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from the Annual Austin, (The Guardian), 1994

When I wrote about Artist’s earnings, I knew it was a continuous problem, but I wasn’t aware quite how long discussion had been going on. The PEP/Dartington report on The Visual Arts (OUP 1946), in a section entitled The Livelihood of the Artist has the following to say:

“In the last census, 1931, some 10,000 people in this country described themselves as artists. The majority were either amateurs with private means or had other sources of livelihood. Today not more than seven hundred painters and thirty sculptors earn a living by their art. Of all careers theirs is the most hazardous. Though this artist is a professional man, and, like others of his class, has undergone a long and costly training, there is no diploma at the end, except those for teaching, or any measurable standard of professional competence. There are no firms for him to join, no partnership or practice for him to buy. More than any other professional, he is thrown back on his own resources.

Probably no other profession gives so much free service to the community. Owing to the practice of free admission to exhibitions, initiated probably by the public art galleries but obtaining now at almost all dealers’ exhibitions, the public expects to see and enjoy the artist’s work for nothing. C.E.M.A., [The Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts] however has set an important precedent by paying the artist a hiring fee for every work he lends to one of its exhibitions. £5 is paid for an oil painting, £3 for a water-colour, drawing or embroidery, and sculpture is paid for at varying rates. Well over £1,500 has been paid to artists in this way.”

CEMA, before you ask, turned into The Arts Council, but whether it still pays its exhibiting artists I don’t know. The issue of the lack of diplomas was dealt with by the NDD, superceded by the Dip.AD. This last was supposed to be degree equivalent, but its graduates who went into teaching did not get the same pay as University graduates. Worse still (and one of the reasons for the Hornsey and Guildford and many other art school Sit-ins in 1968), the Dip AD catered only for an elite minority, with the majority of students in the so-called ‘Vocational’ courses, which were supposed to produce skilled artisans, but which in fact produced people with exactly the same skills, who applied for exactly the same jobs. Artists and designers now get degrees: the situation otherwise hasn’t changed much, except that, with the extension of higher education, there are probably as many trained artists around now as there were amateurs in 1931.

So who is going out to bat for these ‘hazardous career’ artists, who get very little back for their labours? After I wrote my last blog about earnings the DACS annual report flopped through the letter-box. So I emailed them to ask if they could intervene in a copyright problem artists are having with the Sainsbury Centre. (Briefly, the SC had solicited photos of local artist’s studios, to be exhibited as an adjunct to a prestigious (and very enjoyable) exhibition called The Artist’s Studio. No fees were offered, but we then found that our studio photographs were being exhibited without attribution -so that the public could not identify the artist). DACS answer was clear and unequivocal:

“As a copyright collecting society we manage the copyright of our members and as such we offer advice on copyright and related rights. We are not a trade association however and cannot therefore offer the type of intervention that you are seeking. Trade associations representing artists are the Association of Illustrators and the Association of Photographer[s].”

In the long run we really do need a ‘Trade Association’, or Trade Union, as I prefer to call it, to represent the general interest of all members, and to fight on principles, as well as to represent individual cases. As to the Sainsbury Centre problem, watch this space.

I recently read Jeremy Gavron’s book  An Acre of Barren Ground, (Scribner, 2005)  which is a fine book. One chapter, entitled People’s Restaurant, relates the history of the group of people who maintained the magazine The Worker’s Friend in the early years of the 20th Century, in the Brick Lane area. I found this a deeply touching story.

I had a parallel, if less dramatic, experience of left journalism.
For some years (in the ’70s and ’80s) I was a member of the Editorial Board of Voice of the Unions (now absorbed by another publication). The Board met monthly and established the contents of the next issue while we diligently wrapped copies to be sent to subscribers. The paper was non-sectarian – in principle anyone on the left of the Trades Unions could contribute, though there was a twitchiness about the Communist Party (referred to as the CP, or King Street). This was curious, because the secretary to the board, the redoubtable John Spencer, was generally considered an old Stalinist.  But he was so tirelessly energetic and totally committed to the Labour Movement, that without his ceaseless badgering the paper might have foundered.

Although John had been in England for many years, he still had a pronounced German accent. One of his habits was to take what anyone said quite literally, so if you said “ring me up any time, John,” he would quite likely ring you at 3 am “Yes, hallo David” in the immediately recognisable rising tone, and surprise if you showed any irritation. Another habit was to use emphasis all the time, so that his copy had one, two, and three line underlinings, as well as capitalisation and  multiple exclamation marks: everything was so emphasised that nothing stood out at all, and the typesetters had a hard job setting it. He wrote articles over a host of aliases (some of them borrowed from VI Lenin) – but so did many people in those days, including at least one now senior politician, who could not afford their employers to know the views they were expressing. Consequently some issues of Voice were almost entirely pseudonymous, with large articles by the likes of ‘Fred Spratt’.

I usually wrote over my own name, though I may also have been Fred Spratt on some occasion.  As we rotated the editorship, and the editor had control of the edition, a number of hobby-horses galloped through the paper – Esperanto, Morris on Art, Police and Army Trade Unions, alongside the perennial concern with Trade Union and Party democracy, worker’s control and co-operatives. I tried to leaven the text with occasional drawings when it was my turn, but I soon realised that I didn’t have the ability to encapsulate a funny idea in a funny line – the ability that my old friend David Austin had so strikingly.

drawing for an article on Tebbit's White paper on Youth Training, March 1982

The best fun to be had was writing the satirical Durruti Column. The only feed-back was from other Board members: I never met anyone outside who read Voice, though I suppose someone must have.

When I was about to join Voice, I waited outside while my candidature was discussed.  The Board were exercised about another candidate who was alleged to be a  Maoist.  In a pause the Chairman said, “How about David, then: where does he stand?” Another Board member said   “I believe he’s some kind of anarchist”
“Oh well that’s all right then,” said the Chairman; “Now about this Maoist problem…”

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