This was a Guardian headline: it was in fact about museum charges, but all the same it is a good question. The answer is, NO.

 

The great majority of living artists make no money at all: the lucky ones cover their costs. By ‘artists’ here I mean creators of visual or visual /tactile works produced for their own sake, as opposed to the (no less estimable) ‘designers’ who make works to satisfy specified criteria for clients who commission the work in advance. There is a perennial debate about boundaries and what constitutes which. (By extension I also point to all creators of content)

 

In my lifetime I have known very few artists who made a living from their art. Peter Iden from the middle of his life (see my past blog); Terry Frost late in his life…. Like Terry, many artists have made an income from teaching in Art Schools & Departments, but reductions in part-time staffing must have greatly reduced that number. To restate it as emphatically as possible, most of the serious artists I know do not make more money than covers the cost of their activity, most of them living on other work or a pension: no-one I know makes a living wage from their art. We are, in the real sense of the word, amateurs: we only do it because we love it, or are addicted to it, which makes us entirely out of step with the times.

 

Does this mean that there is no longer a demand for visual images, or at any rate, for visual images made by artists? Contrariwise, technological change has enabled a much greater consumption of visual images than was possible in the past. These images used to be mediated by printing and printed media, via a long-winded (but loveable) technology which produced books, newspapers and magazines. Television first broke the monopoly of that technology, followed by other means of instant transmission. The new technologies have also enabled a vast mining of visual material in time and space. You only have to think of the way in which artists mined the visual material of Greece and Rome, using their own drawing via time- and skill-consuming media like etching, and then the way Picasso, Braque, Modigliani etc mined African art, to see that that ease of access has enormously increased the amount of visual material available to any individual. You might think this increase might remove the need for current origination. But no: the demand for new images , new ways of looking at the world, is increased rather than marginalised.

 

Partly this results from what we could call the Many Mansions and Wallpaper phenomenon. There are now an almost infinite number of spaces (Mansions) in the house, almost all of which require a visual element (Wallpaper). In the present world the visual component, which used to be freestanding or an optional extra, has become an essential. Sound is also an optional addition, but, so far, less essential than the visual. Some of us are paid, some of the time, to provide the visual component.

 

Artists are caught out by habits which were appropriate in the past, I mean that we present our reproduced images for free in order to advertise our unique objects; but the terms of trade have changed, and it is the reproduction which is now the valuable commodity. To take a current example, an original Auerbach painting may well be priced north of two million, but his images are dispersed through the media and are consumed, apparently for free, by millions who could never afford his unique object. For most of us, whose unique objects sell very far south of two million, a small incremental payment for each view or reproduction would be liable in aggregate to produce more than returns from sales of the unique objects themselves. This may seem a truism: what is new is its reinforcement by a massive change in technology. Some return comes from the use of our reproduced work in print, or on TV etc, , (though the terms of trade are not very favourable), but little or none flows from the Great Gobbler, ie the Internet. We get even less than musicians, which is saying a lot.

 

One central problem with the Internet, which admirably sets out to make everything available to all, is that a generation has grown up believing that content is, or should be, free for consumers, leaving creators of content marooned high and dry away from the tidal flow of income, which is what everyone else uses to buy the means of life. Well, you can have free content, and when you have done plundering the past there will be no new content, as the creators will have died out. Or you can pay for content and have living creators. You may try to shade it, but it’s that stark a choice. For those of us who are artists, or who want art to continue, there is only one option: to compel the new distributors of content to pay its creators the full fruit of their industry. We would not begrudge distributors their own fair reward for distributing, but we object to their taking 99% of the cake.

 

The traditional way, and still the best way, to confront this problem is through Trades Unions -with the proviso that here once again the new technology changes things. We no longer have the concentrated work-forces who made up the powerful industrial unions with their self-reinforcing ethos of solidarity in the work-place. We do however have instantaneous networks, a different form of connectivity, but potentially just as powerful as the old one. We need a confederal union for all creators of content, and one which transcends national boundaries as the distributors do, so that creators can enforce fair pay for work done. Such a system will not emerge overnight, but it will have to emerge.

 

Meantime the answer to the question “Should Art be Free?”is an emphatic NO. Art is work, and if you want live art, you must pay living artists.

 

 

18 01 2016

 

 

 

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