I had a long and fascinating conversation with the husband and Lucy Newlyn on Wednesday afternoon. Lucy is Professor of English at St Edmund Hall, Oxford, and used to tutor the husband, back in the day. We were talking about writing as a gift and the commodifying of the arts. She lent me a book on the subject called The Gift, by Lewis Hyde, which I have only just begun to read, and which might change my mind on the subject. In the meantime, I pointed her in the direction of my blog, “Why Buy the Cow when You Can Get the Milk for Free?”
It all got me thinking about artists... All artists, writers included, and it got me thinking about the way we wear poverty as a badge of honour, and the way we always have. We love the idea of the starving writer in his garret, and the starving artist who never sold a painting while he was alive. It is the stuff of our legends. We value more highly the writer who suffered the most rejections, whose walls are papered with them. (I can’t tell you how much hope that gives me.)
It doesn’t have to be about money, either. It’s OK to have money, just so long as we don’t earn it creating our art. We can earn money at our day job, and create art in our so-called spare time, but, do you know what that makes us? That makes us time poor. That separates us from our families, that denies us love and company. That makes us isolated and lonely. That makes us poor, sad, sorry fucks.
Let’s not pretend that isn’t good and romantic, and part of the artist myth too, though.
Best of all, are those of us who can do terrible, low paid, miserable day jobs and then not be paid for our art, either.
I wonder if anyone remembers a Scottish cabbage-cutter, who turned up on one of those terrible singing shows... I don’t know... the X-Factor, or similar. The producers made some hay with that story, didn’t they? Well, of course they did!
There is nothing more romantic than a starving artist.
I’m not sure whether it is just a British disease, but I can tell you that I, for one, suffer for my art, whether I’m paid for it or not.
When the work is good, it is most often good because I’ve opened a vein. Whether I’m working for money, or speculatively, I’m using the same skill set. I don’t stop being an artist because I’m being paid, and, when I finally get that book deal for my independent stuff it won’t stop being art. The first independent book I write that has an advance attached to it won’t be a different prospect for me from any other book.
|Starry Night by Vincent Van Gogh|
The intrinsic value of a Van Gogh hasn’t altered. He couldn’t sell his work when he was alive, but if he could have, would that, by necessity have compromised his artistic integrity? It might, I suppose, but a person can be changed by any number of things. Who knows, he might have done more and progressed, and, maybe, lived longer and developed as an artist, had he a patron and a full belly.
If I have some small talent, I’m sure it is a gift, but I’m equally sure that I’ve worked hard to nurture it, and I firmly believe that it has real value. I should not have to endure poverty of time or money, and I should not wear that poverty as a badge, because I happen to have a gift; that’s a form of martyrdom, surely, and that makes me uncomfortable.
On the other hand I won’t pretend that it isn’t a privilege to be able to do that which I love. It’s a compulsion of sorts, and it can be a huge drain on my personal resources, too, but I wouldn’t change what I do and I am grateful for it. If I can share that, I will. I will give of my time and energy to write my blog and answer questions about writing. I will sign books and attend conventions. I will talk to readers and I will very, very happily encourage writing.
I do not remember the husband ever turning down an invitation to visit a school or to be interviewed, to turn up at a convention or to sign his name on anything and everything, to answer a question or to have his picture taken or do pretty well anything, and a very good deal of it unpaid. Last year he took six whole days off, total! He’s time poor, but it’s not because he doesn’t earn from his art, his gift. The husband is time poor, because he shows his gratitude for his gift by giving back.
I can’t help thinking that’s a very much healthier attitude to the question of being paid for your art.