On the Cost of Making Art

Years ago, when I first started getting serious about writing, I had a conversation with a friend of mine who dabbled in photography. He was rather firmly of the opinion that artist should not charge for art, that no one actually has a right to make a living as an artist, despite being someone who spent a significant portion of his time making art.* At the time, I wasn’t sure what I thought: I was dabbling with the idea of ‘being a writer’, or writing seriously for publication, of choosing a career.

Now, I know what I think.

In the interim, I have written for publication, have chosen a career, have been ‘a writer’. I have wrestled with the idea of being paid to write, of having bills to pay and a day job infinitely better able to account for that than writing ever could (unless I was fabulously lucky). I have started many hobbies (as I am wont to do) and have tried to pursue several as an avenue for earning income, however small – and have mostly failed at that side of things.

But writers deserve to be paid. Artists deserve to be paid.

Tonight, I read this article by author Cassandra Clare (The Mortal Instruments series; The Infernal Devices series) and although I was happilly nodding along with her reasoning – I invest time in this, I need to pay my bills somehow – it wasn’t until the end that I found the clincher, the ultimate, important reason why artists need to be paid. Because if your only argument for being paid as a writer is that you need it to compensate for your time, well then, go do something else. I don’t mean that categorically, harshly; just that if you want to be well compensated for your time investment, if you want to know for certain that all the bills will be paid on time, then writing – or any artistic lifestyle – is not the obvious first pick. There’s a good reason parents try to steer their young away from creative careers, and it’s all about stability.

No. This is all relevant, but it’s not the reason.

The reason is this: If you don’t pay people to make art, only those who can afford to will make it. Only those who have sufficient income to allow them leisure time, time spent not actively pursuing ways to ensure the survival of their family, will make art. Which is fine, until you realise that it’s playing into the very trap we modernly denounce history for: it’s privileging privilege. The reason we don’t know a whole lot about the lower classes of a lot of historical societies, not first hand at any rate, is not because these people weren’t educated/literate and thus able to write down accounts of their lives. That’s part of it, sure, but written literature is only one of a handful of ways of learning about a people.

Art is another. And art, historically speaking, was almost exclusively made by those in a position privileged enough to allow them the time to make it. No, these artists were certainly not always upper class; but when they were not, they usually operated under some sort of patronage system. The rich may not have physically, mentally made the art, but they sure as heck paid for it and dictated what was to be made. There are good reasons why Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Richard III, and others are they way they are, and every one of those reasons is political. He was paid by the rich to entertain them; you don’t cut off your nose to spite your face, not if you want to keep having a face. (Ha ha).

So. This is why we must pay our artists, and pay them well enough to live: that people from all walks of life may make their art. All walks, not just the privileged.

And if you can’t see why that is important, well… Eh, that’s a whole other post.


*It’s been a long time. I may be misconstruing his point somewhat. Nonetheless, the opinion, attributable to him or not, does exist.

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