Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez was the leading artist in the court of King Philip IV, and one of the most penultimate painters of the Spanish Golden Age.
The photograph of the enigmatic Las Meninas above hardly does his talents justice. It’s a powerful composition that both references the act of painting itself, and its mediums.
When examined even closer, viewers can see that Velazquez painted how human eyes actually see.
His excellence was, and is, staggering.
As a graduate of massART with a focus on art education, I’m aware that there’s always something (socially, politically, economically) darker between the fat and lean of oil paint.
But we’re not here to examine these contexts in the frame of the past.
We’re here to examine how businesses convince creatives of the lie that they can’t survive without them.
Corporate Needs What You Have, That It Can’t Do
As a successful freelancer, I left the corporate working world for a series of very specific reasons:
- I wanted the freedom to choose when to work, who to work for, and what to work on.
- Too many jobs saddle 1 person with the responsibilities of 3+.
- I value my time as sacred, and know it’s worth more than corporate is generally willing to pay me.
- Sitting in a cubicle for 8 hours is damaging to anyone’s health.
- The benefits just don’t cut it anymore.
Corporations aren’t people, laws be damned.
They lease the time, the skills, and the minds of people, to make money.
Because they must make a profit, and people at the top want the most profit, they undervalue those that ‘do’.
They couldn’t possibly survive if they paid everyone what they’re truly worth, which in my humble opinion, is worth more than fiat currency can articulate.
At best, the employer / employee relationship is symbiotic.
It’s up to the people that run corporations to make this relationship beneficial to all parties involved.
At worst, it’s leech-like.
We don’t need to settle for this anymore.
The Gig Economy, at its basis, attempts to be a panacea to this problem.
If you want to learn how to be a back-end developer, there are free courses to help you.
If you want to create an app, there’s almost nothing stopping you, but the time it takes to learn some skills.
If you want to ditch Upwork, Freelancer, or any other portal, it’s possible to use Social Media, Content Marketing, and Networking to do so.
If you want to go from agency work to being a solopreneur, you can do that.
If you wish to pick up a trade, and start your own self-employment journey, that’s entirely possible.
It’s right there, people have done it before you, and are more than willing to give you a roadmap.
I’m aware that many people can’t make this shift to a self actualized career path, and that it’s explicitly challenging to run your own business.
When you have mouths to feed, less access to resources, and less time, it can often be impossible.
If you don’t feel confident you can learn something new, or perhaps it’s incredibly challenging for you to, this can seem insurmountable.
Going solo is also just not attractive to some people.
I get this.
However, Diego Velázquez beckons me to come back to this idealistic concept, always:
They made creative ‘project’ work for others that requested their specialized skills as contract workers.
I have no doubt, because great art can’t be rushed, their time was not ‘leased’ as corporate leases time.
They were freelancers.
I also have no doubt that they were paid for ‘doing’, sans middlemen, especially since court painters sidestepped painter’s guilds.
Regardless of who was commissioning who, and under what pretenses, this working model looks very different than contemporary employ.
Velázquez, and those like him, give me pause.
If workers can own the means of production, run their careers on their own terms, and cut out the middlemen, this is a form of workforce rebellion.
I’m in full support of overthrowing systems that don’t work.
…And yet, rebellion is always co-opted in the end by middle men trying to bank off of it, isn’t it?
Art Galleries Are The Ultimate Middle Men.
They are just another flavor of businesses leasing skill.
To be plain, some art galleries support artists. The small ones created by artists themselves definitely have the artists’ best interests in mind.
Art Galleries founded out of love for art, with deeply invested Directors, do this too.
Despite that, art galleries always felt to me like they were, at least a little bit, predatory.
For that reason, I never felt at home in Boston’s bustling art world when I attempted to join it so many years ago.
A kind gallery director, who was stepping down at the time, was very enthusiastic about my work.
He attempted to nurture me through the gallery he was leaving, but pearl-clutching prevented it. In his words, my work was “before its time” for Boston.
Each attempt created a similar roadblock, or talked of ‘sales’.
As I learned what gallery ‘sales’ were, I saw ‘commission fees’ ranging from 30% — 50% per art sale.
If they took that much, I thought, they’d need to be very good at selling and marketing to make any of this worthwhile.
I’ll never forget the time a Gallery Owner specifically asked me if my work could yield “$10,000”.
As he pointed out several smaller works that were similar and comparable, but definitely different, I said: Yes, sure.
He shot me down.
I didn’t get it. Galleries were made to support artists, even new artists, right?
They marketed the work, so they could yield the prices they wanted, right?
I would go on to mingle with other excellent peers who ran small pop-up shows, and have plenty of art shows around the world.
But this idea that a business decided the worth of art (subjective), then could take 30% to 50% of a sale, and not be incredible salespeople, hit me too hard.
You can sell ice to New Englanders if you’re any good at it. There was no excuse here.
The art market is run not unlike some insider trading Wallstreet fiasco:
I left the art world then, for reasons Adam Ruins Everything outlines above.
And because middlemen could be, and often were, predatory.
Just as I left corporate, and never really tried with Upwork.
Creatives don’t have to play these games anymore — galleries included.
Upwork Does Not Empower Creatives, It Steals
Its business model is based on skimming around the edges.
I am not unsympathetic to business owners. There is a fundamental reason I stay small, work predominantly with Startups, and would go to bat for a few rad digital agencies:
They are run by good people who need help, and I like helping good people.
But large businesses, although run by people, boil down to objectively predatory practices after enough time passes.
Such is the nature of Capitalism.
Platforms like Upwork are probably the most parasitic entity in this article.
Upwork relies two streams of revenue: Upwork Standard, and Upwork Enterprise.
I understand profits need to be made. But I am unsympathetic to middlemen that don’t actually offer much value.
As platforms like Upwork lend themselves to being the Amazon of Freelancing, other freelancers devalue their skills to compete.
One could say it’s the freelancers’ fault, but that ignores the very nature of the ‘race to the bottom’ mentality of Capitalism.
Because of this ecosystem, everyone but Upwork loses.
Even the clients lose, as they’re picking cheap options that often lead to cheap results.
The second revenue stream is Upwork Enterprise, which is for larger clients.
Fees are based on a subscription model, “calculated as a percentage of the client’s spend on freelancer services”, and should clients subscribe to compliance offerings, yet another fee.
This is also on top of the service fees paid by Freelancers.
As you can clearly see, this business model is that of skimming off the top of what others pay for, and others do.
These types of business models can be symbiotic, but they often aren’t.
Freelancers don’t need to use them anymore.
The internet is the great equalizer for us all.
We all have this power now. Yes, even you.
Do not let anyone else tell you, developer, copywriter, marketer, graphic designer, that you are not an artist.
In the words of the great German artist Joseph Beuys: “Everyone is an artist.”
Just as artists no longer need galleries to sell art, freelancers no longer need freelancer marketplaces.
Workers don’t need parasitic working relationships — it’s a candidate’s market, even if corporate doesn’t realize it yet.
I propose we imbue the Gig Economy with the spirit of rebellion it aimed for:
Learn your skill. Own your time. Market yourself. Demand your worth.
Don’t bother with middlemen who take more than you give.
If you don’t know marketing, take a course in marketing. Understand how to sell the brand of ‘you’.
That’s the last piece you’re missing.
You can do it with your own hands.
You’re a maker, aren’t you? You can do this.
You do not need middleman industries capitalizing on what they can’t ‘do’.
They don’t have what we have.
We need to find good places to work within, with, and for, and actually own our creative power.