Since I started the podcast, I’ve had the amazing opportunity to speak to some queer and trans art activists I really admire. And what troubles me, and angers me, is that though they are incredibly brilliant, hard-working, inspiring artists, many of them are broke. Few of them “make a living off their art” unless they teach, and even then the pay is meager and the work is sometimes unreliable. It’s got me thinking about the role and the value of art in society.
I would like to see a world where artists can make a living off of their creative labor. I would like to live in a world where saying that doesn’t make me seem idealistic and out-of-touch. Art adds beauty to our lives. Art challenges us to think. Art fuels and reinvigorates our commitment to the struggle. Why is it the people who make this vital work have to sell their labor to someone else to pay the rent? Why isn’t it enough to add beauty to people’s lives and fuel to the fire for social justice?
Cause no one is going to pay us for that. Social justice is “barely fundable.” And of all the tactics employed by activists, art is perhaps the least fundable (other than things that are clearly against the law), because “artists don’t get wins.” I don’t know. I think preventing a suicide by putting on a performance that lets a brown queer know they are not alone is a “win.” I think art that allows people with “non-normative” bodies to feel beautiful is a “win.” I think a book that has the power to slowly shift a whole culture’s notion of gender is a “win.” I think we need to stop looking at wins as grant deliverables, or policy changes, or photo ops. Those are all good too, but let’s not forget that art adds value to people’s lives, gives them the hope and gumption to keep on living, by allowing them to picture the better world we believe is possible. To make it seem real. Before we can have “wins,” we need to be able to imagine the world we are supposed to be working towards.
I believe that art, and particularly art by queer and trans people of color has incredible social, cultural, and political value. And it makes me really sad to see so many artists barely keeping their heads above water financially, with no health care and no certainty in their future.
So who’s to blame? Is the art world, for making us feel that art about things that matter is some how less “artistic”? Is it the organizers, for treating art as an afterthought and rarely compensating artists because “it’s for the movement”?
Personally, I blame capitalism.
Ironically, independent artists are not considered contributing members of society. To be a contributing member, you have to be selling your labor to someone else. We call this “employment.” But we are the makers of things, and making things is what we used to call “labor.” And labor deserves compensation.
But no one is going to pay you to make the first documentary about transgender Latinas (it’s been done, stop googling). In fact, you are going to have to beg, borrow, steal, kickstart, and potentially take on substantial debt in order to bring this project to fruition. Making Beanie Babies for Ty you could get paid for though. Not much, but something.
My point is not that sweatshop workers are somehow more privileged than artists. My point is that because of capitalism, which requires those of us who are not independently wealthy to sell our labor to others, making a Beanie Baby is considered labor worth compensation, making art that adds value to the lives of queer and trans people of color is not. And that’s a problem. It’s a problem that I can’t even imagine a world in which independent artists could be self-employed and not starve. It’s a problem I can’t imagine utopia, a problem I might need an artist to help me solve.