On the valuation of art

A 2015 survey found 70 percent of artists in San Francisco reporting housing displacement, for a variety of reasons, supporting the hypothesis that an important demographic shift is happening in the Bay Area. Of the remaining 30 percent, many cited displacement as a concern, even if they weren’t dealing with it directly. Artists and many creative workers in the Bay are struggling for a variety of reasons and the problems they experience are happening everywhere, not just in a region where tech is blamed (sometimes even unfairly) for all the social ills of the world. In this case, it’s definitely true that the tech industry’s demands are creating pressure on housing stock, and also true that different systems of valuation are arising, including the growing belief that creative work should be free.

I believe that art is for the people and that creative work should be as accessible as possible — I manifest my values in my own intellectual labour, which continues to be provided for free here as it has been for over a decade in addition to being published on and in primarily ungated platforms. But intellectual labour is in fact labour, and people need to understand this. ‘Exposure,’ as people often note, ‘doesn’t pay the rent,’ and yet an astounding percentage of websites expect it — as with a certain high profile site I won’t name which contacted me with the ‘exciting opportunity’ of writing for them but informed me that ‘unfortunately,’ they couldn’t pay their writers. When I wrote back to indicate that I was aghast at this, I never received a response. Unfortunately, predatory editors at sites like that know that they can always keep running down the list and find someone else to exploit.

Art requires professional skills, training in some cases, time, materials, and overhead, and that’s not even getting into the mechanics of survival for an artist: Painters don’t exist in a vacuum where they don’t eat or need housing, photographers don’t live in a fantasy world where they survive under the lens cap until they need to magically manifest like Tinkerbell. Like other professionals in other fields, people who perform creative labour expect compensation that reflects the intrinsic value of their work, but also the need to survive.

This came up for me recently when I was researching my dire need for new headshots and found several photographers I’d like to support because they’re in my community and/or I like their work. Many of them charge extremely reasonable rates when accounting for time, professional training, travel, and other expenses, but most of those rates are out of reach for me, because I am not paid full value for my own work. It would never occur to me to approach someone and demand a discount on their work, whether that person is a surgeon or a screen printer, and I certainly wouldn’t have gone to one of them to say ‘gosh, I really like your photography, but could you give me a 75 percent discount on head shots?’

In situations like that, the subject of barter sometimes comes up, and it can be incredibly valuable when it’s a viable option. But that’s not always the case. Not everyone has services or skills that other people need, and except in rare situations, barter isn’t going to pay the rent or provide food or keep the utilities on (though I have in fact received discounts on rent in the past for maintaining a garden, which is an example of mutually beneficial barter). When people offer barter, I take those offers seriously and talk them out to determine if they’re truly mutually beneficial — because I don’t want to exploit people who are in the same situation I am in.

I want to buy art — and I do — and I want to support my fellow artists because I love art and it has a place in the world. And I also want it to be valued for what it is, as an important contribution to culture and society. But we live in a climate where people claim to love art and beauty while being unwilling to pay for it. Even as people praise hardware and applications for having sleek, beautiful looks inspired by and derived from decades of design experience and aesthetics, they’re demanding free content from writers, expressing distaste with the cost of original screenprints, getting angry about how much paintings cost. Our labour matters too, and it should be treated as something that plays a pivotal role in society — which it does — rather than as something that should be tacked on as an afterthought.

I create beautiful things, and I create important things, whether my intellectual labour is writing a work of short fiction or producing an opinion piece or conducting researched, original reporting for investigative pieces. And in many cases my compensation for that work is pitiful — for a variety of reasons, not least of which is the devaluation of intellectual labour. The notion that people should be paid for this kind of work is deeply offensive to many, who reject paywalls and other strictures on free content while not seeming to understand that the people who produce that content must have a way of supporting themselves.

I wish I could do that kind of work for free, because it is important, and I want it out there for people to read. But I can’t afford to do that, and neither can other creative and intellectual professionals who, at the end of the day, still need to eat some rice and beans in their kitchens while paying the electric bill. In a world where art is valued and the structure of compensation for artists is shifted, this doesn’t have to mean a huge burden for consumers — after all, some of the publications that pay me very well do so not through subscription monies, but through advertising dollars, and while advertising is irritating and can be intrusive when poorly integrated, it does ensure that a site remains alive to read, that content is not locked behind a barrier restricting it only to those who can afford to pay, that a magazine remains affordable.

There’s a circle of financial frustration that surrounds intellectual labour as we are underpaid but want to support each other but can’t because we are underpaid. We need social supports, including an acceptance of the fact that our work is important, to create value for our work and lives. There’s nothing romantic or aspirational about the starving artist. People who are struggling to survive because they’ve chosen intellectual labour over more lucrative fields are just plain struggling.

Image: Photographer, Hernán Piñera, Flickr