Thursday, August 19, 2010

Is Art a Living or a Hobby?

Over at Matt Yglesias' blog Chris Walla leaves a comment about the music industry:
Don’t ever assume that just because Flagpole Sitta is in your head or on your radio that those guys who were Harvey Danger must be rich, or even that they have an apartment.
Whether or not that assumption is true in the realm of rock music, it's pretty false in the arts. You can basically assume that unless you're talking about the biggest of big stars -- the Radioheads or U2s of theater -- they're probably scrabbling around for money. Outrageous Fortune had that to say about playwrights -- in the words of Ian Moss:
Holy Moses, it’s depressing. The numbers as presented are pretty stark: more than 60 percent of surveyed playwrights bring in less than $40,000 a year from all sources; more than half of that income comes from sources unrelated to their work as a playwright; and a mere 15% of their income comes from actually writing plays. Even the most successful of all playwrights, we’re told, are lucky to earn as much as $20,000 a year over an extended period of time from playwriting itself.
This makes some people sad and angry. Other people have Don Hall's reaction:

You can make a living as an artist in commercial voiceover, on camera industrials and commercials, in film, or as a teacher, but the only people at 95% of the theaters in Chicago making a living in the THEATER are Administrative people not the artists.
My only quibble with that is that, if you mix the administrative and artistic (i.e., self produce), you might be able to make a living. Or you might burn yourself completely to the bone and still not be able to support yourself.

So, is this a problem? Mission Paradox isn't fazed:
So often we equate "I can't make a living doing my art" to "the arts are in crisis". One thing can be true without the other being true.
And that's a valid point. I recently read Culture and Urban Revitalization: A Harvest Document, which essentially made the following argument: the "arts" are struggling and having a hard time, unless you expand the definition to include unincorporated, loosely organized, volunteer-based groups. In other words, until you include hobbyists/community groups.

Is this a problem?

Having started a theater company (shameless plug!), I have to say, people have not been treating me as a hobbyist. People ask me if being a "small businessman" has changed my opinion on taxes (no it has not). People have, strangely, treated this as a serious endeavor. Maybe that's because people haven't been following the economics of this...

I understand, on a factual level, why the economics shake down this way.

My question is this: do we think of musicians as hobbyists? Clearly a majority of them are; most people who are tooling around with music don't expect to make a full time pay on busking, or playing at the pub on the corner.

Do we think of amateur filmmakers as hobbyists?

Do we think of visual artists as hobbyists?

When people observe that teachers have a lot of trouble making ends meet, it's a social justice problem. We don't consider "teaching" a hobby; largely because it's universally accepted that teaching is a requirement for society, and that we can't have quality education without people whose lives are devoted to teaching, and thus they need to be able to support themselves.

On the other hand, if we were to find out that futures traders have trouble making ends meet, it would not be a social justice problem. They would just go do something else, and we'd probably be thrilled. After all, they don't help.

I'm genuinely asking this question because I'm torn between the two. Is art a living that people should be able to support themselves on -- and thus, the poverty that attends to it is a social justice problem -- or is art a luxury and the people who work on it hobbyists? I'd like to hear more of the arguments on both sides. How should it be?