Why Do Creatives Put Up With No Pay?: a few choice quotes

1. The allure of the ‘personal brand’

In his One Market Under God, Thomas Frank describes how, during the dot com boom, employers encouraged young coders to identify as anti-authoritarian creatives, letting them sport zany haircuts, listen to indy rock in the office and cover themselves in tattoos. Yet because their rebelliousness was purely aesthetic and explicitly individualist, it worked out quite nicely for management, thank you very much: the young rebels disdained collective organisation as irredeemably old fashioned, and so could all be smartly marched out the door as soon as the economy turned sour.

Something similar happens within literature though with worse haircuts and more tweed.

Jyotsna Kapur describes the prevalence of what she calls "an old narrative" about the arts: an idea "that artists are genius outsiders, voices of dissent, rugged lonesome individuals who live on the margins, victims of economic marginalisation and social misunderstanding, with a special, even sacred relationship to their art that must be protected from the intrusions of the world."This sense of artistic endeavour as inherently rebellious — "subversive", if you like — helps legitimise the Dalkey-style workplace, since, Kapur argues, rather than being somehow anomalous, artists are actually exemplary neoliberal employees — especially since they don’t realise it.

Think about how writers are accustomed to honing their skills on their own time. They often pay for their own training, through courses or university degrees. By and large, they don’t join unions; they understand their careers in purely individual terms — indeed, they’re often told to think of themselves as "brands". They’re not only willing to accept short-term contracts, they’re pathetically grateful for them — every creative writing student dreams of a book deal.

Jeff Sparrow in Why Do Creatives Put Up With No Pay?, at New Matilda.

2. The sense of ‘devotion to the art’

As we all know theatre reviewing/criticism is in its death throes. For print media it’s all over bar the counting – where I used to get up between 800 and 1200 words when I was at the Sydney Morning Herald, Jason Blake gets a couple of hundred. (…)

The announcement last week that Alison Croggon is retiring her Melbourne-based blog should sent a bleak and urgent warning to the industry. Alison is super-women – not only were her reviews of the highest order, nothing in the country anywhere near like it. She also managed a creative writing career to which is now intending to commit full time. As she should. She has left behind a 9-year legacy – an intimate and informed and impassioned legacy – with a huge local and international profile. Thanks to the help of no-one (officially). Actors complain about co-op rates – reviewing nowadays is one step down to the zero dollars in return. Even successful print outlets like Time Out don’t pay any more. And it shows.

Free tickets to the serious critic come with a burden of responsibilities. They’re not lollies as editors seem to think as they keep their main eye on the financial bottom line.

(…) The relationship between theatre companies and critics has always had its ups and downs. It is to entirely misunderstand the job if publicists think our purpose is to put bums on seats. That can happen – hopefully many many times. But that is the publicists job not ours. On any given show the reviewer is there to represent the interests of the company (at least keeping in mind its goals), but also offer feedback to the artists involved, feedback to the audience who has seen the show, readers who are thinking of seeing the show, and readers who just want at least a little info in hand for that next dinner party. Plus the reviewer keeps a kind of record book – in my view the most important responsibility. To assist with the collation of a history.

The biggest problem about the current situation is this. Theatre lives and dies on the night – apart from the mark it strikes on our souls. The good critic is not the person sitting in row G who sees ‘more and better’ (though the best of us do accrue a certain discernment over time). Our gift is to DESCRIBE in WORDS what was carved through direct experience onto our souls while seeing the show. (…)

We are entering a time when the theatre industry is relying on the good will and huge efforts of the likes of Alison and myself for its endeavours to be remembered. When will I get to the point at which, like Alison, I say ‘enough is enough’. What will be left to remember of your efforts? Your life’s work as artists – achievements, setbacks and recoveries. There will be no history – not even written in sand.

Theatre is not cinema or a novel. We can’t go back to the opening night of Baz Lurhmann’s La Boheme or Armfield’s Cloudstreet. Imagine someone in 20 years saying: “I never new Cate Blanchett acted on stage – nothing here on Google”. (…) People in twenty/fifty years time will find no meaningful (extensive and reliable) record of what ever happened at Australia’s most renowned venue over these recent years. Very clearly marketing departments sit above publicists nowadays in the hierarchy. And their view would be: who needs feedback after a show – esp if it’s sold out in advance – end of story – job done. (…) And meanwhile the rest of the performing arts gets a few ill-informed grabs from freebie happy wannabes.

James Waites at Alison Croggon Retires Theatre Notes at jameswaites.com.

3. Economic privilege

People from richer backgrounds are three times more likely to have undertaken unpaid internships than those from poorer backgrounds, according to a recent survey conducted by NUS and YouGov. I have managed to support myself with my student loan while working for free, but when I graduate, unpaid work will no longer be an option. Yet I am constantly being told that I should expect to work for free after graduating.

After my seventh internship, I decided enough was enough. I have become actively involved in the campaign against unpaid internships, both at my university and nationally. I have protested outside a famous PR company, and I gave official evidence to the Low Pay Commission, which is currently investigating unpaid internships.

When I talk to students about unpaid internships, one common response is: “But I don’t mind working for free.” What I hear is: “I can afford to work for free.” My involvement in the campaign has made me much more conscious of my individual responsibility. If I were to take on unpaid work now, I would be very aware that, by doing so, I am not just saying that I don’t deserve a wage, but that my peers and friends don’t either.

For every person who can work for free, there are so many who simply cannot afford to. This means that they are being shut out of many careers where internships are an essential part of your CV.

Libby Page in Fight Against Unpaid Internships at The Guardian; via Precarious Workers Brigade.

