Nothing romantic about living in squalor


Arts Funding Guide cover imageWhen I add up my freelance income relative to the hours of labour spent, it amounts to a pitiable rate, especially compared with what I receive for any unskilled casual work I do. After a mind-numbing day at a paid job, I sense the cosmic injustice that the hardest work I do has so little monetary value.

Yet when something I have written — some excrement of months of research and creative labour — gets published and well-received, I feel vindicated. On days like that, I can look at my bank balance without weeping. Money buys practical things like socks, but socks are not the reason that people create.

Simon Crean's new Creative Partnerships initiative will pump $75.3 million over four years into the arts. It has awarded great funding packages to certain large arts organisations such as the Malthouse Theatre and Circus Oz, and proposes funding models to make it easier for philanthropists to reach the arts sector.

It has been well-received, even if it is a more-of-the-same, funding-career-administrators-and-educators-and-leaving-artistes-to-their-hellish-squalor kind of model.

Creative writers have always encountered poverty as a workplace hazard. As Wallace Stegner wrote in his 1959 essay 'To a Young Writer' , 'you will always be pinched for money ... it is not a new problem'. Now that most newspapers have failed to find workable financial models, lifestyle writers and journalists are joining these same lowly financial ranks.

Professional writers are being asked to work for free, even for profitable private enterprises like The Atlantic, who no doubt paid Stegner well for that essay. Last week, an email exchange exposed by journalist Nate Thayer circulated in which The Atlantic had commissioned a piece to be repurposed by Thayer, and then implied that the privilege of the wide circulation they could offer should be payment enough for the established journalist's work.

Artists have been cultured to believe that their profession is both a choice and a privilege simply because the value of their labour exists outside of the free market.

I question the extent to which people really choose their talents, interests and commitments. I was raised by an artist whose whole family are artists, and they are not daft enough to have simply chosen to do what they do and accept the harsh financial realities. To suggest art is a 'privileged choice' is to shame and marginalise artists.

Art can be a satisfying occupation. But artists cannot live on self-satisfaction alone. Who will support them? All state-led cultural funds, including Crean's, are bound to be problematic, simply because they need to determine and ascribe value to art, and their agendas can inhibit movement within the arts.

The conversation about what writers are worth goes far beyond the idea that the internet 'broke' a profit model. This is a historically unresolved social problem.

Last year Jeff Sparrow ignited the case for better unionisation of creative labourers, criticising writers for their neoliberal working lives. Although I support the idea of a stronger union for freelance creatives (the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance 'national freelance rates' are an unimaginable 93c per word!), I do see the necessity of individualism in one's creative life.

There is a difference between most unionised professions and artistic ones, because artists will make art regardless of whether or not they're getting paid. Very few plumbers would unclog my toilet for the love of it. So a neoliberal market can't account for the value of art, but nor can a highly regulated industrial environment.

The benefits of a thriving arts culture are difficult to quantify, but it is instructive to look to societies which don't have them. Under fascist, theocratic, or otherwise autocratic political systems, the arts stagnate, and artists are persecuted unless their work breathes life to propaganda. The state is generally bad at determining the value of art, because the state will always have a specific mandate which a lot of art needs to be free from.

There might, then, be some value to Creative Partnerships' private-public model in reducing the state's cultural mandate within the arts. However, the report which informed it states that philanthropists 'are interested in how the arts can be utilised to support positive whole of community outcomes'. Philanthropists, too, have agendas.

Even within the unionised-creative-labour model, there is room for free work. I think of working for free like making the decision to have children: you commit to a great deal of labour, time and money, it feels thankless at times, but is ultimately rewarding. The crux of this analogy is that free labour should only be entered into if there are rewards in the transaction, and never if you are contributing to someone else's financial gain.

Many grassroots arts communities I'm involved with will be left out of Crean's package, unless AusCo deigns to bestow them with cash (unlikely), or their local MPs see their work being as valid as a shopping-mall Australian Idol. These organisations are young, critical, and wildly creative; they organise and publish and perform without funding (unless you recognise Centrelink as an arts funding body). One day they will need to start getting paid.  

Ellena Savage headshotEllena Savage is a Eureka Street columnist and editor of Middlebrow, the arts liftout in The Lifted Brow

Topic tags: Ellena Savage, art, journalism, Creative Australia, Simon Crean



submit a comment

Existing comments

As a fiftysomething, long-term recipient of Newstart, there is something less despairing in perceiving Centrelink as an 'arts funding body', and myself as a struggling artist and not a mature-age semi-skilled office worker who has been thrown on the trash heap to meet an invisible death.
Anita Joy | 14 March 2013

Thanks for this, Ellena. So very true.
Sara Dowse | 15 March 2013

The arts are perceived as surplus to requirements in tough economic times. Take the new Royal Adelaide Hospital that is being built, it has had the budget for art and design kyboshed by politicians and administrators seeking to cut corners. This aspect of health care is so very important, for all who walk through the doors and surrounds. Yet the perception is that art will just happen for free.
Jenny Esots | 15 March 2013

I remember seeing and hearing Stephen Soderburgh say at the Academy awards that he wanted to thank all the creative and artistic people throughout the world because without the Arts 'life would be unendurable". Unfortunately that is not and has never been reflected in the value society places on the earning power of the creative person. Everything you have said is so sadly true and accurate. And as one who didn't "choose" to be an artist but simply was genetically programmed to be such it was certainly not an indulgence. Sometimes I think society wants to pay creative people less because even though they are entertained, stimulated and amused by them they are also jealous of what they see as arbitary "gift" - as if that should be enough for us. They never see the hours of practice research training etc that goes into any creative work. Mind you if you think writers don't make much money - try knitting for an income!
Ann Beatty | 15 March 2013

I think that arts in Australia should only be funded by private enterprise so that our hard earned tax dollars don't have to pay for it.
Wayne | 17 March 2013


Subscribe for more stories like this.

Free sign-up