If we value art, we must support a basic income

It’s a tough world out there for artists. Not the celebrities — they’re doing just fine— but the mass of undiscovereds, and even some of those whose hit single you may have heard on the radio, are struggling. Support for the arts has been cut over the past several decades, and increasingly we feel music, movies, books, and other forms of art aren’t worth paying for because the digital files that hold them are so easy to copy. This article isn’t an attack on the masses for how the pricing of art is changing, but instead one to present a new away to fund art, and to finally free artists from the income trap.

It’s not just artists who are struggling, but as work becomes more precarious and atomized for the mass of workers, artists will undoubtedly feel its effects, possibly even worse than most people. The reason for this is that to pursue a creative path almost guarantees uncertainty in the most stable of economies and job markets. Income is rarely stable for artists, and they’re prepared for this, but as the whole economy becomes more unstable, the situation gets far worse for the average artist, the one who may have a little success here and there, but overall finds it hard to depend on their craft to survive.

A recent piece in The Atlantic observed that the career path, if that term is even applicable, of the artist is in the middle of a rare evolutionary period. It is changing from its previous designation as a profession to a more precarious situation: that of the creative entrepreneur. This is causing not only the creative process of the artist to change, but it also alters the character of the the art that is produced.

…the multiplatform, entrepreneurial artist [will] be more vagrant and less cumulative than under the previous models. No climactic masterwork of deep maturity, no King Lear or Faust, but rather many shifting interests and directions as the winds of market forces blow you here or there.
Works of art, more centrally and nakedly than ever before, are becoming commodities, consumer goods. […] Artists will inevitably spend a lot more time looking over their shoulder, trying to figure out what the customer wants rather than what they themselves are seeking to say.

We can debate whether this is a positive or negative development, but we can’t debate why this is occuring: art is being commodified like everything else, and the source of income of artists is becoming increasingly precarious, resulting in artists—or “creatives” — having to adopt a whole new process; one that inevitably favours mass-market appeal and mainstream sentiment over the kind of art and ideas that challenge the status quo. This isn’t to say that the former type of art shouldn’t have a place—it most definitely should—but we shouldn’t place the artist so directly at the whims of market forces. There must be a better way to support artists so they can be free to create the works they feel are essential, not just those that will be popular with consumers.

The past shows us there is such a model, though it may need to be slightly altered to reflect to present social and economic conditions. Speaking to Socialter, author and anarchist David Graeber made the following observation about what helped the twentieth century British music industry to thrive.

Back in the 20th century, every decade or so, England would create an incredible musical movement that would take over the world. Why is it not happening anymore? Well, all these bands were living on welfare! Take a bunch of working class kids, give them enough money for them to hang around and play together, and you get the Beatles. Where is the next John Lennon? Probably packing boxes in a supermarket somewhere.

Graeber’s certainly not the first to make such an observation, but his example is illustrative of the problem with our current model. As social supports have been cut and made more difficult to access, it’s become harder for the talented among us, particularly those in the lower classes, to live up to their full potential. Instead of being able to rely on social supports to develop their talents, they’re pushed into the income trap like everyone else: forced to do unfulfilling work to earn the most meagre of incomes, or risk facing the heartless ignorance of a society that fetishizes labour and believes punishment is a better solution to destitution than compassion. This approach not only takes time away from the artist that they could be using to develop their artistic vision, but foments a sense of alienation that makes it difficult to find the energy for such tasks. It turns the brilliant into zombies of the corporate machine, eventually consuming their hope, and making them feel their creative goals are unrealistic dreams.

If we value culture as a core pillar of our societies — which we should — then we need to find a new way of funding the arts that works for the creative entrepreneur and encourages the growing movement toward independence from traditional gatekeepers. Welfare worked for the artists of the latter half of the twentieth century because it covered basic expenses and was quite easy to access, which is no longer the case. However, the solution can’t be to reinstate welfare as it once was. Not only would it be a tough sell politically, but it’s a step backward. Welfare worked for the social and economic relations of the time, and since such relations look quite different in the twenty-first century, there needs to be a programme that addresses the modern challenges.

When the unique issues of the creative entrepreneur are considered, it becomes obvious that the best solution is to adopt a basic income. Artists face increasingly unstable and unreliable incomes, which the basic income would address by providing an income floor that would cover the basic costs of living. This also serves to free creatives from complete reliance on the market, allowing them to choose whether to make a work commercially-appealing, or to create pieces that communicate a message that might challenge prevailing sentiments and ideology.

A basic income also supports the choice of artists to be independent of gatekeepers, and to both create and distribute their works on their own terms. As incomes become increasingly precarious, artists could be forced to further rely on gatekeepers in an attempt to gain some income stability during the creative process. The predictability of the basic income frees them of this worry.

Survival is becoming more difficult for artists in the same way it is for the mass of people. As they become more dependent on the market for their incomes, the nature of their work must change to become more palatable to consumers, which potentially robs art of its ability to be critical of the mainstream. A basic income would be a transformative policy shift that would not only grant stability and freedom from the income trap, but it would lead to a thriving cultural sector, reminiscent of the period many of us look back on as a golden age of musical talent. This reason alone should be convincing enough to push us to adopt it, without taking into account its far broader benefits when the wider society is considered.


Want more in-depth look at how these social and economic changes are affecting musicians? A Music Industry for the 99% examines how labels are exploiting artists, the alternative paths for independent musicians, and the policies that could promote a new music industry. It is now available on Amazon, iBooks, and Kobo.


Paris Marx writes about the growing divide within the capitalist system, the movements for alternative forms of economic organization, and ways of living that challenge traditional narratives. He occasionally makes videos on YouTube, and is very active in sharing news and opinions on Twitter.

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