You wouldn’t work for free. Why should artists?
“Beauty will be convulsive or will not be at all.”
In a world rife with so many forms of expression, the act of creation has become egalitarian.
With pixels, a microphone, and a computer, things can be made. There are no boundaries - in our country at least - to prevent a person from publishing, and participating in that ever-expanding archive - the internet - and taking their work to mass audiences.
But when so many people can create, how do we assign value to things which are done for free?
Creativity is not simply the act of making. It comes from a life lived, dreams unfurled, images collected through time. Ideas are simply one iteration of a process which is wholly deeper and more profound, that of considering reality, absorbing sensations and actively seeking out new knowledge.
In Marxist terms, creativity is immaterial labour; from an economic viewpoint, it is often seen as fluff. But still we must agree that there are certain people in this world whose talent gives rise to works which take us out of the everyday, and make us feel something, think differently, change in some way. Hardly a soul in the world would pay £200 million for a Picasso painting, and certainly many art pieces are divisive, even incendiary. However, we can all surely agree that beauty compels us, it leaves us fuller.
So what kind of value should we assign to acts of creative labour? And how should we treat those who work so hard to communicate ideas?
“When it comes to the issue of getting paid for my work as an artist, I can think of very few instances in the last seven years in Scotland where the fee for the show or commission has paid me at least minimum wage for my time. The majority of work I have done has been for vastly below minimum wage.”
- Rachel Maclean, Artist, currently exhibiting in British Art Show 8
According to a survey of almost 2,500 working writers (the first comprehensive study of author earnings in the UK since 2005) the median income of the professional author in 2013 was just £11,000, a drop of 29% since 2005 when the figure was £12,330 - well below the £16,850 figure the Joseph Rowntree Foundation says is needed to achieve a minimum standard of living. The typical median income of all writers was even less: £4,000 in 2013, compared to £5,012 in real terms in 2005, and £8,810 in 2000.
Whilst creatives have mechanisms - copyright, patents - to safeguard the replication of their ideas; whilst creatives are able to charge for their time, for a book, for a painting; whilst creatives can measure the effects of our work - how it makes people feel, if it changes minds, if it wins prizes, if it sells - they often do not receive the money they need to live. Many of these poorly paid writers are award-winning novelists whose work has gone on to be taught in schools, revered in universities, and transformed into a cultural object.
Moreover, many of the most extraordinary pieces of art are born of a lengthy and often painful process; from long hours, days or years spent giving life to a work which aims to capture something unanimous out of a world filled with disorder, and pain. Some of the most ingenious creators have spent long, long years honing their craft - whether drawing, reading, painting, learning code, or dancing until their toenails fall from their feet.
“What moves men of genius, or rather what inspires their work, is not new ideas, but their obsession with the idea that what has already been said is still not enough.”
- Eugene Delacroix
As a bridge between the private life of the consumer and large organisations offering investment in communication, advertising agencies have a unique opportunity to democratise creativity. Campaigns like Poetry on the London Underground or Alasdair Gray’s Glaswegian Tube Murals demonstrate the ways in which organisations serve art to the masses. But how can we bring these outsiders into the economic mechanics where money and opportunity flow?
At Leith, we have first hand experience of this approach and have seen the benefits of using local illustrators, photographers and musicians in our campaigns. 15 year old actor Connor Newall (whose family has been directly affected by knife crime) was recently discovered through street casting for a short film we produced for the Scottish Government, ‘One Knife. Many Victims’. The kids we needed to reach were well aware of why people carry knives. They wanted to see someone like them picking up a knife for the same reason they would, and with Newall playing it out to its grim conclusion the campaign was all the more authentic; and effective.
Perhaps agencies as a whole could be more open to alternative ways of doing things, and not because it is cheap. Why not use poets to perform more creative VO scripts? Why not use real artists to illustrate campaign ideas?
There is a set of brilliant spoken word artists, illustrators, and photographers making brilliant work. Work which is relevant to mental health campaigns, the representation of women, the joy of drinking a fresh cold beer, the strangeness of millennial life. Ideas abound, and we need to connect with the people who are filled with inspiration, and communicate with brilliance.
It’s time to challenge the status quo and identify more opportunities to work with up and coming thinkers, and to pay them properly for their work. Tear down the barriers, and talk to the young generation. Why do we pay so much attention to young bloggers, young consumers, young actors and musicians - but no time at all to young artists? Surely they are the true diamonds in the rough - the makers with longevity?
Creativity requires openness — the ability to grapple with reality and behave as a kind of antenna — absorbing the experiences of others, witnessing change. It is a mode of being in which the creator becomes an outsider.
“The artist is a receptacle for emotions that come from all over the place: from the sky, from the earth, from a scrap of paper, from a passing shape, from a spider’s web.”
- Pablo Picasso
How can we explain the brain — the most complex structure in the universe? Or creativity? Perhaps one day we will be able to map the neurotransmitters that fabricate music out of silence; the nerve endings which instruct our fingers to sketch so exactly the patterns of leaves on a tree. For the time being, the evidence is this: creativity offers a value which far transcends economic or financial quantification.
Yet, it is clear that the old ways of curating content are fading fast. Guarded coteries of art collectors, production houses, literary megaliths still exist - but they are transcended by graffiti artists with access to Instagram, adhoc filmmakers with YouTube Accounts, self-published YA authors with millions of online readers.
With this influx of creators - and an over-saturation of talented artists - the value of creativity is being diminished. Artists, writers, photographers are expected to work for free, providing content for enormous platforms like The Huffington Post without seeing so much as a penny. The support systems for these individuals are few and far between, financial support is rare and oversubscribed. And few people recognize the mental exhaustion, long hours, isolation, and sometimes painful neuroses that can accompany moments of brilliance.
As individuals who work within the creative industry, as agencies for whom creativity and brainpower is our main commodity, it is vital that we recognise this collective group of thinkers whose work attempts to make sense of the same reality we occupy; that we do not subscribe to this ever growing phenomenon of corporations taking advantage of students, young artists and other groups of people who may be exploited for their desire or their skills.
“Life beats down and crushes the soul and art reminds you that you have one.”
- Stella Adler