The Artist’s Paradox

Image by Just some dust Used under a Creative Commons license.

Image by Just some dust
Used under a Creative Commons license.

That kerfuffle a few months ago about “how to manipulate and cajole employees that you consider to be irrational children” got me thinking about a theory I’ve been refining for a while now. I call it “The Artist’s Paradox” and it goes like this:

According to the non-creative, artists are magical people. They have been blessed with supernatural abilities; they simply wave their hands and art falls from their fingertips. Incredible concepts and beautiful visuals spring full-blown from their foreheads like Athena from the mind of Zeus. They can’t help but create wonderful things every waking hour, and it gives them incredible joy and satisfaction to do so.

Because this ability is a gift from the gods, the artist has a moral responsibility to share it freely with anyone who asks. Asking for money for “just a little sketch” or “just a quick logo design” is selling out, a betrayal of the gift; the artist must never personally profit from his talent lest he prove unworthy of it.

Here’s the parodox: the instant that art leaves the artist’s possession, it somehow transforms into a valuable commodity; it can be sold, published, exploited, recontextualized, licensed and distributed by any and all means from silk-screened t-shirts to the Times Square Jumbotron, and each time it’s used, somebody has to pay the owner for it. He owns it, and he gets to regulate it any way he sees fit. Each of those users, in turn, is allowed to profit from the use of that art, selling products or promoting events.

The only person who is  never to profit from the art is the person who created it. Artists are supposed to work for the love of it, for the dedication to their craft, or from their desire to express themselves.

And now here’s the truth: Artists are not magical people.

Remember way back in second grade, when everybody drew pretty much equally as well? When everybody was about as equally talented at music or writing or any other creative endeavor? We all drew, and we all liked doing it. Over the next few years, a funny thing happened; we all started falling in love with different things. Some of us found that we liked reading. Others loved math. Some found that writing was more fun than reading. Some devoted themselves to sports. Others became fascinated with music or drama or comedy or dance. And some of us liked art. Almost as important, we discovered that other people liked our art and gave us attention. By the time we got to sixth grade, there were only a handful of us in each class; girls drawing unicorns and designing dresses in their notebooks, boys drawing superheroes or funny animals, a few of us even taking painting lessons and learning about fine art. By the time we got through high school, the self-proclaimed artists in our graduating class could all ride to the ceremony together in the same minivan. What happened?

We didn’t discover some inner magic; you stopped trying. While you were doing the things you loved, we did the thing we loved, and we got good at it. That’s all.

But that doesn’t mean it’s easy. Sure, we learned some shortcuts and trained our hands and brains to move in certain patterns, but we still have to work at it. Just as with playing a piano or pitching a baseball, there are skills we needed to have and knowledge we needed to acquire. Creating art is no more magical than creating a spreadsheet. It’s a set of skills and a way of looking at and thinking about problems, and it’s something we learned how to do over a long period of time. Just like you, we found something we were good at, worked hard at it, studied, trained, and got better at it.

And now we expect to get paid for it.

If it helps you to feel better about yourself to believe we do it by magic, that’s fine. As long as you’re willing to pay for the result.

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4 Responses to The Artist’s Paradox

  1. quiltzyx/sue says:

    All magicians should get paid. Ask one of those guys in Vegas with their name on the marquee.

  2. I totally agree with you! Artists work very hard to produce their work and deserve to be paid. I have found that many do not charge enough!
    I loved drawing as a child and was good at it, but as you say other interests took over. I now struggle to produce a good work, but one appears now and again. Only by practice will it improve. 😉

  3. rich says:

    Not all magicians should be paid. I mean seriously, have you seen Chris Angel’s show?

  4. Steve Walker says:

    Ever get asked to donate a piece if art to a fundraising auction?
    The only person who cannot deduct the value of a donated work of art from their taxes is the artist who did it.
    Hell, even the buyer at the auction gets to deduct what they paid for it, as though they didn’t get something for their money.
    Next time you get asked to donate art, write them a check for $25. You can deduct that.
    One fundraiser I participated in lined up corporations to purchase the art. The corporation deducted what they paid. The auction buyer deducted what they paid. I got paid. Way fairer.

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