From our partners at Art Practical, today we bring you an excerpt of author Michael O’Hare’s response after participating in the “Big Soft (BS) Contract” workshop. This workshop was part of the practicum “Valuing Labor in the Arts” at the Arts Research Center at UC Berkeley, a daylong series of artist-led workshops that explored questions of art, labor, and economics. O’Hare, who is a Professor of Public Policy at UC Berkeley, notes: “Arts policy, which includes nonprofit presenting institutions as well as all levels of government in the U.S., is neither a hobby and dilettante diversion nor inconsequential for artists and their audience.” This article was originally published on May 22, 2014.
The implicit proposition of the practicum, that artists are workers who should be paid for the value they create just like anyone else, was also the view of my mother, whose socialism never got her all the way to “from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs.” It is also mine. Western societies are ill served by the infantilizing idea that artists are not really grownups who can take care of themselves but instead need to be maintained by a perpetual charitable regime of subsidy and gifts. There are certainly market failures and justice issues in the economics of the arts that need government action, but some of those policies, such as those concerning the poor and distressed, are not specific to the arts. Those that are should be directed at paying artists properly for the value they create for others, not just to “funding the arts.” These two are not the same thing, not at all.
Worse than ill-targeted policies, of course, is all the talent lost when painters or actors are paying the rent by doing carpentry or waiting on tables. We need good carpenters and waiters, and it’s wasteful at both ends for those things to be done by people whose talents lie elsewhere.
Why is this system broken? (It isn’t working for people who aren’t artists, either.) How can we turn the creative, optimistic, earnest innovations we heard about at the practicum into realistic initiatives with coherent core principles? And how can we treat society’s relationship to the arts with the same softhearted, hardheaded realism we demand in fields such as criminal justice, education, and environmental policy?