For Artists; a Primer of Poverty and Power.
Advocating for fair and tangible compensation for artist’s time and labor isn’t the goal in and of itself, but the first step in empowering artists and artist communities. Our goal isn’t to secure the means to subsist within the limited resources of the non-profit sector or from their token awards. Even if non-profits had such resources they haven’t the ability to disburse a living yearly income to artists equitably or for any secure amount in the future. Besides that, non-profits were meant to serve the neediest as an adjunct to government social services to the public in exchange for funding from its wealth provided by the public share of taxes – not to enrich individuals or promote institutional dependency.
Wealth isn’t simply the power to purchase goods and services; it’s also the leverage to bargain or negotiate. If a poor person wishes to make a purchase they’re at the mercy of the person who sets the price, whereas when a wealthy person asks the price they’re in a position to bargain towards multiple or future purchases or to make his purchase elsewhere. In fact, the wealthy person needn’t even commit to a purchase to make a bargain offer. They simply make it known that they have the ability to make a larger purchase and advise other wealthy friends to do equally as an investment towards greater profits for themselves and the merchant. This is the power of wealth.
Wealth isn’t just money; it’s also resources such as assets and forces that are the equivalent of wealth. Legal access and political representation are also the equivalent of wealth and power. It’s why corporate entities and the owners spend a significant portion of their wealth on lawyers, lobbyists and donations to political candidates to protect and insure their wealth. When a labor union negotiates a contract with the company as a legal representative of its membership, it does so with the combined wealth as equivalent labor (production) the union holds as promise against the company’s projected profits. (Unions historically bargain first for benefits paid in the long term such as retirement and insurance benefits, safety standards, sick leave and vacation time equal to income and prior to wages the value of which may fluctuate from year to year in the short term.)
While there are a handful of exceptions, by and large artists have been and remain members of the poor or lower middle-class. Apart from occasional sales, whatever dependable income they claim comes largely or exclusively from secondary employment. Whatever wealth artists accumulate is generally spent maintaining themselves or their family’s basic needs. There is no such thing as combined artist’s wealth. One artist’s wealth does not enhance the overall wealth of an artist membership or community. Apart from their secondary occupation artists cannot claim benefits; health costs would be borne directly by the artist from their own pocket. There are no pension funds for artists. As we all know, competition for individual grants and awards are highly competitive as are teaching jobs. Moreover, such jobs, grants and awards pay but a fraction of an average yearly income even when they can be obtained; none of which is ever secure from year to year. Apart from whatever income they can claim, many if not most artists are in debt for their art school education which is a standard prerequisite for all teaching jobs and most other art-related white-collar occupations.
Most artists own no property, at least until well-after the ’emerging’ stage or that isn’t inherited from their or their spouse’s family. Most artists couldn’t afford to be artists without family or spousal support. This is particularly true of women and artists of color. A single artist/mother is almost unheard of. For them choice to be made between family and profession is ever-present.
Artists in the U.S. have no legal protection other than general copyright and no combined political influence. In copyright cases and cases where artists have been defrauded by art dealers most artists are unable to hire a civil lawyer and in rare case where there is litigation it make take years for the artist to receive even partial damages. While it can be said that most artists support liberal causes and liberal candidates especially where support for the arts is an issue legislation to support artists directly or to protect artist rights in the U.S. is nowhere to be seen. Any such arts legislation is directed to protect the art industry of collectors, dealers, and institutions, not artists, and more often to their detriment. The benefits of arts legislation to artists may very well be characterized as belief in a “trickle-down” effect. Artist communities are not critical to political endorsement and despite the common notion that art has any influence on political change there is no proof that this is actually the case. If we cannot change our own livelihood or the condition of artists in general then what credibility is it we possess to effect the condition of others?
Like everyone else in the ranks of poverty we have no wealth, no protection, and above all no real leverage to exert change for our own benefit.
Needless to say we are powerless as individuals until we unite. Simply making art or banners for other causes will not substitute.
The first step towards unification comes when we first qualify our presence to demand fair and tangible compensation for our time and labor not just for ourselves but for every artist. This is where real power begins.