Why Nobody Wants To Pay For Art

Irfan Yang
Mar 15 · 6 min read

The real reason we need to address

I want to talk about Dreams. Yours, especially. And mine.

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The Dream of every artist is to be able to make a living doing Art they love. Unfortunately, a lot stands in the way of that dream.

No doubt you’ve heard this same exact rhetoric being said countless times before, mostly by disgruntled artists both in and outside your circle. You’re probably tired of hearing it.

It’s been said so often that by now there’s almost an unspoken universal script that comes up every other time someone talks about why Artists don’t make a living with what they do, something like, “Art has no value to the economy,” or that people are too busy paying bills to buy a painting, or that artists are all smelly hippies who should get a real job (said by the really talented orators out there).

In the end, it boils down to this base problem: Art can’t make money because most people don’t want to pay for it.

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Reading further between those lines, there can be lots of reasons distilled from the situation Artists tend to find themselves in.

Perhaps it’s our crumbling world economy and people aren’t keen on luxuries? Or that the availability of great art for free to be found online doesn’t warrant a monetary value on proper paintings anymore?

Well, that might be true but do consider even the great Renaissance masters like Da Vinci or Michelangelo had their rough financial periods in life — Da Vinci who was famously pacifist, was forced to design and engineer war machines for the Duke of Milan.

Not that doing anything for a Duke paid peanuts, but the fact that Da Vinci had to do something he didn’t want in order to eat, goes to show that no one is above the need for survival.

Yes, these were for paying the bills. WikimediaCommons

So the problem is not native to our timeline alone, and it also highlights that the talent and skill of an artist is not directly proportionate to the amount of money they will make: something any artist in the scene will tell you.

And that dream earlier above might sound great, but nobody is going to pay us to draw stuff we like — unless you belong in a very specific echelon in history where what you like to draw happens to be what people will pay for.

by David Shrigley

This article isn’t about artists like David Shrigley or why they make it.

They follow an equation that is understood only to them, and its formula is impossible to replicate. I don’t even believe there is a formula, in all honesty, at the risk of making it sound like I’m attributing their success to Luck alone.

You can check all the boxes of these artists’ success formulas and still find yourself drawing war machines for a Duke you don’t like just to put food on the table.

The point is that the dream of being the hotshot artist is the exception, not the rule. The notion of doing what you love for big bucks being chase-able in equal opportunity, has duped every art student into crippling study loan debts and a cycle of paycheck-to-paycheck survival.

The very fact you’ve been drawn to this article means you’ve some interest or stake in this topic, so I’m assuming you’re an artist or you know one, and you’re more than familiar with the whole dialogue of “Starving Artists VS. Art For Exposure Dollars.”

So I’m going to drop the unpopular opinion here about the real reason the world seems to hate us for making our dreams happen:

They think we should give up on our dreams because they gave up on theirs.

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I’ll probably catch a bit of fire for saying this, but if you think about it, it all falls into place.

As Artists, we aren’t really different from other people as much as we’d like to believe; this notion we have that we are ‘creative warriors trudging through a world set against our unique spark’.

In reality, we also have bills, a stomach to feed, kids, health issues that need money, etc.

Our eternal justification as Artists is that “we’re responsible living people too, we need to eat and keep others alive, so please pay us decently if you want us to draw for you.”

But let’s take a look at the non-artists’ perspective here. Most people are also working jobs they hate — multiple jobs some of them — to keep the lights on and food on the table.

That’s their reality, that’s what matters to them. It matters to us too, but the difference is that our dreams still matter to us as much as our reality does. So we find a balance to make both of these work.

For lots of others though, they may have previously been in a career path they didn’t pursue afterward because of a bad job market or disillusionment.

They may have had to work in retail, waiting tables or scrubbing toilets because of the cycle of crippling student debts.

So for these people i.e. MOST of the General Population, we Artists and our stupid butterflies must seem like a bunch of whimsical creative libertines who wear too much hemp.

This picture exemplifies EVERYTHING the public hates about the Artist. Photo: unsplash.com

It’s a matter of perspective here, and after I stopped being angry and started seeing things from non-artists’ eyes, I can relate to how they don’t see why they should pay to keep our dream alive, especially when they had to abolish theirs just to be able to live and stick around, only to see us prancing about.

It is truly a noble, rare soul that would want others to succeed where they did not, and make no mistake: the continued struggle of the Starving Artist is a painful reminder of their own sacrifices they long abandoned for survival’s sakes.

It’s On Us, The Artists, To Get Real

I feel I should say at this point that I am someone who is inherently given to the darker side of life. As such, I tend to make things sound dismal and unforgiving, but I hope that it becomes clear all I aim to expound is my own personal point of view, which naturally comes with its own biases. I hope that I’ve shown that with the darkness in sight, we can learn to overcome it.

There’s no way for an Artist to make a living without creating something of value.

Where the lines get blurred is when the definition of “value” becomes subjective. Of course our Art is valuable to us the artists; why would we have made it otherwise?

But the problem is exactly that: its value is most apparent only to us as its creator. How we communicate that value is on us, lest we keep creating in the hopes that someone one day sees the same value and pays for it.

In many cases, Artists are loathe to give in their ‘demands’ in exchange for a means of moneymaking.

“I may as well go work in Finance, then!”

It’s especially hard to break the mold when there’s tons of justifications and motivational speeches out there that tell you to follow your passion. Not to say that they’re wrong in their message, but the potential for that message to be abused for our own agenda is high.

At the end of the day, all businesses have their ROIs and KPIs, and our business, should we choose to accept it, is no different.

This can apply to selling Art to anyone. The key is to find value in what we do and communicate it.

If we don’t find a sort of reconciliation between our passion and survival, there’s a lot more unpleasantness in the alternative.

Irfan Yang

Written by

Illustration, Art, Freelance, Minimalism. Gluten-Free. Check me out at www.irfanyang.com