Why does our society not pay artists until they master their craft?
If you’re a computer programmer, there is a career path for you. You go to school, you learn how to program, you go to work in an entry-level position and as you gain experience and credentials as a programmer, you get paid more and more.
If you’re a business manager, there is a career path for you. You start out entry-level at any company doing menial work, and slowly gain responsibility and experience until you’re a manager and getting paid more.
If you’re a chef, there is a career path for you, starting from line cook or sous chef up until you can own your own restaurant. If you’re a construction worker, there is a career path for you, starting from an apprenticeship in carpentry or masonry or welding up until you can manage a team. If you’re a police officer, a sales representative, a teacher, you have a career path.
For almost every mainline career in this society, there is a path that either involves 1) paying for schooling or training until you can get a low-responsibility entry-level position, and then grow from there [programmer, chef, architect], or 2) getting an entry-level position with no experience or training and then growing on the job [business management, construction work, retail].
But if you’re an artist? Nobody will pay you until you produce master-level work… independently.
Think about it. There’s no equivalent of a sous chef job for a novelist. There’s no apprentice carpentry job for a painter. There’s no $40,000 a year Software Programmer I job for an actor.
If you want to be successful – and PAID – as an artist, you have to already have gotten to the point where you’re producing salable, professional level work.
Which is hard to do when nobody is paying you for your apprenticeship. You have to do it on your own, in your own time. The novelist has to compose her novel at home after working 8 hours in retail. The painter has to sketch and practice in his spare time before waiting tables all evening. The actor has to find some day or night job and audition for roles when possible, in the hopes of being a natural enough talent that she will be able to springboard from amateur student films to Hollywood, or to gain enough confidence to audition and get entry to Julliard and from there move to Broadway.
Sure, a painter can take classes, and a musician can play in amateur bands, and so on. But no one will start paying almost any artist until they’ve made the full climb from amateur to master. Not like the chef, who can start getting work helping a master run a kitchen on the way to mastery, or a business manager who can get paid starting from almost zero experience.
You can make a chart for any career path and mark a point on it when someone on that path can start to expect getting paid:
AMATEUR/NOVICE: knows nothing about the work
–retail starts getting paid here
–manual laborers start getting paid here
APPRENTICE/GRADUATE: knows how to do the work in theory, but has no experience
–some skilled laborers like electricians start getting paid here
–architects and programmers start getting paid here
–law enforcement starts getting paid here
INTERMEDIATE: knows how to do the work, and has learned the ropes
–some business management types start getting paid here
–some educational, medical, and legal professionals start getting paid here after an internship or residency
SKILLED: knows the work and has lots of experience; can lead a team, but not run an entire enterprise
–some political and organizing work only starts getting paid here after lots of volunteering
–some scientists only start getting paid here after lots of graduate work
MASTER: can run an enterprise/produce master work independently
–artists and art-makers start getting paid here
Basically, if you want to get paid as an artist, you better have a publishable novel, or the acting skills to play Shakespeare or Mozart before a paying audience, or paintings someone wants to buy. You better be at the same level in your field as a credentialed master craftsman, a tenured professor, a regional manager, a head chef. You better have acquired these skills to produce this salable quality of work on your own, before anyone paid you a dime to do the work.
Why is it like this?
I’m not sure. Maybe it’s because we think of artists as having natural talent. A writer is supposed to be able to sit down, like J.K. Rowling somehow, and produce blockbuster, mass-consumption-ready work from the start. What novelist gets to sell their average, intermediate work as part of their learning curve? An actor is supposed to show up for auditions for Julliard or a casting agent already knowing how to act. What actor actually has a chance to learn their craft understudying for off-off-Broadway plays? Maybe because we think of artists as not needing to go through those steps between amateur and master – all artists are either amateurs or masters, right, it’s not like Arthur Miller or Meryl Streep or Paul McCartney had to learn their way from zero to a hundred, did they? Maybe that’s why there’s nothing in between.
