It’s undeniable that art is, at least in part, a commodity. Record-breaking auction prices for masterpieces, for example, make regular headlines. We justify the funding of art by pointing to the jobs its creates, the complex economies it fuels. A 2013 report for Arts Victoria, for example, claimed that the arts and culture sector directly added $6.1 billion to the state economy in 2010/11 and generated 68,000 full time jobs. Indirectly, it estimated the sector was worth $11.4 billion.
But there is a generalised discomfort in speaking of art in this way. From the sentimental adjuration that art is “made for love”, to the popular idea that artists who work for money are “selling out”, to the insistence on the “intrinsic value” of art from both conservative and radical interests, there’s a deep-seated conviction that money and art don’t mix. Artists are considered to (and to a great extent, do) exist outside the economies that structure most other professional activities: the implication is that, in both positive and negative ways, they are not productive in the same ways that other workers are. Artists partake in “psychic income” – a satisfaction in their work – that compensates for often very poor financial rewards.
There are many ways of talking about the economies of art, but I keep coming back to the crude question of artists’ income. It seems to me that, as a society, we deal with the insoluble contradiction of art as commodity/not commodity by making a sacrifice of the artist.
Our arts industry is structured to reward every kind of work except that of making art. At once privileged and marginalised, the labour of artists creates an industry in which their share of the rewards is minimal. Artists, perhaps because they have very little choice, collude in this structure. Often they make a virtue out of necessity and valorise their own poverty.
My own biography is fairly typical. I began my writing life as a poet. For a long time I thought that was all I would be. This meant that, right at the beginning, I never expected to make a living from my work as an artist. Youth is blithe. I didn’t think about my future. It wasn’t nihilism: I was just too busy trying to learn how to write. I chose, not entirely consciously, to devote all my energy to learning how to write poetry, at the expense of many other things. I never even thought about buying a house, since I assumed I could never afford one. I never bought a car.
Then I had children and was caught up in the bare struggle for survival, which wipes out any consideration of the future beyond the next fortnight. I spent any spare money on books, or equipment I needed for my work. I draughted poems, often hundreds of times, painstakingly typing them out on an electric typewriter each time. And I developed skills.
My first book of poems came out and won prizes. I wrote a libretto for an opera that was an unexpected success. I wrote a novel that disappeared without trace. And I got used to being poor, to the petty humiliations that attend being a person with no purchase in society: begging for an extension to meet the rent, never going out. I developed terrible habits, like only opening bills if they were red. The only way I could emotionally deal with the stress of being unpredictably broke was by not looking further than a week ahead. If we had enough for dinner for the next week, we were all right. If it was a week with a cheque, all the children got presents.
It’s no fun being poor in a capitalist society. It’s humiliating and soul destroying. Even so, my poverty was, however dire, a privileged poverty. I had an education. I had my work. If I had no money this week, or this month, or this year, there was a possibility that something might give – I might get a commission, I might win a prize. Like many artists, I’m an obsessive person, which drove me through. And like most artists, I supplemneted my income with non-creative work – in my case, freelance journalism – thus diverting my time and attention away from the work which I considered my vocation.
Over the years, my art has generated employment for editors, publishers, printers, ushers, designers, technical staff, box office staff, directors and performers. My novels have sold around the world, sometimes in large numbers, and have made substantial profits for their publishers and an income for me. But average out the income from my most commercially successful work (a fantasy series which sold internationally) over the ten years it took to write – or more depressingly, over the decades it took me to acquire the necessary skills to write it – and my initial prognosis of the financial rewards of writing practice were not that inaccurate.
My story, however idiosyncratic, is far from uncommon. In 2010 the Australia Council sponsored a comprehensive study, “Do You Really Want To Get Paid?”, which looked at the incomes of professional artists. Its findings were bleak, and are unlikely to have improved in the years since:
In the financial year 2007/08 the mean creative income of Australian professional artists was $18,900 (median of $7,000). To this can be added a mean arts-related income of $8,800 to yield an average total arts income of $27,700 (median $17,300). The mean income earned from activities outside the arts was $13,500, giving an average total income from all sources of $41,200 (median $35,900). More than half of all artists (56 percent) earned less than $10,000 from their creative income, and only 12 percent earned more than $50,000 from this source, in 2007/08.
