In America, there are only three markets less regulated than finance: drugs, sports, and the arts. At least 1% of this country makes it work because of their investments. But in these three fields, the people who make it work are 1% of the field itself. Not being an athlete or a drug dealer, I have no real knowledge of how to cure those markets to make them more equitable. But having continually made lame attempts at being a financially subsistent practitioner of the arts, I think I have some idea.
Those who are successful stand to make millions, tens of millions, hundreds of millions of dollars - encouraged by market forces to only do material that’s tried and true, and those who are marketable within it make more money than they’ll ever know what to do with. The rest of us are occasionally lucky to make a middle class living - getting a regular job with an orchestra, or a regional theater, or doing technical jobs on film, or getting regular commissions from galleries, or designing clothing that a couple rich ladies want to wear. But surely this is only 10% of people who want to make a living as artists and artisans in America. Perhaps another 30% make a living from teaching their art to people who have no real interest in it, remunerate them inadequately, increasingly give them no real health and insurance benefits, and spend what should be the most productive years of their careers tied down to a system that designed so that they cannot make any of the art they wish to make. The rest of us, if we’re lucky, feed on small scraps, we might eke out a lower-middle class living from gigs, plays, commissions, and wedding photography/videography. But most of us can’t even do that. God knows what else we have to do to make it work, and all of us certainly learn that it’s not pretty, but let’s not kid ourselves: The paltry amount of time we get to do what we want is usually not worth the amount of compromises it takes to make that time. Many, perhaps most, of us have to go to school to learn our craft, and accumulate vast quantities of debt which we eventually can only pay off by leaving our fields and getting a ‘real job.’ And God alone knows how many talented artists and artisans are dissuaded by circumstance from ever exploring their creative selves properly.
The arts are a real job for real people, responsible people who pay their taxes and contribute to society in a manner that no other field can. All artists and artisans want to do for you is to make your lives more beautiful, more meaningful, more civilized, more livable. The arts serve no real function for society except to make the society better. The worth of our society should be judged by how much we can pursue what makes us happy. The worth of our society to posterity is judged almost solely on the joy its art still brings to our descendents. The more we leave behind, the more people after us will value who we were.
But part of the problem is that most artists, like most drug dealers, most potential athletes, and most people who work in finance, are grotesquely bad at what they do. The incompetence of our field is staggering - a waiting pool for amateurs who go into the arts because they’re not good enough to be competent in anything else. If you go to medical school, you have to learn all the necessary tools. If you don’t, the patient dies. But in the arts, we say that anything at all can be art, and the result is that most people consume commercial crap that soothes their souls to the point that they can be effective consumers, nothing more. While the rest of us sit patiently in shows that demonstrate nothing but masturbatory pandering to a small audience who is there more for a social outlet than to expect any kind of artistic revelation.
Artists are doctors of the soul, and being an artist should have all the rewards, and all the responsibilities, of being a doctor. It should be a high-paying, white collar, upper-middle-class living, with its practitioners trained for years and licenced to practice their art by their competence. They should be pillars of their communities, respected, perhaps venerated, but never truly worshipped and paid like celebrities. Proven incompetence should result in revoking an artist’s licence. How do you prove incompetence? Well, there are facts in the arts just like there are facts in anything else. Writing and distributing a song with only three chords should be banned unless the artist derives special permission from an Art-Review-Board for such a dangerous practice. So would any painting of a ship, or any improv comedy. Artists who want to create avant-garde work should have to obtain a licence in which he or she demonstrates competence, outlines the project, and all the potential expenses, from which the review board would issue a grant based on the value they deem to it.
Artisans should be nurses, trained to fulfill the directives of the artist in the safest possible way, and remunerated with a solid, middle class living (though would that all nurses made a solid, middle-class living…). Artisan-nurses should be able to go to school for a bit more time and become an Artisan-practitioner, with all the directives of a non-specialized artist. Upon graduating, artists would do a residency within their field, and the field could be as general as composition or painting, or as specific as bassoon composition, or wax figurines, or sock puppetry. The artists could then collaborate with other artists in other fields to realize projects that require the competence which they have not attained.
As always, there will be giants and stars within every particular field, who have more opportunities than anyone. But the playing field will be so evened, and the product so much better. Please, somebody in Washington, find a way regulate the arts already and put us all out of our collective artistic misery!