So, I am an artist. An artist is someone who makes art; by extension, if you make art you are an artist.
Looked at in a particular light, this seems pretty great. Being an artist is just about making art. You don’t need to sit a test or go to an interview, you don’t necessarily need any money or support. At any point in my life, no matter what happens, no matter what goes wrong or falls through, I can still be an artist, I can still make art.
This, in my darker moments, functions as a good way to quietly tell myself, ‘don’t worry, it’s all going to be ok’. But actually, this vision of the artist pursuing some insatiable romantic passion for self expression is, to a large extent, a comforting fantasy.
I think this for a number of reasons. For one, art is an inherently social pursuit. Artists do not work alone, they rely on a large outside network for support, whether it be from funders, institutions, galleries, tutors, students, friends, communities or audiences. There are certain things without which an artist can’t sustain themselves, can’t keep wanting to or being able to make art.
The other problem with this vision is that it seems to suggest that people can go ahead and become artists, without the official validation you would grant to a practicing doctor or lawyer for example. But if this is the case, why isn’t everyone an artist? Why isn’t the art scene jam-packed with people who have been rejected from all the more elitist career paths?
This romantic vision of an artist against all odds also functions as a very convenient fall-back for artists not being paid or not being paid properly. It’s the idea that this is what you do, this is your passion, therefore it is not our responsibility to pay you for something you are going to do anyway.
In many ways my experience has been a conflict between these two ways of understanding the role of an artist: how does the art as passion butt up against art as a job? I find being an artist is a constant push and pull between your own and others understanding of these reasonably muddy distinctions, between a romantic and a more practical understanding of this profession.
I am reasonably early in my career, so there is a lot I have not experienced. However, when it comes to the issue of getting paid for my work as an artist, I can think of very few instances in the last seven years in Scotland where the fee for the show or commission has paid me at least minimum wage for my time. The majority of work I have done has been for vastly below minimum wage.
I wonder if this comes back to the romantic idea of art making. The fantasy of the artist is someone who spends their days being creative, doing what they want to do when they want to do it. There is a bit of this, of course, but there is also an absolutely massive amount of labour. There are huge expectations put on you in terms of quality, meeting extremely tight deadlines, replying to emails, writing texts, doing interviews, and loads more. This should be treated like work you would do in any other job.
I’m not just blaming galleries and funders, though. I have never told anyone I’ve worked for the anticipated number of hours a project will take to complete. Artists need to be responsible for standing up for themselves in these situations as well as standing up for other artists. By working for free you are also perpetuating a culture where that is acceptable.
Would it help if there was more openness around talking about these things? If when you are offered an exhibition and express interest, there is then a negotiation around the hours involved for the artist and how that can be managed financially? And if the gallery can’t afford the fee at present, maybe the show is delayed until the artist and institution can work together to figure out a way to apply for or generate funding? I think artists are scared to express these reservations because they know that they can easily be replaced by someone who is willing to work for free or for little.
I have had experiences with galleries saying, ‘Here is the fee, this is what we pay everyone’, as if that makes it fair. But I don’t think paying everyone the same is fair. If one artist is giving permission for a gallery to exhibit a touring show and another one is making a newly-commissioned work, then the fee should reflect this difference.
Is there something funders can do about this? Can there be specific funding that is given to institutions that can only be spent on artists’ fees? And can funding applications be challenged or rejected on the basis that they don’t allocate enough money to artists?
Increasingly middle class
As part of this discussion, it is important to recognise the factors that are contributing to an increasingly middle-class art world. I am no exception. Both my parents are teachers, I went to a good school and I have had (in times of not being paid for work) the opportunity of financial help from my family. For recently graduated artists, I would say (going on anecdotal evidence) that your chances of being able to survive the first five years of your career have a huge amount to do with whether or not your family can afford to help you if you run out of money.
The kinds of people who become artists shape what art is. When going to an art gallery I think that people often look for themselves within an artwork, for something that reflects their experience, that they can connect to. Hopefully this recognisable thing is then projected back in a new light, from a new perspective, shifting your understanding of what you know or what you think very slightly or maybe even quite profoundly.
However, if the majority of people making art have had similar experiences in life, then you might also imagine that those points of connection and recognition become narrower too. That a less diverse artistic pool makes for a less diverse audience, for fewer possible points of engagement, recognition and connection.
In our culture the visual is not an add-on extra, a give or take thing that we could easily live without. It is essential to understanding our world and communicating with one another. Almost more than ever the world around us communicates visually. Images, both still and moving, are incredibly powerful in allowing us to share and mould our identities and experiences, and equally in allowing businesses to share their products and in turn mould our desires.
Studying visual art at school and art college, as well as going to art galleries and learning about art, helped me to develop a critical understanding of the visual world that as a young person, and maybe a young woman in particular, is all consuming.
What we are doing within the arts and art education is more that just a nice thing that makes life that bit more interesting. It is absolutely fundamental to developing a visually literate society, a society where people from all walks of life are able to read, critique and challenge their experience. And how we think about artists – and yes, how we pay them – is intrinsic to ensuring this happens.
This is an edited extract of a provocation commissioned by Creative Scotland and delivered by Rachel Maclean on 11 February 2016 at the Creative Scotland Visual Arts Sector Review, Playfair Library, Edinburgh
Rachel Maclean’s new film, Feed Me (pictured top), is featured in British Art Show 8 and is currently showing at Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh, until 8 May 2016
For information on a-n/AIR’s Paying Artists campaign, visit www.payingartists.org.uk
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