When the bad guys asked the Joker to go kill Batman, what did Joker say? ‘If you’re good at something, never do it for free.’
Lately, I’ve become a little extra sensitive to the fact that there are people who seem to think it’s ‘okay’ to ask artists to do what they’re good at, gratis. Coincidentally, Melissa Corbett, an Australian artist based in Spain, recently released a podcast on ‘Why do people think my art should be free?’ featuring Italian artist Chiara Gomiselli and US-based artist, Tatyana Ostapenko.
Interestingly enough, there are even some people who seem to think that if you’re an artist and you ask to get paid for your work, you’re not a ‘real’ artist. This strikes me as funny because I’ve also heard the exact opposite—if you’re a ‘real’ artist, you should be making money off your work, because if you don’t, you’re not a professional.
Go figure. ^_^
In this post, I’ll be thinking x writing out loud about how it just seems so easy for some people to ask artists to work ‘for exposure’ or ‘as a favour’ because ‘you like to do it, anyway’. Like they think artists somehow don’t deserve to be compensated, at the very least, for the time and the materials (which don’t come cheap) that go into creating a work of art.
With friends / family like that…
I’m not sure about how it is elsewhere, but in the Philippines, it’s super common to ask your friends or relatives for ‘favours’, i.e. to do things for free—and not just the ones who are artists.
Like if you have an aunt who’s a doctor, an uncle who’s a lawyer or a brother who owns a sporting goods empire, it’s all too easy to ask for a free consultation, free advice or free sneakers. Most everybody does it, and it’s almost a crime to refuse, e.g. how could you say no to Aunt So-and-so? Okay, I get that, totally (and it’s not like I’ve never benefitted from that practice).
What gets me is, I don’t know. The way they ask, I guess. I don’t know if it’s just me, but there’s like a tinge of condescension or something in their manner—or sometimes, they just say so, directly. ‘You like to do it anyway, right?’ Like as a hobby? 0_o
Maybe the fact that I have a ‘real job’ doesn’t help, although hardly any of my relatives know I have one (and even if they did, they don’t consider being a writer as a ‘real job’, anyway).
They pretty much think I’m the artist (read: bum) of the family who doesn’t have anything better to do than sit around and paint all day. So asking me to do something for them gives me ‘the opportunity’ to ‘do something useful’ (read: for them) for once.
The thing is, I do have better things to do, whether my family or ‘friends’ think they are better things to do or not. And last I checked, people generally had jobs because they got paid to do them—unless it’s for charity, or something—and art is a real job. And like any real job, you have to study or train or at least practice for a goodly amount of time to get good at it.
Full disclosure: I used to—and still do—art for free.
When I was young (as in fresh out of school), I did do art for free. I joined all the shows I could, and I remember when I was working at the bank, one of the janitors asked me to make a painting for him, and I did. That painting was of fish, and I did it on good watercolour paper too, and it was about 15 x 22 inches (about 38 x 55 cm).
I remember I gave him that koi watercolour because I didn’t want to be ‘snooty’ (i.e. I’ll only paint for the people who could afford it) and because I believed art should be for everybody. I also saw it as practise, so in a way, I was training myself and foisting my ‘practise paintings’ on unsuspecting victims, haha.
I also did those other things like joining group shows and working on illustration projects because I wanted to build up my portfolio and get my work out there (for ‘exposure’) as much as I could.
20-odd years later, one could say I still work for free, because I still make art even if I don’t get paid for it or I’m not sure I’ll be able to sell it—simply because I love it.
I’ve been made to feel stupid about this, repeatedly, i.e. killing myself and throwing away my lifesavings on something that didn’t always earn me a cent. In other words, I’m an idiot for painting even if I don’t get paid for it. (Conversely, if I made a fortune off of it, that supposedly would’ve made me ‘smart’.)
That’s not to say I’ve never sold anything (as in not counting friends or relatives) or gotten paid for my work, because I have. (Often enough, I daresay, to justify my writing this piece.)
And it’s precisely because I have—I have gone to school, taken lessons, trained, put in the hours, paid my dues, exhibited in several galleries and museums and published my work in several books and publications—that leads me to believe that I deserve to be paid for my art.
