LivingArts: Exposed

Recently I came across a fascinating viral video created by Toronto based advertising agency Zulu Alpha Kilo (if you haven’t seen it I highly recommend giving it a watch) in which we follow one man as he attempts to persuade professionals who do not work in the creative sector to work for free.  Their responses range from confusion to shock and even anger. Watching this video and seeing it bounce around my social media feed caused me to reflect, not for the first time, on creative work and what it’s worth.

“Exposure is something you die from,” my friend quips. I haven’t heard it phrased quite like that before and I can’t help but laugh. A photographer based out of Toronto, she often goes to the Toronto Zoo between jobs and takes fabulous photos of the animals there. One such photo attracted the attention of a resort in an exotic location who contacted her asking to use the image on their website. When she replied with a cost their response was not to negotiate the price but to offer her credit for the image in some fine print and “exposure.” They even had the nerve to seem surprised that she had expected financial compensation. It’s not the first time she has been asked to offer her work for free nor is it likely to be the last time. Most artists are no stranger to being asked to work for free and having it presented as a privilege. I commiserate with her and we reassure each other that our creative work has value. We state the obvious: if they were able to find her work she has done her job to get her name and images out there, and if they want her image then obviously the work she does is useful, desirable and therefore valuable. She refuses to let the resort use the image for free. 

It’s not the first or last time I have had conversations with artists from various fields about working for free. It’s a difficult subject because there are many fabulous projects that have little or no budget that would never get made if all artists refused to work without financial compensation. However, there is also a persuasive argument to be made that feeding into the expectation that artists ought to work for free devalues creative work in general.  I think part of this expectation comes from a deeper underlying perception about artists as workers.

“I admire your talent,” I say to one of my musician friends. I smile, having intended it as a compliment but he frowns and sighs. He can sing, play the piano, the guitar and other instruments and writes beautiful music with moving lyrics; he is undeniably talented. However, he explains to me that “talented” isn’t a label that he finds flattering. “Talent” is something you are born with, a predisposition towards a certain skill, but a predisposition will only get you so far. Becoming a good musician takes years of dedication, commitment and training. “Talent” is not earned, it is merely a matter of luck. “Skill” on the other hand carries an assumption of effort and learning. No one would tell a chemist that they are “lucky to be so talented,” he asserts and I have to agree. Language is powerful and I take his explanation to heart. “I admire your skill,” I rephrase and this time he smiles back.

Imagine if artists were viewed as skilled labourers by employers and society in general on par with workers that have a technical or scientific passion. How would that change the way we view the value of art in our communities, our education system and our lives?  We can certainly start with our language. We can talk about “arts workers”, “skilled artists;” we can start the discussion about art as valuable work.  

Recently I came across a fascinating viral video created by Toronto based advertising agency Zulu Alpha Kilo (if you haven’t seen it I highly recommend giving it a watch) in which we follow one man as he attempts to persuade professionals who do not work in the creative sector to work for free.  Their responses range from confusion to shock and even anger. Watching this video and seeing it bounce around my social media feed caused me to reflect, not for the first time, on creative work and what it’s worth.

“Exposure is something you die from,” my friend quips. I haven’t heard it phrased quite like that before and I can’t help but laugh. A photographer based out of Toronto, she often goes to the Toronto Zoo between jobs and takes fabulous photos of the animals there. One such photo attracted the attention of a resort in an exotic location who contacted her asking to use the image on their website. When she replied with a cost their response was not to negotiate the price but to offer her credit for the image in some fine print and “exposure.” They even had the nerve to seem surprised that she had expected financial compensation. It’s not the first time she has been asked to offer her work for free nor is it likely to be the last time. Most artists are no stranger to being asked to work for free and having it presented as a privilege. I commiserate with her and we reassure each other that our creative work has value. We state the obvious: if they were able to find her work she has done her job to get her name and images out there, and if they want her image then obviously the work she does is useful, desirable and therefore valuable. She refuses to let the resort use the image for free. 

It’s not the first or last time I have had conversations with artists from various fields about working for free. It’s a difficult subject because there are many fabulous projects that have little or no budget that would never get made if all artists refused to work without financial compensation. However, there is also a persuasive argument to be made that feeding into the expectation that artists ought to work for free devalues creative work in general.  I think part of this expectation comes from a deeper underlying perception about artists as workers.

“I admire your talent,” I say to one of my musician friends. I smile, having intended it as a compliment but he frowns and sighs. He can sing, play the piano, the guitar and other instruments and writes beautiful music with moving lyrics; he is undeniably talented. However, he explains to me that “talented” isn’t a label that he finds flattering. “Talent” is something you are born with, a predisposition towards a certain skill, but a predisposition will only get you so far. Becoming a good musician takes years of dedication, commitment and training. “Talent” is not earned, it is merely a matter of luck. “Skill” on the other hand carries an assumption of effort and learning. No one would tell a chemist that they are “lucky to be so talented,” he asserts and I have to agree. Language is powerful and I take his explanation to heart. “I admire your skill,” I rephrase and this time he smiles back.

Imagine if artists were viewed as skilled labourers by employers and society in general on par with workers that have a technical or scientific passion. How would that change the way we view the value of art in our communities, our education system and our lives?  We can certainly start with our language. We can talk about “arts workers”, “skilled artists;” we can start the discussion about art as valuable work.