October 17, 2019

Price-Less Art

A new musician-friend of mine recently handed me his latest CD, which I happily accepted. It was “Volume 7” in a professionally produced series, all available free of charge. I knew I wasn't on his “preferred recipient” list, as his entire output was also laid out neatly in a box labeled “Please Take – FREE!” at the entrance of our local cafe during Saturday night's “Open Mic.” He's also been known to sprinkle the cafe tables with printed cards promoting links to his website for free downloads of his original songs and YouTube performances.

My husband and I often attend these weekly musical sessions where we feel obliged to order a snack and drinks from the hosting cafe, but think nothing of enjoying the admittedly varied – but generally high quality – singer, songwriter and musical talent for free. At times, we pack along our friend's CDs for longer road trips, fast-forwarding to our favorite songs. With today's internet culture of free instant downloads, partaking of great music – without paying a dime – seems to have become so much a part of our culture, that even old-timers such as ourselves nary give it a second thought.

At least I didn't until my musician friend mentioned he'd also written nine books – all of which he was offering as free downloads on another personal website. And, suddenly, I found myself outraged: How dare he not charge for his creative work! If his work has value, it should be properly compensated in the marketplace. His disrespect for himself in this area was cheapening the field for professional writers everywhere, I went on to grumble to my husband, also a writer.

But eventually I came to realize that I was so angry because now it was personal – his actions had invaded my professional artistic territory. Almost daily, as a writer/journalist, I'm confronted by ever-shrinking markets for my work. And the ever-expanding idea that I should be grateful that any publication, be it print or online, would be willing to publish my contribution at all. The new general perception being that seeing my byline appear in print should be all the reward I could ever want … or need.

There are a few businesses that are still willing to pay me for my writing expertise when they absolutely require it. Like an art magazine that charges artists for publishing pictures of their work and includes a short artist bio (ghostwritten by me). But even that magazine, upon requesting a major feature, expected me to do extensive research and write an original piece simply for the honor of seeing my name in print. After charging all their artists for inclusion, perhaps I should be grateful they hadn't decided to charge me for the privilege of writing for them as well. Though I have a feeling that may very well be the next commercial step in the ever-degrading monetary value we place on the arts.

So yes, it did take hitting close to home for that particular wake-up call. But at least now I can truly empathize with good musicians who used to (and still should) get paid to perform, much like, twenty years ago, I earned a decent living as a freelance writer, myself. Unfortunately, the sad reality remains unchanged. As a society, we've zoomed too far down the gratis road to be able to turn back time to former fair-restitution-for-creative-work models.

Just ask any of today's art majors of whatever specialty how successful they have been upon graduation. Graphic designers, included, who may have thought their “sensible” choice would provide greater financial opportunities, only to discover their technical training's sole advantage was to provide a perfect pool of free labor under the guise of “internship” education.

Case in point, my friend's daughter, who regularly produced original posters and promotional flyers for her Tallahassee-based university’s theater department as an unpaid graphic-design intern. Upon moving to Seattle after graduation, she was thrilled to land another internship at the Seattle Art Museum, where she continued to use her design skills to create promotional materials for their changing exhibits. She made tons of artistic connections, but after her time was up, is still looking for paid work in her field. (The museum's “internship program,” for which they receive state funding, continues to benefit from the free services of an ever-revolving door of unpaid interns.)

In the meantime, to pay for her share of a sublet, the young graphic designer has moved up in her paying-job-world from restaurant hostess to trained pizza-maker. Last week, her mother shared a video of her twirling a pie up in the air with true artistic flourish. Is there a latte-foam-design career slot in this art graduate's future?

In a way, I'm glad to have been jolted awake by my musician/writer friend to the truly abysmal lack of respect we hold for working artists today. Through ever-growing numbers of local art fairs, free music venues and anyone-can-publish blog sites, we've democratized creative output to the point where everyone and anyone can call themselves a musician, a writer, an artist. They can fill the airwaves and the web waves with their output, with little to no regard for quality and curation. And the public who attends all these free events can't help but sense that their worth is, in fact (I'm sorry to say), close to worthless. Simply because it's all free. It's what happens when the good, the bad, the ugly … and the truly inane are all made equally available for our consumption.

If everyone with two thumbs and a Yelp opinion is a “writer,” why pay a professional for their words? If anyone who buys a guitar and strums a few notes can get up on stage and sing, and thank their audience for attending, why pay for really good or seasoned performers? As for artists, where it would appear the only decent jobs to be had are in teaching art to ever-expanding waves of annual graduates, what's the world to do with all the rest?

From what I've seen of today's art market, it would appear far wiser to get an education in self-promotion than even attempting to develop any particular talent. Then, if you're lucky enough to have wealthy family connections, be ready to rely on them to bankroll your work into acceptance at art show exhibitions and constant travel among the jet-setting international art scene.

© 2015 Mindy Leaf

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