The Perils of Valuing Love Above Life

I’ve read several articles recently about the intersection of passion, art, and finances. As Meron Langser points out, no one has to remind aerospace engineers that their time is valuable and they deserve to be compensated. This compensation can take two forms–monetary or emotional. Working in the arts tends to involve necessarily privileging love of the work and emotional reward over salary and stability; some even consider this instability an important pre-requisite for good art. I’d like to respectfully disagree with this perception, and see a reality where both are possible.

The thing is, too much stress hinders creativity. We’ve all been at a tense rehearsal where nothing seems to get done, or had a solution to a problem appear in the morning after a stressful night. Sure there are plenty of problems and constraints that can help push collaborators toward creative solutions and better work, but not if the artists are truly miserable. I feel the best art comes out of those the best at seeing, and too much stress creates a fog.

I’m not saying art should be easy or pay six-figure salaries. But I don’t think it needs to be a hard life either. Our culture has this romantic notion of the struggling artist, starving for his work, making deep sacrifices. We don’t have this narrative around other professions; there is no trope of a self-sacrificing architect or discussion of scientists needing to be poor to do good work. Why don’t we allow ourselves the same kindness?

Theatre isn’t, and probably wouldn’t work as, a nine to five job. Rehearsals don’t belong in corner offices and yearly raises would be hard to arrange. And it’s true that since it involves mental work, you can’t fully ‘leave work at the office.’ But I object to the idea that to be a theatre artist means letting theatre be an all-consuming lifestyle. My best ideas and connections often come out of what I learn from discussions with non-theatre friends, and my way in to understanding pieces often comes from outside coursework. I want to see us theatre folk ask for our worth, and understand that deprivation isn’t necessarily our friend. There is nothing shameful about making a living. There is nothing wrong with outside interests. Neither makes us less of an artist, and both could free up new pathways for artistic exploration.

4 comments on “The Perils of Valuing Love Above Life

  1. Hey there! I got the ping when you linked to my article, and I’d love to open some healthy dialogue on this!

    You mention that “some even consider this instability a prerequisite for good art,” and I also disagree that being poor is job requirement for the artist. It’s also a dangerous claim: if we make the claim ourselves, we feed into the starving artist trope. Then the public believe artists are SUPPOSED to be starving, and so they don’t need to help (either through government funding like the NEA or other sources). It is definitely dangerous to monetarily devalue our work when the world around is is more than willing to devalue it for us, both monetarily and intrinsically.

    I think your view of scientists may also be a bit skewed by a rather recent explosion of everyone thinking majoring in science is the way to have a profitable career.. What do you do with a PhD. in physics? Not much other than teach or do research, and since science majors have exploded recently, starting and median salaries of scientists, particularly research scientists, has begun dropping. That PhD also takes about 10 years or more to earn, especially if you include postdoctoral work, before you start making any significant amount of money, so I would argue that while some scientists go into for the money, a lot of them go into it because they genuinely love science (talk to the physics department at BU sometime, it is amazing how romantically they can gush over quantum theory).

    It’s important to be able to eat and live, yes, and I don’t think every artist should be homeless and living off of Cheez Doodles (although it worked for Basquiat at first), but I do think that poverty is often a motivating form of strife that drives a lot of the best works. I would even go as far as to suggest that everyone, not just artists, should experience poverty at some point in their lives. I think if everyone was forced to live off of welfare wages for a year at some point, there would be a lot more sympathy toward those who are less fortunate, and they might learn a lot of the lessons that I talked about. For Chekhov, witnessing the angst of the peasants he treated as a doctor was one of his motivations. For a lot of artists, it was gender/race/sexuality inequality.

    So certainly, we shouldn’t spurn money to the point of telling those who profit from art that they aren’t real artists, that’s outrageous. What we do need to do, and you may disagree, is not allow money to be the guiding principle of our art-making, because it takes away the focus from artistic intent to commercial success (look to much of Broadway for that).

  2. Thanks for your reply! You have a good point about scientists; I’ve heard many a researcher gush about their work, and seen some of the statistics on falling salaries and tenure rate. Working as a professor won’t make you rich, but you won’t be living on Cheez Doodles either. I totally agree that adversity opens up compassion and understanding; I know how much my understanding of the world has changed and been shaped by living with an autoimmune disease. I think what I object to is the idea that we need to seek out suffering beyond that which comes our way to be better artists, and that minimizing suffering is somehow minimizing artistic potential.

    I’m right with you about theatre not valuing commercial success over artistic intent! But if my understanding is correct, it isn’t the performers on broadway who are raking it in, but the producers.

    I just want to see a system where the artists are getting compensated for their work at a fair rate. What this system would look like, and how to make it happen, I don’t know. And I may very well be dreaming.

    • “I think what I object to is the idea that we need to seek out suffering beyond that which comes our way to be better artists, and that minimizing suffering is somehow minimizing artistic potential.” Very true, artists don’t necessarily have to be masochists! I think the concern of many is that often understanding strife comes best when you’ve experienced it. It’s very interesting to think about the starving artist trope though. Why is it that the minute there is commercial success it’s instantly a sellout or going mainstream? I don’t think that money has no place in the theatre (imagine a light design with no budget for lights!), simply that theatre shouldn’t necessarily rely on it entirely. A lot of the best lighting designers I know got as good as they did because they were working in a tiny little space, with next to no money, and just had to make it work. The learning experience was incredible, according to them.

      On the Broadway subject though, if it’s not about the money (although from what I heard the average Broadway ensemble member makes about $70,000 a year, give or take), then what is it for? It’s certainly isn’t about making new plays with heavy social themes, as Broadway frequently veers toward the commercial, and actors can clearly see that. So why do it, if not for money and guaranteed equity? Perhaps fame? If it is for fame, is that any better than making art solely for commercial success? On the fair compensation, I think that unfortunately the word “fair” will be debated for years to come.

      Thanks for replying! You’re the first person to reply to one of my comments!

  3. I think what I what I would rather see is a poor theatre with comfortable actors. I’d like to see actors and technicians making money, not producing companies, investors, and suppliers. I totally agree that big budgets shouldn’t be the only motivating force for producing work; too many of my favorite shows have been little low/no budget affairs to think bigger is better. I’d rather see us prioritize pay checks than (unnecessary) spectacle.

    You have an interesting point about the draw of Broadway; my first guess would be that it is fame, or rather the status of being known and having been on Broadway. I think it becomes a visible measure of success for an industry that generally lacks ways of recognizing improvement and achievements (no promotions or obvious career trajectories, awards notwithstanding). Whatever it is, is still an external motivation, and so somewhat similar in it’s effect to money.

    And glad you posted! It’s got me thinking in good ways.

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