LATE LAST YEAR I published an essay in LARB focused on success in the arts. In that essay, I presented a sizable sample of the available data on artists’ earnings. My purpose was simple — to try, in some small way, to cut through decades of false mythologies that persist in every corner of the arts and that significantly impact artists’ life choices.
Knowing that many artists have no real information about the earnings of others in their fields, I hoped that presenting people with this catalog of facts would allow them to think differently about some of their future choices. As luck would have it, the essay ran just a few days after Donald Trump was announced as the next US president — a climactic moment in what many describe as the long, slow death of facts. The irony of the timing was not lost on me.
Artists have always had a complex relationship with facts: challenging their meaning, dissecting their sources, refracting the information across differing viewpoints. And that’s important work, to be sure. But I was surprised when someone approached me shortly after the essay was published about a speaking gig. Even though my essay emphasizes that certain notions of success, particularly consistent monetary rewards, are almost entirely unattainable by the vast majority of artists, this person asked if I would talk about how artists who have achieved financial success managed to reach that goal. In other words, he wanted me to tell him how he and others could be the exception — how they could be the 0.002 percent.
There’s something deeply American about that response, and incredibly revealing about how much winning at the game of capital is tied up with many artists’ conscious or subconscious motivations. Certainly many readers will have at least a passing understanding that the high-end visual arts marketplace has largely become a cash-bloated status contest for the wealthy, but I’m not talking about that here. I’m focused on artists themselves, not the markets. And I’m talking about artists working across disciplines, not just in the areas that attract hedge funds willing to store paintings in offshore containers in anticipation of future profits. Artists across fields, even fields with notoriously low earnings, still believe that money equals success. We all know that very few people win that particular game, but we’re convinced there’s a way for us to beat the odds. And we cling to that belief, even when it harms us.
Here in the United States, we’re steeped in these stories from childhood: the underdog; the Horatio Alger figure; the courageous individual who surmounts challenge after challenge to win it all. But you’ll notice it’s never a story about changing the odds — about making it less hard for more people to succeed. We never seem to flip the script. We prefer to believe in one of the most poisonous and persistent myths the United States has to offer — that our society is a meritocracy. And the American arts suffer enormously under this yoke. We are told over and over that if we work hard and do a good job, we will be rewarded. But “doing a good job” in the arts is not about how well you put together a machine or a spreadsheet; being judged worthy of attention or money in the arts is tied up with our very being, our beliefs and worldviews, our identities — the sources many of us tap to generate art in the first place.
A perfect illustration of the link between judgment and self in the arts is acting. The rewards of acting in most cases have nothing to do with how well you can act and everything to do with whether or not directors think you look, sound, and move in ways that suit their vision of the stories being told. And nothing so perfectly exemplifies the results of that judgment as the recent #OscarsSoWhite campaign. The paucity of roles and recognition for actors of color is nothing new, of course, but that campaign was a clear, succinct, and well-timed moment of popular consciousness-raising that revealed the lie behind the notion of a meritocracy.
At the other end of the spectrum, orchestras have attempted to eliminate bias by having players audition behind a screen so that those selecting cannot see the instrumentalists, judging them only on the quality of the music they produce. This practice was specifically adopted as an acknowledgment of bias and to help increase the number of women and people from other underrepresented groups. But that doesn’t account for the years of work that led up to the audition: all the not-blind sessions, lessons, subtle and not-so-subtle cues from people around you, and differences in taste and musical preference that might have caused you to choose an entirely different musical path — one that likely won’t result in one of the ever-shrinking number of salaried gigs.
That isn’t to say this effort is misplaced, far from it — orchestras happen to practice one of the few art forms where it’s possible, at least in part and in certain settings, to separate the product from the person who produced it. But the vast majority of the arts don’t function that way. Our identities are heavily bound up in our art and the ways others receive it. And identities are tied up heavily with real and perceived cultural differences. The simple fact that there are numerous salaried gigs for orchestras and multiple organizations endowed to support them, as opposed to punk rock, reggae, or indigenous music groups, tells you where the bias truly lies.
Of course, it should be pointed out that many artists of color — as well as women and trans artists, among others — have long known that the meritocracy was a lie. But that myth is internalized so deeply within many Americans and those who seek out this country, that it quietly and subconsciously drives our actions and beliefs, even when we know it’s a lie. It’s tied tightly into the knot of internalized capitalism that tugs on countless little strings within us: making us believe that our value as human beings is tied to our work (or, more precisely, our earnings), whispering to us that, without earnings, we have no value — that poverty, like wealth, is deserved. And if we just worked harder, if we just did better, we would get out of poverty, earn more money.
But that just isn’t true. If there is no significant money in the field you want to enter, or there are thousands of other people there already (which is the case in pretty much every field today), or the folks in charge don’t particularly like you or your perspective, you simply will not be able to sustain middle-class or better earnings over the course of a career from your art-making alone. Period. That has nothing whatsoever to do with your output or your value. And, as I said in the previous essay, time and again you will find that the people who appear to be making substantial incomes from their art alone for long periods of time are often deliberately or tacitly hiding inherited or married-into wealth and privilege, or are quietly running side businesses to keep their finances afloat.
