When artists give away their time and work for free, they serve to devalue the importance creative work has in our lives.
A recent article in Canada's the Globe and Mail has garnered lots of attention: When Iggy Pop can't live off his work and art, what chance do the rest of us have? While it poses questions about the moral dividing line of digital downloading, the larger issue is one of compensation for real value. How much do we value art? Creativity? Ideas? How much are we willing to pay for these things? According to Iggy Pop, "When it comes to art, money is an unimportant detail. It just happens to be a huge unimportant detail."
Of course, artists have a real role in how they define the value of their own work. Years ago, there was a magazine here in town that claimed the main "payment" for its writers was prestige and exposure. Meanwhile, the magazine sold the other side of those written "prestige" pages for big ad dollars. Someone was making money, and it certainly wasn't the writers. The new writers may have longed for the exposure, but by donating work to a for-profit magazine, they only served to devalue the work of all writers everywhere.
Just last week an organization called Working Artists and the Greater Economy (WAGE) set a standard for certification they hope will become influential in setting fair wages for artists all over the country. Arts organizations that are WAGE-certified agree to pay artists minimum fees based on the organization's income and expenses. WAGE lays out pay rates for everything from solo ehibitions to seminars.
For example, a lecture/workshop/seminar fee for an organization with $500,000 annual operating expenses would be a minimum of $250, while organizations with at least $5,000,000 in annual operating expenses would be required to pay at least $2,500 for the service.
This is a far cry from what TEDx pays for its speakers, which is nothing. Zero. Last year, an artist took to Medium to express why he won't speak for free at any TEDx event.
The defence that TED is a non-profit organisation doesn’t fly with me. I doubt this excuses them from paying the lighting guys, the camera operators, the venue hire, the catering. Why pay those staff but not the speakers? Just because you’re a non-profit organisation, doesn’t mean I have to be.
I’m not averse to speaking for nothing. I’ve done Cafe Scientifique, SciBar, Skeptics In The Pub. I’ve spoken at schools, colleges, universities. None of these were satellite events for a $6,000-a-plate conference. None of them wanted to brand my talk as theirs.
There's an argument that not everything has to be commodified, especially art and creativity. When art is for the public good, for example, what is wrong with giving it away for free? The problem then is that it becomes unpaid labor, an exchange mostly reserved for the privileged and elite. The problem then is it becomes more about personal prestige—an exchange of personal time and labor for a social position—than about the importance art, ideas, and creativity have to our livelihood. The problem then is that it is exploitation, and it makes art have lesser value than, say, some ephemeral plastic organizing container we buy at Target.
Yes, organizations have a role in defining how much they will actually pay for an artist's work. But by continuing to give it away for virtually free, we only serve to give more value to the things that don't matter. And we help reinforce the wrongheaded idea that art and creativity are hobbies, not something that has real value to our communities.