I was reminded of this photo a couple of days ago when I saw the front page of a newspaper’s cultural section, proclaiming the shocking news: “Artists work for free!”
Well, yes, sure we do. We work for free, we work cheap, and we work for a full price – just like most other reasonable people. Because, just like most other reasonable people, we adjust our expectations according to facts. There are some jobs that you know will never be profitable, but you do them anyway, because they’re just amazing, or because you know that in terms of business contacts or favours earned or whatever, they’ll be worth it in the long run anyway; or because you get to spend time with people you like; or because you’re just a nice person doing somebody a favour (the guy who develops my webpage, for example, is not an artist but a serious IT developer with a serious IT job. And still, he has been working for me for three years now, earning only bags of liquorice. Because he knows there’s no way I can pay him the real price (because I am a poor artist working for free, ha!). And because we are teenage friends, and making that webpage is a way for us to keep in touch, and having a lot of fun).
Commercial companies work like this too. Some projects/products/services they sell expensively, others they sell cheap, and yet others they give away for free – because they know that giving away something for free is a way to get people to come back and get more (and pay more) later. Seen from this perspective, I don’t really think there’s a reason to make a big fuss about artists working for free from time to time.
The real issue, I guess, arises when we keep working without getting paid, because “art consumers” are so used to everything being for free that we have somehow undermined our own “market” by working for free in the first place. And I guess this was the shocking news that the cultural paper was trying to tell me. But even this, I am having a hard time being really shocked or pessimistic about. I am an art consumer too, and I, too, obviously prefer things to be cheap or for free (because I am a poor artist and can’t afford expensive things, ha x 2!). But I still spend money on art, because I think it is important. And I still believe that art has a place (and a market), even in an environment of things that are all for free. But for most artists, earning a living on their art is just going to be difficult. Who said it wouldn’t be? And hasn’t it always been? Even before things were all for free …
Text by Mia Degner
Photograph by Luisa Santos