That last point gets to the other deeply insidious American myth — we are all each other’s competition in a zero-sum game. The net effect of that internalized belief is that we isolate ourselves. We pull back into our shells, our studios, our small corners; we hunker down, we hide. We don’t share information with one another and we lean on rumor and suspicion because so many people, particularly those in power, are obscuring or deliberately hiding the facts. This leaves everyone ripe for exploitation.
That exploitation can take many forms, from students shouldering $250,000 in debt for an art school education, to artists accepting discounting schemes in galleries that leave them with virtually no real earnings, to aspiring talents agreeing to work for nothing — or next to nothing — in well-funded arts organizations where everyone else is being paid. This is the diabolical nature of capitalism. By keeping people in the dark, making them think everyone else is competition, you keep them separated, and you keep them from effectively advocating for themselves.
I’ve told this story before, but it bears repeating: back in 2012, I tried reaching out to artists who had participated in the Whitney Biennial to find out if they got paid. I knew they hadn’t, but I needed to verify it. I didn’t manage to get in touch with every artist in the show, but most of the ones I was able to connect with, after confirming that they weren’t paid, followed up by asking me if they were the only ones. In other words, they were asking: Did I get duped? Was it just me who took a bad deal?
What’s heartbreaking about this is that they could have easily talked among themselves, but they didn’t. Of course they didn’t! It’s completely understandable. I doubt I would have spoken to anyone in that situation before I started spending so much time writing and thinking about this stuff. This is the United States, and the message of internalized capitalism is that you got paid nothing because you are nothing. This message is particularly diabolical because it wreaks havoc on people’s sense of self-worth when they continue to be denied money and access.
But there is a long-standing and highly effective counter: sharing information and building alliances among groups of colleagues. And the reality is that, in the arts, these efforts have been well underway in various forms for a really long time. We don’t even have to start from scratch. From early guilds that began centuries ago, to labor unions for artists (they exist, many over 100 years old), to professional organizations, to contemporary groups like W.A.G.E., these groups offer members the chance to talk shop about their field and to access sample contracts and minimum fee schedules. They also serve as leverage against exploitative business practices.
You are not better off alone. And if you think you are, you are kidding yourself and ignoring decades, if not centuries, of history. I’ve seen collective action and information-sharing make change just in the time since I made those calls to the Whitney Biennial artists. It’s not enough to try to negotiate a deal alone in a room. If you have no idea what everybody else is doing and what they’re really making, then you have no idea where to start and where to go.
But there’s also something much bigger going on here, and it has to do with what I said earlier about flipping the script. So often people think that the way to win at being an artist is to figure out how to navigate this incredibly complex and foggy world on their own. We’re told to go to professional development courses; local arts advocacy groups across the United States offer them by the bushel-load, promising to show you how to market your work, how to package your brand, how to write a grant, how to rub that person’s belly while patting the back of that other one, all while increasing your output and doing it more cheaply than you ever have before.
I can remember going to a number of these workshops and coming away with staggering to-do lists. Work harder, be better, spin faster, and do it all on your own. Never did I go to a professional development workshop where someone said, hey, the odds are really, really shitty, why don’t we think about changing those odds. And I have yet to hear of an arts organization that preaches that particular gospel.
So, in lieu of that much-needed organization, I would like to take a moment to make that very suggestion. The reality is that you can always make art. Ideas and inspiration are not a zero-sum game, far from it. And you can always share your art. You do not need a MoMA or a marketing plan or an agent. Those can be nice and helpful, in some settings, but they are not even remotely necessary.
What you do need, what is absolutely necessary, is reliable shelter, food, water, and, if you don’t live in a hospitable place, clothing. You also need access to healthcare and some of the basic materials of your art form. Which is to say, you need to be able to meet your basic needs and not fear that those needs could suddenly stop being met tomorrow. And we all need a more level playing field when it comes to the control of power and wealth, so that more of us have more ways in.
In other words, I would like to suggest that, more than individual professional development, what we need to think about right now are other areas of development. I would like to suggest that the secret recipe for success in the arts is comprised of the following ingredients, rather than anything mentioned in the countless get-rich/famous-quick books that make so much money for their authors:
- universal healthcare;
- universal care for children, seniors, and those with special needs;
- free education and vocational programs for all, from preschool through graduate school;
- affordable housing for all;
- redistribution of wealth through taxation, reparations, and universal basic incomes;
- redistribution of political roles to demographic groups that have been systematically excluded from those roles; and
- workers taking ownership roles in the companies and organizations they work for.
This assumes, of course, that we can find a way to keep the Earth habitable well into the future. Because, you know, if we can’t do that …
All of which is to say that there are a lot of false narratives out there working to sabotage our efforts, wanting us to think there’s only one path to success and only one vision of what it looks like. Knowing that there are a handful of people who have won the game of capital doesn’t actually improve anyone else’s chances. In fact, chances diminish as inequality grows. However, history and the examples of other countries indicate that the ingredients listed above can actually help increase the chances for far more people. And I think it’s high time we start focusing on that rather than paying hucksters to sell us empty promises of wealth and stardom.