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August 2, 2007

Art for money or money for art?

Bridgette Redman

Our readers often inspire me as much as our colleagues. Something that resonated with me this week was Steve Durbin's comment on Joe Nickell's post. He said that "people work for their passions, as well as for money." I'd have to agree with him. I'm not sure there is anything other than passion worth spending one's life blood and precious time for. I know that one of the reasons I do corporate writing is to subsidize the type of writing that I want to do--including arts writing.

Someone whose work has long resonated with me is Dorothy Sayers. She once wrote a play dealing with the topic of work and why we do it. Given that she considered art to be her work, I find it particularly germane to the discussion that has been going on here. She argued that we need to "estimate work not by the money it brings to the producer, but by the worth of the thing that is made."

Certainly artists and journalists alike will often say that they are called to a higher purpose than simply a bottom line. I need to make enough money writing so that I can continue to write--which means feeding my family and paying my bills. I'm not writing so that I can get rich (I wouldn't complain if that were to happen, but that would be a pleasant side effect, not the end goal).

Many artists would tell you the same thing. They're not creating so that they can become filthy rich, they're creating because they have to. To not create would be to psychically damage themselves. There is economic necessity that must be met, but as Sayers promotes, payment should be that which allows people to continue doing the work that they're doing.

This is often at odds with the capitalist society we live in. It's certainly at odds with the exaltation of acquisition above all else. It's perhaps where art often suffers the most as it is difficult to "possess" a performance.

When I was very young, my father was careful to ensure that I could distinguish between political and economic systems--and, because it was in the midst of the Cold War and we attended what I later learned to be a very conservative church--that none of them were good or evil; they were just ways of doing things.

However, our culture doesn't always draw such fine distinctions and we often try to apply our economic system to our politics and our politics to our culture. Rather than allowing them to influence each other as part of an ecosystem, there is a tendency to force one system's philosophy upon the other, to believe that what works for one will work for all.

Art suffers when we force upon it the same economic model that businesses operate under. If their goal must be the making of money rather than the making of art, they're going to fail. This doesn't mean that artists can be oblivious to economic factors or lack in all business sense, but it does mean they must choose their model carefully. How they manage their finances will say something about who they are and whether their art will be sustainable.

Art has traditionally relied much on government support and money from individual and corporate donors. There is an understanding that not all art will be commercially viable and succeed only through the price paid by those who consume it. We've accepted this because there is a societal value that far outweighs the burden of cost that any individual can afford to bear.

Indeed, like education, society reaps the benefit of art even when it is not the direct consumer. My life is made better when my neighbor goes to the symphony, even if I do not. As a member of my community, I want to see our communal dollars support what benefits all of us. I want to live in a society where people share a commitment to creation and to connection. Those are things that will spill over into politics and economics. Those are the things that will bring about a better world.

At the NEA Institute last winter, Ben Cameron talked about how theaters make communities a healthier place. He quoted a study that said high school students who have been in a single play are 42 percent less likely to support racist behavior than those who have not.

If arts were to operate on a purely capitalist model that encourages greater consumerism, it would miss out on its higher calling and the calling that makes it truly relevant and of value to the community.

The money has to be there, but it can't be the reason or the goal. Rather it is the set piece which makes the play possible, not the story itself.

Posted by Bridgette Redman at August 2, 2007 7:51 AM

COMMENTS

Thanks for this thought-provoking post. I saw Ben Cameron speak a few years ago and it really got the audience thinking about the non-capitalist values of the arts.

When we can't quantify the benefits of arts participation with economic arguments, we sadly often end up getting tagged as 'elitist' in preaching the arts' intrinsic benefits. Yet such benefits could apply to everyone, not just to those who can currently afford the arts. Values such as community building, pride in accomplishment, overcoming stage fright, and the like are critical benefits to people who make theatre. They're also key to understanding why theatre artists do theatre. Walking a mile in a character's shoes can teach an actor to think against dominant cultural constructions of race and gender to give two examples. It's important for arts practitioners to stand for something, to articulate what it is we wish to accomplish within the hearts and minds of our communities, not just in relation to their pocketbooks.

Posted by: habeas at August 3, 2007 9:28 AM

The blessing and the curse is that those working primarily for passion are generally working as individuals, while those working primarily for pay are organized by the source of the money. It's not an easy task to find, edit, or aggregate the voices that speak to you. But it is, I think, a job that arts journalists are well equipped to perform.

Posted by: Steve Durbin at August 6, 2007 6:17 AM