The Economic (Self?) Oppression of American Artists

Sep 16, 2010


David Ian Moss (Fractured Atlas, Createquity) recently published an article talking about his own journey as a musician who chose to go to business school.  In the article he discusses how individual artists (specifically composers and musicians but the issues apply to all) work in an extremely challenging economic landscape where the lines separating artistry and business acumen have long since been blurred. However, as a whole our engagement with issues of financial sustainability is lacking at all levels (personal practice, education, service organizations, etc.).  From his article:
What changed me the most [at business school] was the exposure to an endless panoply of other areas of human life beyond contemporary classical music. Sure, I learned about assets and liabilities and how to read a cash flow statement, but I also learned about the auction for 3G wireless ranges, competition between Target and Wal-Mart, why Turkey is an emerging power player in the Middle East, and how colleges and foundations manage their endowments. [...]

In the course of this sudden immersion into what the rest of the world thinks about and does on a daily basis, I came to realize that my former existence had been focused like a laser on about 0.00001% of everything that matters. It was like the veil had been lifted on my life: the choices I faced when I voted in an election or needed to buy produce or searched for an apartment to rent or, yes, chose a graduate school had all been determined by somebody, or more often a collection of somebodies acting in somewhat predictable ways. It became clear to me that I was never going to have control over my own destiny unless I had the capacity to see and understand the external forces that were influencing my circumstances.
Thomas Cott, from the always interesting You've Cott Mail email list, frames the article slightly differently and asks a very important question:  Why don't more artists join conversations about the future of arts?
I can't tell you how many conversations I've had about the future of the arts in the past couple of years in which no actual working artists have taken part. Sometimes the absence is noted, but more often it isn't, and one is left to conclude that the health of the field is something that only arts administrators care to talk about. (Perhaps that explains why only 11% of the money funneled through nonprofit arts organizations in this country actually goes toward paying artists.)
In his commentary, he concludes with:
Lack of attendance at national conferences is understandable -- travel expenses can add up -- but these days, thanks to live streaming, blogs, Twitter, etc., it's often perfectly possible to be part of the conversation without being there in person. Meanwhile, there are probably numerous local panels, lectures, and networking opportunities at your disposal -- and if there aren't, what's stopping you from organizing one yourself?
This reminds me of an interesting story that a friend told me about her recent experience training in São Paulo with Augusto Boal's company.  One day the instructions for a project perplexed her:  She was asked to create a performance based upon her own personal experience of oppression in her home community.  As an American, white, Ivy-league trained,
straight, artist, activist, and scholar from New York City (owns her own apartment), she paused at first because she was aware of how privileged and fortunate a life she leads.

After some difficult reflection, she finally hit upon a feeling of oppression that felt authentic and visceral: the constant sense of fear, paranoia, self-doubt, scarcity, and instability she and all of her artist peers feel on a daily basis.  Once she said that, I immediately recognized that in my own art practice. I feel it when I spend two years of my life making a work of art, and the first (or second thing) arts presenters ask is, "Can you do the show with six people or less?"  To which I respond, "Well, if we cut the musicians the absolute minimum we can do the show for is..."   I feel it when I hesitate to ask for larger artist fees.  I feel it when I loose my collaborative team because they are getting paid more money to do other "professional" work.

In examining this question about why artists are not frequently engaging in matters of financial self-determination and leadership, Both Cott and Moss mention the responsibilities of the individual and the institutional.  However, in much of the burden falls upon the individual.  As much as I think artists need to:

more conferences
start blogs
start Twitter/Facebook/Ning social media strategies
get jobs as arts administrators
innovate new sophisticated live real time forums to annihilate the barriers of space and time to reach more audiences
do it for free
start a small business
apply for grants
participate in city/state/federal politics
create local resource sharing cooperatives

... that doesn't leave much to make art, let along investigate an idea you may eventually want to make into art.  Indeed, the notion of art practice has change just as much as the notion of labor has changed in this maturing information and ideas economy. Perhaps the conflict of "Pro" vs. "Am" is tethered to a receding model of artistry that is fixated on individual "pieces" or "productions", as opposed to a constant feed of action and dissemination?

Via You've Cott Mail.  Read the full article by David Ian Moss at the NewMusicBox website

Image by Mark Hagen and Olga Koumoundouros, from Journal of Aesthetics and Protest

Tags: You've Cott Mail, David Ian Moss, Theatre of the Oppressed, Augsto Boal, finances, money, sustainability, economics, artists, composers

Sub Categories

ARTISTS: Business of Arts
ARTISTS: Issues & Ideas