Saturday, November 17, 2007

You've Still Got Your Voice, We're Just Taking Our Megaphone Back

or, The Public Arts: Artists Working Off Grants Should Learn From Freelancers

There was a very short piece in the Toronto Star's Entertainment section on November 17 that spun off from a main article about the new edition of Life of Pi, a book I've never read, have no interest in, and wondered why it would need an illustrated edition.

Or, at least I think it had something to do with The Life of Pi, and it certainly wasn't some smart-alec "artiste" trying to say "conservatives are stupid."
In the meantime, [Yann] Martel [the author of Life of Pi] is persisting with his campaign to persuade Stephen Harper of the virtues of public funding of the arts. For more than half a year, Martel has sent the Prime Minister a literary classic in the mail every two weeks, beginning with Tolstoy's The Death of Ivan Ilyich and, most recently, Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke.

It got me thinking - what exactly does Martel think he's going to accomplish?

Was his master plan to get Harper to say "Wow! These books are great! I think I'll take money from the Canadian public in order to get more of them" ?

The answer to the "starving artist" problem is not the public fleecing of Canadians in order to finance the artists' projects. If an artist's work cannot attract popular support, than what benefit would forced patronage have for the people paying for it? If I don't think that a book is worth buying, forcing me to buy it isn't going to change my opinion of it. If I think a sculpture is particularly ugly, you cannot set it up in my front yard because you think I'm "uncultured."

Have you ever wondered why bad movies get made? It's because the producers, or the actors, or the directors, were able to convince the studios (or the people holding the purse-strings) that their idea had value. Have you ever wondered why sequels to bad movies get made? Because the first bad movie made money, which was an expression of the public's sense of value. Whether you agree the public should find value in yet another installment in the Rush Hour series or not is not the point.

Value is not an inherent quality - nothing is intrinsically valuable. To be valuable, something must be useful for some ends, something must have a purpose, no matter what that purpose is. It doesn't matter whether a forest is valued because it can be cut down to produce paper or because we enjoy the way it looks, the inescapable fact is that it doesn't have value until a human being places value on it. This is especially true of art - the more people that are willing to pay to see it, the greater its value. Hell, it can even have great value with only one supporter, so long as that supporter believes that it is worth more than everybody else does. For example, I thought the TV show The Lone Gunmen was of great value - unfortunately, Fox did not.

Let's look at a classic example, Star Trek: between its second and third seasons, the show hung on the edge of cancellation by CBS. It was only a great outcry from fans, an expression of value, that showed the network that Star Trek did indeed have more value than they originally thought. Star Trek was only kept on the air because the fans convinced the network that the series had value - in effect, they sold Star Trek to the executives, even better than the producers could.

And this is what our publically funded artists must learn to do, and quickly.

Stephen King, John Grisham, and freelance writers the world over have been using the technique of "selling it" for their entire careers. When you write a book and present it to an agent or a publishing company or the future readers of your work, you don't say "I worked really hard on this," you say: "This book will sell, and these are the reasons." Heck, Stephen King does not merely by putting his name on it: "I know you don't think I can write a non-fiction book about the Red Sox, but, hey - the Stephen King brand is hot right now."

If your writing's not earning you the money you need to live, you shouldn't be writing - likewise if you're any other kind of artist. You need to convince companies to give you the big advances, not rely on government to pay for your apprenticeship.

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