The Artist Tax

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?

If you liked this post, you might also like: 

Photo by Flickr user 401(K) 2013 and available for use under a creative commons license.

 

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9 thoughts on “The Artist Tax

  1. "And so every artist becomes a hustler — someone who has to be as good at selling her work as she is at making it."This is true of every working person that is out there. Scientists "hustle" to convince others that their work is important enough to fund. Lawyers "hustle" to convince clients that their services are superior to their competitors and worth paying for. Manufacturers of pretty much everything have to "hustle" to convince the consumer that their product is worth buying.Is art in and of itself *more* important than all of these other things, such that only artists shouldn't have to work to sell their product?

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  2. Emily – you're right. And certainly scientists, of all the examples you list, have to fight to get funding for their work. My point is less that artists shouldn't have to hustle, than that they… we… along with anyone else with a passion for doing work that no one is paying them to do… incur an extra burden to have to spend unfunded time on both creation and on marketing. Sure, a new manufacturer, an entrepreneur, might initially spend time on both creation and marketing, without a paycheck — but manufacturing is an inherently commercial enterprise. Part of their drive to manufacture a thing is, probably, to sell it. Where is the support for creating things that have cultural, maybe spiritual, but not commercial value? That's the question I'm trying to raise.

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  3. "Where is the support for creating things that have cultural, maybe spiritual, but not commercial value?"Of course creative products have commercial value. We see it in actors that are paid to act, writers that are paid to write, and artists that sell their art commercially. Just because not *all* creative products have commercial success does not mean that the products of a creative endeavor aren't commercialized. And this is just analogous to a manufactured product that doesn't appeal to the intended market, or a restaurant that doesn't garner the success imagined by its founder. I think that the suggestion that creative endeavors are *more* than everything else in this world demeans the persons that spend their own energy on those other pursuits. Why should every creative move be somehow funded collectively, regardless of what it brings to the society? Because the creator finds it pleasing, though the members of society do not? Frankly, when the members of society choose to support something, they do. As an example, we have an entire industry built around entertainment that is quite lucrative. We don't fund science just because the scientist is interested. No, we fund science that we think is of a benefit. And I don't think that art is any different.

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  4. "Of course creative products have commercial value. We see it in actors that are paid to act, writers that are paid to write, and artists that sell their art commercially."Sure, some do, and many don't. But my point is — we should provide support to help artists make art, regardless of whether that art ultimately sees commercial success… because if we don't, we never get those commercial successes… and we never get those niche hits that mean a lot to a few people, or even to one person, without being a commercial success.I'm not saying, "Hey government, write a big fat check to artists" — that seems to be your concern? The government and cultural support I call for could take many forms — more grant opportunities, policies that help artists take maternity leave… I think the Freelancers Union is an intriguing model… part of me wonders if the challenge isn't just doing a better job of marketing resources and programs that already exist. You'll notice, I'm not advocating for a specific solution to the problem I describe. But I do think it's a problem, and I hope that writing about it helps me connect with other people who have ideas about how to solve it."I think that the suggestion that creative endeavors are *more* than everything else in this world demeans the persons that spend their own energy on those other pursuits."How did I suggest that creative endeavors are worth more than everything else? "Why should every creative move be somehow funded collectively, regardless of what it brings to the society? Because the creator finds it pleasing, though the members of society do not?"I'm not suggesting the government write a blank check for navel gazing, which I sense is what you suspect. If you don't see any inherent value to society in art creation, then we may just be cut from different cloth. But to me, there is value in creating a culture where artists are more free to create their art, regardless of whether that art becomes a commercial success — because if a book or short film or whathaveyou changes one person's life, one person's perspective, one person's feelings… well, to me, that could be more profound than the effect a commercially successful company will ever have on anyone. And we can't always attach a dollar value to that kind of impact, but our lives are richer for it, so we should be doing what we can to make it easier for more people to create.

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  5. "How did I suggest that creative endeavors are worth more than everything else? ""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."Right here. You don't just allude to the idea that art is more important, but state it straight out."But to me, there is value in creating a culture where artists are more free to create their art, regardless of whether that art becomes a commercial success — because if a book or short film or whathaveyou changes one person's life, one person's perspective, one person's feelings… well, to me, that could be more profound than the effect a commercially successful company will ever have on anyone. And we can't always attach a dollar value to that kind of impact, but our lives are richer for it, so we should be doing what we can to make it easier for more people to create."That is opposed to living in a collective society in almost every regard. Placing pools of societal resources into *possibly* changing the life of one person is ridiculous and hyperbolic. Look, it's not that I am opposed to art. It's not that I'm opposed to science. But in every real fashion, suggesting that we just support whatever creative endeavors of which a person might conceive because, hey, creative work is what turns one's crank is, for lack of a better term, silly. If you want support, financial or otherwise, you have to work for it. That's the way of the world. It's the way of being a professional – nobody just gives you the corner office because it would make you happy. Nobody just gives you a grant because you asked really, really nicely and you seem like an OK sort. Nobody greenlights your script because you worked hard writing it, so now your work here is done. But hey, if you want to think that somehow artistry is better than all of that other mindless work that the drones shuffle about day-in and day-out and thus deserving of support regardless of any sort of tangible benefit to society, fine. But you're wrong.

