Will paint for food
Two people standing before two blank canvasses with brushes and paints at the ready. Which one should get paid?
This article is about materially supporting and compensating artists for their work. As an artist, writing on the subject in such a compressed form feels a bit like taking a quick jog across a live minefield. What the subject deserves is a long, close, careful treatment, and anything less than that feels a bit precarious. There is the question of conflict of interest, the necessary un-nuanced generalizations, and the danger of sounding bitter or cynical. I am not sure whether that makes me courageous or foolish, but I think it is important enough to address regardless.
I had a professor in my first year of college tell us fresh-faced art majors that if there was anything in the entire world that we could imagine doing besides art, we should do that other thing, because art was just too difficult to pursue without an unwavering dedication. He was right, and those of us that stuck with it knew we had been duly warned about what we were getting into. In a sense, the moment we decided not to change majors, we relinquished our right to whine about being underappreciated or undercompensated. What we did receive, however, was a new responsibility regarding stewardship of the discipline into which we had been adopted.
Making, teaching, and thinking about art is my vocation. It is also the reason why I find myself braving aisles of silk flowers, rubber stamps, and seasonal decorations at a store called "Hobby Lobby" on a somewhat regular basis. I brave the store because they sell things I need to do my job, in spite of their less than completely accurate name. I want to highlight this because very real obstacles—regarding knowing when or how to compensate artists—arise when pivotal distinctions between making art as one's hobby and making art as one's dedicated work are misunderstood.
Crafting images and objects can legitimately operate as both a form of recreation and a means of cultural reorganization and critique. Making things in order to enjoyably pass a Sunday afternoon, and making things in order to operate as lenses for interpreting the meaning of the world, are both justified endeavours—but they are not the same endeavour. The problem is that distinguishing between the two is complicated by an insidiously ordinary similarity in material and posture. If we imagine two people standing before two blank canvasses with brushes and paints at the ready, how are we to know which one is trying to unwind after a long week, and which one is trying to change the world? If we assume that every person who stands before a blank canvas finds the process of painting fun and relaxing rather than disciplined and difficult work, or an exercise in releasing tension as opposed to an exercise in embracing and highlighting tensions, then we may easily treat every artist as a person pursuing a sort of hobby. And I'll be the first to agree that we ought not reimburse one another's hobbies.
The work of the artist is often toilsome and, contrary to popular opinion, it is not always enjoyable. It can be difficult and even boring like any other type of work. It is the fleshing out of hard-fought, hard-won wisdom, experience, and skill that comes from years of dedicated, diligent, often uncompensated formal study of a discipline, and the world of ideas that undergirds it. It is art done in order to help others see things in a slightly different way. It is work that eschews self-indulgent "personal expression" in favour of images, objects, installations, performances, presentations, and writings that engage the world around us, and which are intended to enrich, unify, and challenge communities of people. Doing this well generally takes a great deal of time, and it certainly isn't free.
I want to be clear that service and generosity within the church and civic structures are an essential part of good citizenship. Artists are rarely asked to donate their work or time to projects that would not in some way enrich the lives of others. The application of one's calling toward the greater good of other people is, and will always be, an essential part of being human. When we give of ourselves out of the surplus that has been given to us, it beautifully echoes the sacrificial generosity that has been shown to us by our God in the incarnation of Jesus Christ. A person's membership in a particular church or relationship to the Church at large should not be understood as a transactional arrangement. To be a part of the Kingdom of God is to be a servant, and that mandates giving freely, without remuneration, for the sake of the Gospel, and the incarnation of God's presence in the world.
But held in simultaneous tension with our responsibility to be generous is the fundamental challenge to artists in our culture (Christian or not) concerning how to continue actually doing this work of making images while fulfilling the responsibility of supporting one's self, or one's family. An important and wonderful shift within the Church in the last thirty years or so (precipitated by writing and thought that has preceded it by decades) has been a move toward a deeper appreciation of what artists may uniquely contribute to the body of Christ. This growing awareness should not go unnoticed or unappreciated, as it is an essential step toward a richer picture of God's Kingdom within the Church. Yet still lacking in a broad sense within the Church, both among artists and non-artists alike, is an awareness of how very critical a robust and responsible patronage is in enabling artists to perform this role. We cannot grow in our appreciation and utilization of the work of artists without a willingness to grow in providing the resources that will enable and sustain that work.
Ultimately, it is an issue of responsible stewardship both on the part of the artist and the Church, and, frankly, artists seldom help their own cause. One thing every artist desires is to have his or her work seen and its purpose appreciated. Yet this desire, unbridled by a resolute conviction of the intrinsic value of the artist's work, creates an unhealthy cultural dynamic. If an artist understands their work as inessential to healthy cultures, then they are less likely to assume compensation for that work as normative. As it plays out, local congregations (and parachurch organizations) are typically more than willing to ask artists to donate their time and work, and too many artists tend to be more than willing to work without compensation (or to simply ask about it), even in those situations where they ought to be compensated.
As I've tried to clarify, generosity is mandated, but it is essential that artists' generosity be met with the church's willingness to materially support the artist. And it is imperative that both should happen from within a fundamental understanding of the artist's unique and skilled work within the Church being as worthy of financial compensation as rewiring the sanctuary, or auditing the books—and just as important.