Anonymous: Shut up and sell out

Buy an artist a drink, and the chances are you’ll be rewarded for your generosity with a well-worn conversation about money.

How can I sell without selling out, how can I work while still making work?  And all these opportunities for artists, but why are so few of them paid?  I mean, you wouldn’t see a doctor or a lawyer or a banker working for free, would you?  They have it so easy, they have recognition, people understand what they do, and they get paid more the more they do it.

These traditional professions have other things we artists don’t – accepted levels of professionalism backed up with ethical and legal codes that guarantee quality and reduce risk (with the possible exception of bankers).  Not everyone understands the subtleties of the law or medicine (why else would you need a lawyer or a doctor?), but everyone can understand that being a member of the Bar Council or the Solicitors Regulation Authority or the General Medical Council means that you not only know your stuff, but that any problems or disagreements in your professional relationships can be remedied according to an accepted standard.

How can people who buy or commission work from artists know that they’re not being sold a pup?

Artists in England don’t even have a union – and the appetite for one seems low, despite the success of the Scottish Artists Union and Visual Artists Ireland, along with the Musicians Union and Equity.  Being disorganised, we’re therefore powerless to demand pay commensurate with our experience, or even a means to quantify what experience we have.  Given the mystifying, adulatory, coruscating, envious and patronising relationship contemporary art has with the press, respect for artists is generally confused, or just low.  Audiences, marginalised and disengaged, are left wondering if what they’re looking at is the result of painstaking research and an inspired imagination or a total piss-take.  On the one hand, we as artists seem to revel in this position – but on the other can’t seem to acknowledge that with it comes the risk that we’re all tarred by the same brush.  If anyone can call themselves an artist then, from an outside perspective, we’re all assumed to be as bad as the worst among us: wealthy hobbyists, over-educated charlatans, or dole-scrounging solipsists with a vitamin deficiency.  Our own view of ourselves seems just as confused – either sticking it to The Man through freethinking quasi-anarchist self-expression, or craving the career progression, tax-breaks, pay and legal protection that come with professional status.

The list of requirements an artist might have (‘might’, because precious little robust research is ever done which actually asks us) tends to include audiences for our work, critical recognition, exhibitions, career progression, and money.  Money is the big one – by which I emphatically don’t mean the most important, but instead the one that should emerge once the other requirements are fulfilled.  Have an audience?  Then you have people who might buy your work, an edition of it, or pay to see it.  Show your work in galleries?  Then you should have a reasonable expectation of getting paid to do so, given the investment of time and money you’ve made in making the work in the first place, for the benefit of the gallery and their programme.  Been at it for years?  So you should get paid more now than when you first started out, in recognition of your experience and expertise.

You can get away with not paying an artist because another will be along in a minute who will happily undercut your fee or work for free.  In an unregulated, highly competitive, subjectively judged, nepotistic and (from the outside) glamorous industry like the arts, there’s precious little impetus for artists to act ethically when the potential rewards are so great.

Money isn’t the issue in the arts, it’s just the thin end of the wedge – how we’re seen, valued and exploited by the rest of the world, and how we tacitly agree to this exploitation, is.  Whether we get paid or not, audiences, recognition, exhibitions and career progression don’t necessarily follow.  The very fact that the art world keeps on spinning is proof of this.  Of course none of it would exist without artists, but as artists we seem temperamentally unwilling to unanimously withdraw our labour to effect change.  A high profile doesn’t mean a big bank balance; being in a museum collection doesn’t mean we benefit from the spoils; name recognition doesn’t mean we need to hide in the Cayman Islands when the tax man calls.  Artists will screw each other over – sometimes unknowingly – to get at the next opportunity while at the same time bemoaning the fact that we’re not getting paid.  We’re complicit in our own penury, and that of our fellows.

To my mind, there seem to be two alternatives.  First, to professionalise.  Organise.  Demand more.  Push back against the negative media landscape instead of rolling our eyes.  Get even more closely involved with the culture and communities we live in, demystify what we do, and when someone asks what you do, say “I’m an artist”.  Tell people how goddam necessary we are.  How much we do for them.  How much they need us.  And enjoy the rewards: social, financial and cultural.  Understand that this will take years, perhaps decades, perhaps a lifetime, to unpick, and that we’ll have to make some time to do all this by working less on our practice and more for others.  Be generous.  Stand solid.

Alternatively, de-professionalise.  Have it your own way.  With no power comes no responsibility.  Exult in your freedom to create and enjoy reliving the heady days of art school once more.  Embrace the idea that your creativity isn’t any better than anyone else’s: so it shouldn’t be paid for.  When the rent payment comes around, get a job.  Then join a union.

This article was originally part of Pamphlets, a publication by Artquest in 2014, where artists and art world professionals were invited to write anonymously about what’s wrong with the art world.

Similar How to articles

Related opportunities, listings and Artlaw articles

Featured project

© Helena Hunter, Falling Birds, 2021

Reaching audiences online

Pablo Colella of Disconnected Bodies and artist Helena Hunter in conversation with Nick Kaplony of Artquest • Date: Thursday 15 April, 7–8 pm • Venue: online via Zoom With… Continue Reading Reaching audiences online

Read more