4. Self-identification as ‘free’, ‘independent’ ‘elite’ and ‘privileged’

Contemporary art’s workforce consists largely of people who, despite working constantly, do not correspond to any traditional image of labor. They stubbornly resist settling into any entity recognizable enough to be identified as a class. While the easy way out would be to classify this constituency as multitude or crowd, it might be less romantic to ask whether they are not global lumpenfreelancers, deterritorialized and ideologically free-floating: a reserve army of imagination communicating via Google Translate.

Instead of shaping up as a new class, this fragile constituency may well consist—as Hannah Arendt once spitefully formulated—of the “refuse of all classes.” These dispossessed adventurers described by Arendt, the urban pimps and hoodlums ready to be hired as colonial mercenaries and exploiters, are faintly (and quite distortedly) mirrored in the brigades of creative strike workers propelled into the global sphere of circulation known today as the art world.5 If we acknowledge that current strike workers might inhabit similarly shifting grounds—the opaque disaster zones of shock capitalism—a decidedly un-heroic, conflicted, and ambivalent picture of artistic labor emerges.

Hito Steyerl in Politics of Art: Contemporary Art and the Transition to Post-Democracy, at e-flux.

5. The belief that the self-exploitation will lead to increased employment opportunities for oneself, rather than decrease them for everyone in the sector.

Why is working in the realms of “culture” and academia so undervalued? Not only by the instutions that hire, but also by the good, committed workers themselves who will step on each other for the next available job? It’s equally worth organizing adjuncts as it is art-workers. he work doesn’t get done without us. Some institutions know this and act on it. When workers in any field collectivize and strategize to confront management, management listens and attempts to compromise. This is just the first step, that often rewards its participants with euphoria. It gets more difficult after that, but a necessary step to make. It is worthwhile to at least imagine what labor unions for art workers and adjuncts might look like. It’s worthwhile to imagine how good things could possibly be, as there are more than enough examples to point to as examples of what is bad.

Open Letter to Labor Servicing the Culture Industry


4 thoughts on “Why Do Creatives Put Up With No Pay?: a few choice quotes

  1. James Waites says:

    Hi Jana, thank you for including some of my thoughts in your piece – combined with the words from others, this post makes for a fascinating and disturbing read. I could write a lot more here going out into any number of related directions. But it is New Year’s Day and I am still pulling bits of fireworks’ junk out of my ears. And hoping for a swim and a mango before days end. Maybe we can explore this topic further over the next few months. Best to you and best to you esp for 2013.

    • Jana says:

      Dear James, I am going to be in touch with you soon, to discuss many of the fascinating points you raise. I am at home sick, and with no internet (I am writing this from my housemate’s laptop, which is entirely in Japanese). As soon as I get better.

  2. simbo says:

    The thing is, though, every argument about professionalisation of art ignores one essential truth. The art doesn’t get better just because someone gets paid for it (if it did, Van Gogh’s failure to sell most of his work would make him a failure as an artist).

    Is it important that our artists make a living? Yes. Is it important that the thing they do that makes them that living is their art? That’s a different question.

    And all of us gets us away from what the fundamental task of arts criticism should be. Which is … is the art good? And why is it good? And arguing about who’s being paid and who’s not … seems to be a sideline irrelevance.

    • Jana says:

      Hello Simbo, welcome to GS.

      I find your argument appears quite regularly within the arts circles, and I disagree with it fundamentally. Yes, art doesn’t automatically get better just because one gets paid for it. Neither does philosophy or journalism. Or teaching (so many examples of hard-working teachers in low-income schools). Or engineering, for that matter. The history of science is a history of men working for no reward, experimenting in their homes. Unfortunately, the only reason why this is even possible is because these passionate amateurs can afford to work for free. Van Gogh, just by the way, came from a wealthy family of art dealers, who supported him both financially and professionally, promoting his work, paying for years and years of formal education, introducing him into artistic circles, and so on.

      Because, in the real world, as passionate as we are about stuff, we all need to eat, pay rent, raise children, put some money into health insurance, and in different other ways participate in the monetary economy. This requires income, which requires work, which requires time, which leaves less time for our amateur pursuits, which leaves us with less ability to practice, which then doesn’t allow us to hone up on our skills and develop our practice. I don’t think you can dispute this logical chain in any real way. Van Gogh enrolled in multiple art courses and spent most of his life painting. He was being sent money by his brother, and parents, roughly his entire life. Are you seriously suggesting that to be the funding model for criticism, and/or the arts? Or that one’s first and foremost qualification for a career in the arts should be, as this article states towards the end, an “inexhaustible bank balance”?

      As I quote above, to say “this work should be done for free” is to say “this work should only be done by wealthy people”.
      To equate passion and talent and excellence with – basically – being wealthy is, as you can imagine, incredibly offensive to the 99% of us. Just have a read at the comments below this article.

      It is a part of normal, non-loony, economic theory that, if you want to attract the best and the brightest into a profession, you offer high salaries. You also offer respect, and some kind of reward for performance and ability to advance. This won’t automatically produce good engineering, philosophy, journalism, teaching, or art, no. But it will attract smart, talented, hard-working people, who will then form an eco-system of mutual competition and encouragement, who won’t burn out and quit the profession just as they’ve grasped the necessary skills to be good at what they do, and who will eventually become mentors, initiators, leaders within the system, who will use their knowledge to reform and shape and upgrade the profession. For a story version of this same problem, here is a story of a teacher. Also, look at the statistics quoted in the article about drop-off rates for teachers.

      I don’t think that Google looks at Enlightenment science when they decide on the pay packages of their engineers. I don’t think there’s any argument for the arts industry to do the same.

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