Maybe it’s the nature of art, particularly in how any artist is solely responsible for their own work. No filmmaker wants to hire some sort-of-okay-but-maybe-they’ll-be-better-in-five-years apprentice actor; he only gets a role if he can do the role perfectly. A musician also doesn’t get paid to play unless she can play the part and not bring down the performances of the rest of the orchestra. By contrast, a shaky and error-prone plumber can work under a master plumber, contributing meaningfully to the enterprise with the skills he already does have while learning new ones. But a master novelist doesn’t need help the way a master plumber or a master chef does, so there’s no “sous novelist” position that some aspiring, intermediate-level writer can get salaried in while she improves. And as an independent amateur novelist, learning as she goes while typing out average quality short stories and drafts on her home computer, she isn’t producing anything that anyone will ever see. After all, nobody wants to read an intermediate, learning-the-ropes novel. Maybe that’s why there’s no paid entry-level art work.
But maybe it’s the way we think about art. We think about art as a complete thing, a finished thing, and an independently existing thing. We don’t think of art as a culmination. We expect that behind every gourmet plate we eat at a fine restaurant is years of experience on the chef’s part, as he moved up the culinary ladder of skill; that’s what we’re paying for. We expect that the contractor we bring into our house brings with her years of experience and acquired knowledge. But we don’t look at a movie or listen to a piece of music and expect the artist’s training to be a part of the built-in cost. We’re paying for a finished product. We want our art magically ready-made.
We don’t pay artists to learn, grow and get better and better until they product the master work that we want to consume. That’s not an investment our society makes. To invest in an artist’s education seems like a gamble in a way that investing in a doctor’s or an electrician’s doesn’t. Artists are expected to be natural talents that wouldn’t even need to benefit from education. Or they’re expected to pay for it themselves, going to film school or acting conservatory or whatever; but if they do, we laugh at them for making a silly and untenable career choice. The art school kid is a derogatory cliché of self-delusion. The apprentice laborer or mid-level businessperson or entry-level engineer is not even a recognizable type.
Is this a problem?
I don’t know.
I don’t know if there’s anything different we could do.
But I certainly know that the quality of art – and the economy of the arts in this society – is weaker for it. The fact that, as a writer, I have to go all the way from knowing nothing to producing a work that someone will publish, without any help in between makes it considerably less likely that I will make it all the way from zero to a hundred. Heck, even to get into a program of some sort that will teach me my craft, even if I’m willing to take on the student loan debt, often requires me to submit finished work of a certain quality and level of obvious promise before the school will let me in.
Arts are crafts and skills, more intuitive and subjective, perhaps, but otherwise no different than any business or manual career. An artist, save that she be a true savant (as even Arthur Miller, Meryl Streep and Paul McCartney were not) needs to be just okay and pretty good but not quite there on the path to being great and capable of independent, salable work. But the only people in this country who get to take all those steps are those willing to pay for it. Therefore: we live in a landscape littered with surrendered, dejected, undeveloped or unrecognized artists.
Maybe, you are thinking, this isn’t such a bad thing. The arts are supposed to be hard. No entry-and-mid-level help means that only the true, true greats rise to the top. We certainly haven’t lacked for Millers, Streeps and McCartneys. So what, if some folks who might have been quality art-makers are now gas station owners and librarians instead?
Maybe you’re right. Possibly the arts aren’t a necessary and central part of a healthy economy, the way that other products like sodas and buildings and insurance packages are.
But I have a notion that even if that’s true, the world is changing. In fits and hiccups and in piecemeal, two-steps-forward-one-step-back fashion, the globe is moving towards that information society we’ve heard so much about. Physical, material products and personal, marketable services still rule our world. But as the Internet becomes more and more pervasive and leisure and entertainment become more and more important, there is more and more art out there and more and more of an arts market. Forgive me for being an optimistic futurist, but there may be a day soon when a very large percentage of people either start working from home using more advanced networking and videoconferencing technology, or getting a large portion of their day back by riding around in self-driving cars. And already great numbers of people walk around 24/7 with a portable audio and video player in their pocket. Entertainments – visuals – musics – shows – stories – arts – are what people fill their time with more and more and more, and there is need, demand and desire for more and more of it.
So perhaps if, somehow, some way, there was a function in our society – a pipeline, a system, an attitude – that treated beginner artists like novices (to be developed) instead of amateurs (to be ignored), we might have a whole new economy for our blossoming future.