The overall income position of artists is somewhat brighter if all earnings are accounted for; even so there were still 16 percent of all artists with incomes of less than $10,000 in total, and only one-third of artists with aggregate incomes exceeding $50,000 in the year. Even when other arts-related earnings and non-arts income are added in, the gross incomes of artists, from which they must finance their professional practice as well as the demands of everyday living, are substantially less than managerial and professional earnings. Indeed their total incomes on average are lower than those of all occupational groups, including non-professional and blue-collar occupations.
Another recent survey conducted by the University of Sydney found that only 5 per cent of professional actors make the average wage of $75,000 a year. 56 per cent earn less than $20,000, and 36 per cent earn less than $10,000. Even with earnings in non-creative jobs, one quarter of actors live below the poverty line.
In 2009, the Australia Council estimated there were 44,000 professional artists working in Australia. Their work was the central activity of an arts industry that in 2013 was worth $4.2 billion, subsidised with total government funding of $1.3 billion. (Cultural activity as a whole was worth $50 billion). The creative economy is in fact one of the fastest growing sector of the Australian GDP. But, as these reports underline, artists – without whom the arts industry would not exist – remain by far the most poorly paid of all professional workers.
What’s clear is that in general we value artists far less than we value the ancillary jobs that administer, distribute and direct art for the broader public. There are many full-time jobs in the subsidised arts, but those that pay artists to make art are few and far between, especially outside major companies. There are artistic directors and in house directors working full-time at most major and second tier theatre companies, for instance, but most other artists are employed on a freelance basis.
Among our best artist employers, perhaps unsurprisingly, are symphony orchestras, which employ most of their musicians full-time. The most lavishly funded performing arts company in Australia, Opera Australia, says it supports 309 creative jobs, although it’s unclear how many of these are full-time. The other full-time jobs listed by Opera Australia, including seasonal and casual staff “amounting to 549 full-time staff”, equate to 789 non-creative positions. The Australian Ballet employs 70 dancers and around 100 non-creative staff.
Major theatre companies employ full-time staff in areas such as financial administration, catering, ticketing, public relations, administration and so on, but the only recent attempt to employ actors full-time – the STC’s Actor’s Company – had to be funded by generating patronage, and only lasted a few years. The non-creative staff employed by the Melbourne Theatre Company vastly outnumber the creative people employed on their productions. But more importantly, the non-creative jobs are on-going, mostly full-time positions, while the creative employment is generated from production to production.
And this is in the best-funded institutions we have. The bulk of Australia’s artistic production and almost all of its vitality exists in small, independent companies and the work of individuals (especially in the case of visual artists and writers, who mostly work alone). And for most of these artists – the vast majority of professional artists in Australia – the chances of making a living from their creative work are poor.
The recognition of this situation is why there are government grants for artists. A grant is certainly no substitute for a full-time job, but it’s the closest many artists get to gaining a regular income for their doing their job. But this is an extremely competitive process with no guarantee of success, no matter what the merit of an application: in recent years, so many worthy applicants were being rejected that some arts boards began to keep a file of what they called “unfunded excellence”. Recent changes under the Liberal Government mean that now it’s even harder than it was for small companies and individuals to gain a grant.
The dilemma of artists is, of course, a small part of a much larger shift in the valuation of primary labour in a global economy. Artists were dealing with unstable incomes and insecure employment long before it became an issue for the middle class worker. And as things have worsened in the wider world, the situation for artists has become concomitantly worse.
I don’t wish to denigrate the work of non-creative people in the arts. Curators, producers, teachers and others create the structures in which it’s possible for art to find its audience, and very often this work is done by people who are artists themselves. But it’s beyond argument that the arts industry is structured to value the continuous work and skills of (for example) accountants well above the labour of artists. It’s hard not to conclude that everyone makes money out of the arts except the people who actually make art.