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Why Don't Artists Get Any Respect?

ARTS SHRINK is a bi-weekly column designed to answer questions from artists and arts groups related to their arts business and practice. The Arts Shrink brings two decades of experience as an arts consultant, teacher, and mentor to the table as she responds your questions.

Dear Arts Shrink:

I was born to be an artist and I have worked hard all my life to improve upon the talent I was born with. I take my work very seriously but am consistently confronted by people who tell me to "get a real job" or assume that I am irresponsible, or think that I should be thrilled to work for free and insane to expect payment for my work. What can I do?

-SD Musician

Dear SD Muse,

This is certainly a pervasive problem. I am often vexed by the bad treatment of artists and agree with you completely that artists are not always respected as they should be. And I'm sorry that the general perception of you and your work makes it harder to stay your creative course.

It is encouraging to know and important to remember that there are times when artists are held in the highest regard by the general public. Think back to times of tragedy -- 2001 comes to mind. Think about how we all instinctively turned to artists to help interpret unthinkable events for us. It was our singers and musicians, our writers and poets that we, all of us everywhere, wanted to hear from. It was our artists that gave voice to our national agony and helped make the incomprehensible tolerable.

On national and local levels artists are critical to our ability to properly heighten the importance of significant events -- weddings, funerals, graduations, and the like. This is a leadership role that can only be filled by artists and we instinctively looked to them in times such as these.

Now there are some specific challenges related to disrespect of artists that we should all work to address:

Language -- It's very difficult to verbalize why artists are important. Those of us who believe deeply in the importance of artists and their work often have a hard time articulating the reasons for our belief. We get some help from a Wallace Foundation funded report called "Gifts of the Muse" by The Rand Corporation. In this report The Rand Corporation attempts to identify the intrinsic value of art. The report suggests that individual benefits of art include captivation and pleasure; communal benefits include expanded capacity for empathy and cognitive growth; and public benefits are identified as the creation of social bonds and expressions of communal meanings (which I discussed above). I encourage all artists to read this report, at least the brief Executive Summary, and use it as inspiration to create personal language to use as a response to disrespectful comments.

Arts Advocacy & Public Perception -- While the intentions of arts advocacy groups are honorable, it's been my experience that the majority of their time and effort is spent advancing an arts-in-education agenda. As advocacy groups gain local and national prominence they are having a greater impact on public discourse and the general perception of artists. As the public becomes more familiar with (and accepting of) artists who work in schools or with social service groups, it will become even harder to articulate the benefits of artists who are committed to creating art for its intrinsic value alone. Make sure that advocacy groups in your area are not forgetting the importance of art for art's sake, or the importance of articulating its value.

Playing into Stereotypes -- I have, with some frequency, run into artists who have romanticized the notion of the starving artist. These artists happily accept that they will spend their lives in poverty. They further play out the role by behaving irresponsibly and erratically. They believe that the plight of the artist is to be misunderstood and their only hope is to become famous and beloved after their death. This is unhealthy behavior that not only impacts the artist in question, but also confirms negative beliefs held by the general public regarding artists. So stop it. Please. You're harming yourself and others.

This is a big issue that will take all of us working together over many years to change.

Do you have a question you'd like answered? Send an email here.

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