Art is not free.

I’ve just started reading The Death Of The Artist: How Creators Are Struggling to Survive in the Age of Billionaires and Big Tech by William Deresiewicz (order here in paperback after 2/1/22 – DON’T get it from Amazon for the very reasons he writes about). It’s an amazing and terrifying book. For a moment I thought, “He’s saying everything I want to say so maybe I don’t need to write my book after all.” But I quickly realized that (1) not everyone would want to read his 368 pages and (2) my book is for a different audience anyway. So I’m still writing it. But I plan on quoting him extensively. 🙂 

Deresiewicz’ premise is that the basic financial exchange between audiences and artists has been broken by the internet, and (among other results) the common assumption is now that the arts are supposed to be free (or at least cheap). There are many reasons why that is an incorrect and dangerous assumption, but the main one is that art is not, and never will be, free TO MAKE. So why should it be free to consume? 

Here’s an excerpt from the (very rough) first draft of my book, about #1 of the three points in Luann’s Arts Business Paradigm. Since this paradigm is so much at the core of everything I talk about, I will get to #2 and #3 eventually here in the blog. But I tell my students that, even if they remember absolutely nothing else that I ever say to them, remember:

Art is not free

Creative work requires materials. 

  • Paints, brushes, canvases, paper, colored pencils.
  • Wood, clay, metal, tools. 
  • Musical instruments, sheet music.
  • Costumes, scenery, lighting.
  • Royalties for the rights to produce someone else’s creative work. 
  • Computer, or even a paper and pen. 
  • Studio space, rehearsal space, performance space, office space, storage space. 
  • Websites, payment processing fees, marketing costs.
  • And more.

I can’t think of a single type of creative work that doesn’t incur some kind of cost just to make the thing. Often, in addition to materials, they also need to pay other workers.

So, once the artist has laid out for all of these necessary expenses, if they’re not being paid at least what they spent, they’re actually paying the customer to take the thing off their hands. 

Next consider the artist’s time to make the thing.

Here’s where the distinction might come between a profession-al (person who declares or makes a vow) and an ama-teur (person who loves, amare in Latin). The most common way of thinking of a professional is “one who gets paid,” vs. an amateur who is “a hobbyist.” “Amateur” has always been a derisive term, but in this day and age I think we need to retire that prejudice.

Used to be that Olympic athletes, the finest athletes in the world, had to be amateurs. It was a “gentleman’s” competition, even if they’d spent their whole lives training for it. Beginning in 1992, athletes who were paid outside of the Olympics were allowed to play unpaid in the Olympics. I remember that Olympics – it was a big deal. Did playing for free in the Olympics make Michael Jordan an amateur basketball player during those two weeks before he went back to being a professional? I don’t think so.

It’s the same in the arts. Someone might be well-trained, talented, experienced, and working at the highest level of their craft – a professional – and not be getting paid every time they do their creative work. There’s a difference between that person and the person who is a true amateur, who paints or performs or makes short films entirely for the love of it, never seeking or expecting financial return. A true amateur is happy to fund their own materials costs and spend hours on the thing they love to do. There’s absolutely no shame in that. Do it. Have fun, and I don’t mean that sarcastically.

But a professional artist is a different being, whether or not they’re being paid. 

An accountant or plumber or teacher is still a professional even if they’re not being paid for their services. Why wouldn’t they be paid for accounting, plumbing, or teaching? Maybe they’re donating their services to something they believe in.

Artists are free to do that also. In fact, artists, if you’re asked to do something without pay, that’s the best way to make a decision about whether or not to do it. Is this a cause you would donate money to? If so then, by all means, share your gifts to support a worthy cause! If not, feel free to turn it down.

If you’re building your career you might have to consider whether “exposure” merits donating time and materials, but think hard about that. Is this really likely to, at some point hopefully not too far away, give back as much as or more than it costs you? Or is the benefit really only to the person asking? (Just this week I saw a post in a community arts Facebook group from someone looking for a “budding photographer” to take their wedding photos “for the experience.”)

