Love’s Labour’s Art

A few years ago, I unofficially mentored a small group of my performing arts students who formed a band—a quite good band calling themselves Captain Backfire.

‘Get some good promotional photos,’ I suggested.  They were good looking lads.  ‘Business cards.’  They already had a website.  ‘A memorable tagline that will summarise what you’re about.’  Funk the Blues—because they were a blues-funk fusion band.

‘When and where is your next gig,’ I asked.

They answered.

‘How much you getting paid for that?’

‘Erm…’ they mumbled.

‘WHAT!’ I bellowed.

‘But there’s a cover charge at the door,’ protested the lead singer.

‘And who gets that?’

‘Erm…’

‘How many people do you think will come to that pub to see your band?’

‘Hundred,’ they underestimated.

‘What’s the cover charge?’

‘Fiver.’

‘How much is a pint?’

‘Three pound.’

‘How much you reckon your “hundred fans” will drink?’

‘Erm…lots.’

‘Do the math.’  They did the math.  ‘Your work is making the pub that much money and you will see none of it.’

‘But we’re having fun,’ argued the lead guitarist.

I don’t doubt you are, dear lead guitarist, but that is not the point. You are offering a service and you should be paid for it.  Can the pub landlord play guitar?  No.  He can’t fix his own plumbing either, so he pays a professional.  Even if that plumber really enjoys fixing drains, you still pay her.  You always pay the plumber.  You pay the piper too…and the drummer and the singer and the guitarist.   It’s bad enough our little performing arts department has to fight flute and spotlight to be recognised as a proper subject area without our leading stars disrespecting what they do as well!

I like to think their ears still ring from that little tirade of mine.  It was delivered with a high-level of technical projection.  I am after-all a drama teacher.  Incidentally, two members of the now defunct Captain Backfire play together in an even better band called Hunting Bears (music available for download, check out the website for gigs near you).

I delivered a similar lecture to our school’s art teacher with whom I frequently car-share.  He had agreed to take photographs for the restaurant where his daughter worked.  When I asked how much they were paying him he shrugged.  I nearly drove off the A1 in my indignation.

Recently Yorkshire-based writer and God of Well-Chosen Words (that is my title for him not a self-proclaimed moniker) Matt Haig gave his own lecture in a blog post entitled: “The Writer and Money.”  In the post, Mr. Haig vents about writer’s who write for money.  The heart of the argument, though I encourage you to read his post in full, is that writing and money do not mix.  His main irritation seems to come from writers who write just to make money and to debunk the assumption that writing is a “winning lottery ticket”, a phrase I recall him using in a previous, gloriously vocabularied tirade.

Writing – good writing – comes from a deep place. It comes from somewhere far inside us. It is a passion, and the etymological root of passion is to suffer. We head into the dark and mine our minds for jewels we never knew were there. Money belongs to the opposite space. It belongs to the material world, the world of surfaces, the unpoetic world of brash that surrounds us.” 

I told you he was the God of Well-Chosen Words.  And several other writers had some well-chosen words for him—many of them unduly harsh.  The harshest comments, I am sorry to say, were from my fellow Americans.  The Passive Voice blog posted select quotations from the original blog.  I was slightly amused/horrified by the lengthy debate over “dressing gowns” but mostly I was disgusted by the amount of vitriol inspired by Matt Haig’s perceived attack on taking money for art.

For me, making money from my art is not about finding a winning lottery ticket or becoming the next JK Rowling.  I’m not that naïve.  As someone with a theatre background, I know that for every Kate Winslet, there are hundreds of equally talented actresses who work union rates and are glad to get it.  That is the nature of the profession and I make it my business to demystify the glamour of acting for any student serious about pursuing a performance career.  My university professor Judy Hart told our graduate acting class (probably every acting class she teaches): “If there is any other job—ANY other job—you could do and be happy, then do it, but if this is what you have to do then go into with your eyes open and your head screwed on straight.”  Those might not have been her exact words but the sentiment is accurate.

Art is work!  For some it might be a hobby or a necessary creative outlet for coping with stress, but for most of the artists I know it is a trade.  If you’re a cake decorator and someone you aren’t related to or under threat of blackmail from requires a cake, you except them to pay you for it.  For ingredients, time and most of all expertise.  You pay lawyers, mechanics, doctors because you cannot do what they do.  Not everyone can make a sculpture or play an instrument or write a poem.  They might be able to shape clay, warble in the shower or put words on paper but that is like calling yourself a pilot because you found the UP button.

Earning money from my art is about respecting the work of all artists.  We cannot escape the fact that we live and work in a capitalist society.  Financial earnings don’t just symbolise the worth of our work, they are a material indication of how highly our work is esteemed.  How can I, a creative artist and teacher of the arts, disrespect art by not acknowledging that it is a job people get paid to do.