And clearly, if I have put in all those hours—many, if not most of them taken out of my sleeping or recreational hours to do all those things, it’s not ‘just a hobby’ or ‘something I do for fun’. (Watching hamster videos and playing anime-themed video games is what I do for fun.)
Hobbies are what you do when you’re bored, have nothing better to do, if you have free time or want to relax. I don’t do art for any of that. I do it because I love it and because it’s my career. Does enjoying your career or your job somehow not make it a job you deserve to get paid for?
Should we have to explain all this to people who think it’s okay to ask for freebies?
I guess it could be argued that if artists don’t educate the public as to why art in any form deserves to be paid for, then who will? In my jaded old age, I wonder if there’s even any point in trying. You can’t convert someone who doesn’t want to convert—that’s as true here as it is for religion or anywhere else.
But that won’t change the fact that art is a legitimate profession and that artists also have responsibilities and bills to pay.
I’ve also read somewhere that there are people who just smirk and say ‘then go get a day job’ or ‘make art at night, or on the weekends’. They don’t know and probably never will understand the time and the commitment involved.
Art isn’t something you can do by halves. If you mean to pursue it, you have to go all the way, or don’t do it at all. (Or take it up as a ‘hobby’—nothing wrong with that. But I probably would advise against making a career out of it.)
So if you are committed to doing this, and you’ve decided that art is your calling, you have to be willing to fight for it. And that sometimes includes standing up for yourself and your right to be compensated fairly for your work.
And our work, as artists, isn’t for everyone.
I don’t mean that to sound elitist or anything; I’m just recognising the fact that some people like chocolate, some like strawberry. Some people like rap, some like jazz. Some people like sports, and others like art—either to create it themselves or just to look at. There’s no right or wrong there; people just know what they like.
And it’s those people who like it that you want to show your work to. Those are the people whom you don’t have to explain to (until you’re blue in the face and your blood pressure’s through the roof). They’re your (if you’ll forgive the parlance from my other job) target market.
In other words, if someone asks you to work for them for free, and you have to tell them why you deserve to get paid, maybe, it’s better to just not get into that conversation with them.
Because there are people out there who aren’t artists of any sort who do appreciate what we do. More importantly, these people know the value of what we do and know how to compensate us commensurately.
It’s simple, really: if someone doesn’t think you should be paid, don’t work for them. (Okay, maybe it’s not so simple if you’re from back here and it’s Auntie Whatsername who helped you out when you had a high fever. Only it’s the third such freebie she’s asking for and she asks in a way that implies that it costs you nothing in man-hours and materials… ^_____^)
One last thing: there are also people you’ll be happy to do art for, for free.
Or well, at least there are, if you’re like me and you’re a sucker for charities or certain friends and it’s their birthday or they did you a really huge favour…you get the idea. And one thing’s for sure—the people you do end up making art gratis for, will be people you either know and/or appreciate (hopefully) what it means for you to give your art away.
Whether or not they do, the point is you want to do it for them, as in of your own free will. You weren’t railroaded into it, conned, shamed, or guilt-tripped into doing it.
Usually, you’ll have a gut-feeling if you’re being ripped off—you develop the proverbial ‘Peter Tingle’ for this sort of thing. If you’re me, this feeling is usually accompanied or set off by someone who ‘finds it so easy to ask’. Like they were bumming five bucks or a piece of gum off of you. Like it was obvious they didn’t care about your blood, toil, tears and sweat.
Cos hey, you’ll get ‘exposure’, right? And anyway, you have fun doing it.
TL;DR / if you’ve made it this far and there’s one thing you take away from all this? Know (or remember) that you deserve / you have the right to be paid, and paid fairly for the art that you create. Whether you want to waive that right for whatever reason—for charity, love, friendship or for kicks—it’s up to you.
To paraphrase Batman himself, the choice has to be yours. No one else’s.
If you need a little help making that choice or you just want to vent about someone trying to pull a fast one on you for a freebie, you can reach me here privately, or leave a comment below.
I don't purport to know everything. Yet if the little I do know can be of any help, you are more than welcome to it.