I often hear artists complaining about churches and other non-profits asking artists to donate their time or products. It’s not worth getting resentful over. It’s not personal – the organization is probably asking the accountants and plumbers and teachers to donate their time, too. That’s how they’re able to keep functioning. You can say no. If you say yes, you can help the organization get a better sense of the value of what you do if you hand them an invoice when you’re done, showing them what you would typically charge and noting it as a donation.

(In fact, if you’re donating a physical object, like a work of visual art, you may be able to deduct it on your taxes – check it with an accountant. Unfortunately you can’t deduct donated services so, musicians, you’re out of luck when you play for free at worship services and fundraisers.)

I identify three levels of artist, all of them valid and valuable. Artists might even cycle among these levels over the course of a lifetime. These levels have nothing to do with talent, training, or skill; they have to do with mindset, expectations, and money.

  • An amateur creates purely for the joy of it. They are glad to donate their materials and time and give away their work freely, perhaps occasionally accepting a few coins in the figurative hat – a tip or show-of-appreciation, if offered. A true amateur feels grateful for the opportunity to create and to share their gifts out of what has been given to them. If they resent the financial arrangement, however, they’re not a true amateur, they are the next type of artist.
  • A self-funding professional is covering some or all of the cost of materials themself, and/or is not being paid for the full value of their time. They would like to be fully compensated but, for whatever reason, they’re not there. They’re just starting out; or they’re choosing self-funding to advance or redirect their careers; or the geographic market they’re in won’t support full compensation; or the type of art they make isn’t valued sufficiently by enough people to support full compensation; or they don’t have the marketing or business skillset to make full compensation happen; or any of a bunch of other reasons. This is the hardest position to be in, of course, and the one most artists are in. This artist must ask themself what they’re willing to do differently if they want to become the third type of artist. 
  • A fully-compensated professional is being paid adequately to cover all the costs of making their creative work and running their creative business, including for their time to do both. This doesn’t mean it’s their sole source of income or full-time “job,” just that they’re being fully compensated for the actual time and expenses that are going into the work they’re making. You can be a fully-compensated professional artist and be working other jobs. It’s called The Gig Economy, and most of us are doing it.

After years of self-funding, most artists of type 2 and many of type 1 will give up their creative work. They’ll start families, or develop other interests that feel more rewarding, or just get tired of giving it away and feeling unvalued. So we end up with many working artists in their 20s and 30s and few left by their 50s and 60s, with the resulting imbalance in whose voices we’re hearing in culture.

In the same vein, having the option to self-fund is a function of privilege. I tell artists that the best way to ensure creative success is to be born rich or powerful <cough, Hunter Biden> or find a partner with a great job and a desire to support them. People with low incomes or many financial responsibilities might not be able to afford materials if they’re not being fully compensated; and they may not be able to work a job (or even a second job or third job) without being paid for it. Once again limiting whose voices we’re hearing in culture.

Do you want to only hear from 25-year-old rich kids? Yeah, me neither.

[end of excerpt]

Although I haven’t gotten there in Deresiewicz’ book, I hope he’ll offer some hope and solutions. If he doesn’t, I will in my book but you’ll have to wait awhile for that. Until then, you can starting being the change by paying full market value for the art you experience, or becoming willing to skip it.


[Occasionally when I say “art is not free” someone will come back at me quoting the early abstract painter, Wassily Kandinsky, from his book, Concerning the Spiritual in Art. Apparently in some art schools this quote is used to bolster an anti-capitalist approach to artmaking. Sure enough, in the most commonly-found English translation by Michael T. H. Sadler, Kandinsky’s words are translated “There is no ‘must’ in art, because art is free.” But the quote isn’t about economics, it’s about artistic choices. The sentence is in response to Kandinsky’s own question about composition: “Must we then abandon utterly all material objects and paint solely in abstractions?” He answers himself that “To deprive oneself of this possibility [of painting objects] is to limit one’s powers of expression” then continues (paraphrased), “besides, artists get to do whatever they want” which is what he means by what’s been translated “…because art is free.” I hope that the students who are adopting their professors’ anti-capitalist mindset about artmaking realize that their professors get paid….]

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