In honor of tax day, I’d like to call attention to a tax you won’t find in the tax code. You won’t learn about it in econ class, and you probably won’t hear the pundits talking about it on TV. But for millions of us, it is a very real tax, one that’s more painful to pay than any other. I’m talking, of course, about the Artist Tax.
As an artist, for everything I create, I am taxed the cost of no one paying me to do it; and then, when I try to market what I make — so, y’know, people can see it — I’m taxed for every hour I spend doing that.
I’m not literally taxed, of course, but it feels like it. It feels like I’m penalized financially for making art. As a consultant, I live a life of billable hours, and every hour I’m writing or performing or rehearsing is an hour I am not billing to a client. It’s money I’m spending, instead of earning. (This blog post alone cost a couple hundred dollars.)
I’m afraid I sound whiny –“Wah, wah, no one pays me to make art.” But I’m trying to make a bigger point here, so bear with me.
The thing is, I am so freaking productive when I’m writing, or performing. And the fact I don’t get paid for my artistic productivity, while people get paid for doing such mindless things, just feels like our culture is charging me a tax. “You can make your art,” it says, “but you will pay.”
You will pay.
I recently wrote my first book. I crammed the writing of it into the nooks and crannies of my life, as have so many authors before me, and as we artists do. My friend teaches high school English and he gets up at 4:30 every morning to write his novel. Maybe this sounds heroic to you, or maybe it sounds crazy — it probably depends on whether you would ever, ever do the same. But it makes me mad. He loves to write, he is a gifted writer, but he needs to pay the bills, so he crams his gifts — the talents that make his heart sing, that put him in a zone of productivity unlike any other — into a stolen hour.
Yes, that is what our culture does. It makes us thiefs, as artists — stealing time, and stealing from ourselves, as every hour we work on our art is an hour we aren’t getting paid.
I’m generalizing, of course. Some artists get paid. But most don’t. And how many young people with artistic gifts don’t end up pursuing them because they don’t see a way to make art and pay the bills? It takes time to develop as an artist, and certainly, no one is paying for that time.
Maybe this doesn’t seem like a big deal. “So art is a hobby,” you might think, or, “grow up, get with the program — we all have things we love to do, that no one pays us for.” Fair point. And yet, what I object to, is where our culture assigns economic value. To me, when someone is passionately engaged in doing work that has inherent social value, there should be a way of assigning economic value to that work.
Maybe you disagree that art has inherent social value — but to me, art is what connects us. At the end of a shitty day, it’s a book or a television show or a movie that makes you go, “Oh, right… I’m not alone. Someone else feels this way,” or, “this character makes me laugh at the world,” or, “this story makes me see things differently.” Art elevates us, and yet, we do not give it an elevated place in our culture. We worship artistic heroes — the actor who wins the Oscar, the author of the breakthrough book — but what do we do to help all the artists among us develop their talent and create their work?
And so every artist becomes a hustler — someone who has to be as good at selling her work as she is at making it. And as I try to market my book, let me tell you — it’s exhausting.
First, you steal the time to create. Then, you steal the time to market what you create. And there’s only so much time, and every hour you spend promoting one creation becomes an hour you aren’t creating the next one.
Have you ever witnessed someone doing something they truly love? That is what it’s like to see an artist at work. Oh, if only we could bottle that energy, surely it would outsell any other elixir on the market. As Howard Thurman said, what the world needs most is people who have come alive. In my last post, I alluded to the sad fact that for most people in the world, work is devoid of joy. If we could find a way to pay artists, just think of the joy we’d unleash in this world.
I don’t mind paying taxes. Yes, I believe rich people should pay more than they do, and poor people less; and I wish some programs got more resources, and others, less. Still, I fundamentally believe in pooling our resources for the common good. I just think that art is part of that common good, and there’s no art without artists… so I’m ready to see our government, and our culture, do more to support artists. Let’s eliminate the Artist Tax, or at least, let’s make it a hell of a lot less steep.
What programs or other supports have you used to create more room in your life for art-making, and what specific ideas do you have for how government or other entitities can do more to support artists?
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Photo by Flickr user 401(K) 2013 and available for use under a creative commons license.