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  6. Emily, "You don't just allude to the idea that art is more important, but state it straight out."No – I say art is more important than mindless work. And my larger point isn't to rank art in importance relative to other activities… it's to say, we need a new way of valuing artistic productivity. We need to recognize how many obstacles we put in front of art-making and what the cost of that may be at an individual and societal level. "Placing pools of societal resources into *possibly* changing the life of one person is ridiculous and hyperbolic."How is it more ridiculous than putting pools of societal resources towards wars that may or may not achieve their strategic objectives? And besides, where did I say we should place pools of societal resources into possibly changing the life of one person? Again, I'm not saying, "Hey government, write a big fat check to artists." The government and cultural support I call for could take many forms — more grant opportunities, policies that help artists take maternity leave… I think the Freelancers Union is an intriguing model… part of me wonders if the challenge isn't just doing a better job of marketing resources and programs that already exist. You'll notice, I'm not advocating for a specific solution to the problem I describe. But I do think it's a problem, and I hope that writing about it helps me connect with other people who have ideas about how to solve it."Look, it's not that I am opposed to art. It's not that I'm opposed to science. But in every real fashion, suggesting that we just support whatever creative endeavors of which a person might conceive because, hey, creative work is what turns one's crank is, for lack of a better term, silly. If you want support, financial or otherwise, you have to work for it. That's the way of the world."Thanks for educating me in the ways of the world. Look, Emily – if you honestly think that I'm arguing that artists shouldn't have to work hard, then I don't think you read my post very closely at all. My whole point is that we work our asses off, and we do it at a cost to ourselves — and we'll continue to do so, even if no one ever finds a way to compensate us for it, because we can't help it. But something else about the way of the world is that if you want things to change, you have to point out the problem, and then imagine solutions, and find like-minded people to work toward solutions, and that's what this post is about. It's about me saying, "We have the power to change how our culture supports artists." If your answer is, "No, we don't, the way things are is the way they always shall be," then I would point you toward a history book.

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  7. "I say art is more important than mindless work. And my larger point isn't to rank art in importance relative to other activities… it's to say, we need a new way of valuing artistic productivity."Yes, I can see where placing value on the product of productivity is just too difficult. And I'd love to hear your definition of the "mindless work" that is so worthless. I mean, not so worthless that people aren't paid to do it, just less worthwhile than creative pursuits."But to me, there is value in creating a culture where artists are more free to create their art, regardless of whether that art becomes a commercial success — because if a book or short film or whathaveyou changes one person's life, one person's perspective, one person's feelings…"This is precisely where you talk about art changing one person's life, and that is where the value lies. "The government and cultural support I call for could take many forms — more grant opportunities, policies that help artists take maternity leave…"Let's see. More grant opportunities would mean … more grant money. Or are you talking about current endowments being spread out? Artists taking maternity leave? Of course artists can take a maternity leave. They just don't get paid for it. Just like every other woman in America, who is only protected by the FMLA (and only then if the company has 50 or more employees). You'll note that the FMLA guarantees the retention of the position (not a problem for the artist) and it is *unpaid*. I support a paid maternity leave for American working women, but not relegated to artists. And I would think that artists would fall under the same category as any other self-employed individual. So once we work that out, you're in luck."My whole point is that we work our asses off, and we do it at a cost to ourselves…"And my point is that so does everybody else. I see a ton of analogy in all of these posts to the role of the parent. Parents expend a ton of personal energy at great cost to themselves. They are not financially compensated (in fact, it's a huge financial obligation). Obviously raising children into competent adults is of great value to society. But there is no paid maternity leave. There are no grants available to carry on this important work. They do it in their "spare" time, and for those for whom it is their chosen career, there is no compensation at all. Lean in, lean out; tune in, drop out. It's all the same.But best wishes on finding like-minded individuals that want to support the dream of being paid for doing, regardless of what is done.

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  8. You're right that the work of a parent is analagous to the work of artists in many ways, and you're right that we need better policies to support the important work that parents do. I would just argue that the same is true for artists. And — sigh — I don't think people should get paid for doing, regardless of what is done. Instead, I think that our government and our culture could do more to support the pursuit of art-making, because I believe art connects us.I believe that our education system does not promote the arts sufficiently, that we are trained to think of art as a hobby and to push our artistic talents to the side in order to pursue more "practical" but often less meaningful (less socially valuable) careers. I believe there should be more support systems to help young people pursue artistic careers and there should be more organizations like the Freelancers Union that recognize and meet the needs of people trying to allocate a sufficient portion of their lives to making art.I believe the world is a better place when more people's work is aligned with their values and passions. That's the world I want for my daughter.

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  9. Pingback: What is real power? | Having it Alt

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