Passion vs. Compensation: Should artists be expected to work for free? (hint: the answer rhymes with “go”)

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Here in the western hemisphere, at least in my little corner of it, people are allowed to write, paint, and make music, but they are not supposed to be successful at it.

The expectation is that art is something we do for free, in our spare time, as a means of offsetting the quiet discontentment of our “real jobs” as waiters or dog catchers or whatever.

Elsewhere in the world, this is not the case.

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For instance, in the Eastern Hemisphere, specifically in counties like China or Japan, art is not automatically presumed to be a hobby adjacent to you “real job.”
Should you demonstrate aptitude for the guitar at a young age, the expectation is that commit yourself to excellence in music, and “guitarist” becomes your job title for a long time.

Seriously, it’s kind of a mutual culture shock when hippies or church groups travel to Asia Major with instruments in hand and try to start an informal jam session.

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The downside of that set-up is that humans are more inclined to lose passion for the things they’re required to do than the things they do for love.

The upside is that the artists who have their financial needs met will have the time and resources to do more art that is higher quality than those who must hold down a day job to support a rock-and-roll, oil pastel, or novel habit.

So why are we  in the United States inclined to question the integrity of artist and not the dogcatcher when they expect a wage for their work?

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Granted, once in a long while, we encounter an artist who has no integrity and overcharges for rubbish, but that’s not typical, so let’s look at some other variables.

Let’s assume for a moment that one or more of the wealthy people on this planet of ours is dishonest. Part of how they likely accumulated their wealth was by inflating the the value of their time and depreciating the work of others.

If Rich Dude du Jour can convince his secretary, painter, and janitor that their services are an unnecessary luxury, he can pay them a fraction of their worth and still get his phones answered, toilets cleaned, and walls decorated.

Then, there are the fine artists, some of whom believe all art should happen exclusively for art’s sake and see the artist who gets an art-related pay check as a sell-out.

This belief is unfair and untrue.

We don’t call Rembrandt or Michelangelo sellouts because they took commissions and worked for “The Man” for most of their careers. We visit their works in museums and stare in awe at the skill possessed by a couple of old masters.

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Anyway, according to my old psych professor, artists, much like teachers, will never get paid what they’re worth…

A, because people in charge perpetuate the myth that “If we pay teachers what they’re worth, pretty soon, they’ll all be doing it for the money.”
B, the underpaid masochists who take such jobs tend to feel there’s a certain amount prestige in doing thankless work for little pay. The misplaced fear if these masochists is that if there were appropriate compensation in their chosen field, there would be less prestige to go around for the few, the proud, the poverty-stricken.

No joke, y’all, when your long-suffering high school teacher has to take a part-time job at McDonald’s to make ends meet, the prestige loses some o’ that thar mys-tique.

My heartfelt belief that all professionals can do what you love and command a salary was instilled in me not by gurus of the fine arts but of long-time pros in the medical sciences who had this to say about their vocations:

“I love my job. I would do my job for free. What they pay me for is the paperwork.”

And no matter how dreamlike they seem from the outside, all jobs have paperwork.

Therefore, if you write novellas or paint portraits for fun, and you legitimately don’t care about the money, that’s awesome. Keep it up.

But if ever someone has made to feel like your art is frivolous nonsense and should be free to anyone who asks for it, that person is stupid. It cost you time and effort to make something that no one else could make exactly like you can, so rest assured, your asking to be compensated is by no means out of line.


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