born into a rich, supportive family.
The barrier to entry to entrepreneurial (hence professional artistic) success is very high. Most only succeed after repeated and sometimes spectacular failures, which is why the financial safety net is such an important factor. Starting a new venture is the ultimate privilege. Following your dreams is dangerous. I can bear personal witness to the veracity of this statement.
This is quite a depressing finding, if you are poor or don’t really have a safety net. There’s not much you can do to change the odds into your favour either, if there just isn’t any money about, for folks like you. To quote from the article, “This whole bulk of the population is being seduced into thinking that they can just go out and pursue their dream anytime, but it’s not true.”
Risk tolerance is conditioned, over time. If your parents knew real poverty, they’re going to guide you to so-called safe and secure careers. You only get comfortable with taking risks if you try, a few times, fall on your face, but get picked up and dusted off by those around you that are supporting you financially. If you fail, you have to be able to (honestly, objectively) conclude that it wasn’t so bad. Otherwise, the risk includes homelessness. Homelessness is just another way of describing a slow motion death sentence.
Hard work isn’t enough. Privilege turns out to be an important pre-requisite. This is why extreme wealth inequality, in a society, really sucks and why income equality is so important. There are many artists that, in a more equal society, could work professionally and produce wonderful things who, in a very unequal society, will never get the chance to do so successfully. Our culture loses, if those that could produce great works of art are prevented from doing so.
Inequality is the defining issue for humanity in the early twenty-first century and of major importance for those that want to pursue their dreams, as creative entrepreneur or professional artist. If we ignore it, allow it to continue unchallenged and even to accelerate, then fewer and fewer young people will ever know the joy of living independently, authentically, integrally, in comfort, as artists. Art, other than that commercial art which exists solely to manipulate populations into buying things they don’t really want or need, will cease to be made. That will greatly impact the complexion of our culture and the legacy we leave behind. Our art will lose its very integrity and honesty. Art will no longer challenge and confront, it will, instead, comply, conform and cower to the whims of the super wealthy.
To quote Franklin D. Roosevelt, as stated in the Economic Bill of Rights (January 11th, 1944):
“We have come to a clear realisation of the fact that true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence. ‘Necessitous men are not free men’. People who are hungry and out of a job are the stuff of which dictatorships are made.”
Hungry people, without any means of financial support, in a society that demands it, just to be permitted to remain alive, cannot become professional artists. I wish that were not true, but it is.