I have an ongoing dispute with a friend who works in real estate. He is perpetually annoyed by my need to get artistic fulfillment from my work. In his estimation, having a day job that pays well and doesn’t mistreat me should be fulfillment enough, and I should be grateful that I still have time to pursue my artistic “hobbies” (his word) on the side.
It’s a maddening conversation for me to have over and over, but I remind myself that my friend is coming from a completely different mindset. He’s a guy who chose his career almost entirely because he knew he could make good money doing it. For him, the paycheck is the ends, the means and the motivation. I can’t fathom approaching life that way any more than he can fathom having a creative passion that trumps all other factors. And that’s fine on a one-on-one level. The problem is that there seem to be considerably more of him than there are of me.
Gary Gutting wrote a provocative opinion piece for The New York Times blog last week about the supposed crisis in the humanities. The piece kicks off with a much-publicized recent study noting that only 8% of American undergraduates are majoring in the humanities. Gutting quickly notes that this statistic is probably a considerable lowball, since the study defined “humanities” fairly narrowly, taking into account “only those with a serious academic interest in literature, music and art.” It’s still a surprising figure to me, as probably at least 70% of my circle of friends falls into that 8%. I’ve always known that associating with artists gave me a skewed view of the world, but I didn’t realize just how skewed.
Percentages aside, Gutting moves on to the depressing economic realities that should be painfully familiar to most folks with arts degrees. “Humanities majors on average start earning $31,000 per year and move to an average of $50,000 in their middle years. (The figures for writers and performing artists are much lower.) By contrast, business majors start with salaries 26 percent higher than humanities majors and move to salaries 51 percent higher.”
That parenthetical about writers and performing artists stings, doesn’t it? It’s not as if most theater people – at least not the ones I know – get into the field with grand dreams of becoming fabulously wealthy Broadway darlings, but it’s still painful to see hard evidence of just how much pipe is in that particular dream. But don’t get too down about opting to study dramatic structure instead of corporate cost-benefit analysis. As Gutting says, “Business majors may well be more interested in earning money and so accept jobs that pay well even if they are not otherwise fulfilling, whereas people interested in the humanities and the arts may be willing to take more fulfilling but lower-paying jobs.”
That’s certainly the case with my friend the real estate mogul. Catch him at the right moment (generally a moment facilitated by a tumbler or two of mid-shelf scotch) and he’ll admit that he envies my artistic drive and wishes he had something creative to be passionate about himself. He dabbled in sketching and writing in his youth but never found anything that he absolutely had to do. Absent that, he went with something at which he knew he could excel and make a good bit of money. Scorned by the Muses, the unfortunate lad was left with no option but to get rich.
It’s all well and good to have the secret envy of our non-artist friends, but the ultimate thrust of Gutting’s piece is undeniably troubling. The economic disparity between artists and “civilians” should be frightening not just to those on the wrong side of it, but also to anyone who appreciates the fruits of artists’ labors. One problem is that a sizable swath of people falls into the latter group without realizing it. We’ve all had our encounters with the “I don’t pay any attention to art, so why should I care?” crowd, those folks who take great pride in their cultural ignorance and think of "art" only as gallery openings and Shakespeare festivals. Even if you manage to explain to someone of that mindset that creative artists play a role in everything from Top 40 radio to reality TV to bus bench advertising, they can still play the “Yeah, but I sure as hell don’t go to the theater!” card. At that point you could bring up how many of the songs they grew up singing were lifted from stage musicals, or how many of their favorite sitcom stars worked their way up from Second City or The Groundlings, or how desperately Broadway has been contorting itself to appeal to their Spider-Man and Greenday-loving asses. Or you could just walk away shaking your head.
Another argument I hear all the time from my conservative friends is “If people think your art is worth paying for, you’ll get paid for it. And if you’re really not in it for the money, why would you care even if they don’t?” There’s something to the second point. Most artists I know would say they’d still be doing some iteration of what they’re doing now even if there was no money involved. (And I don’t believe I know any MBAs who’d say the same.) Even so, I don’t think people comprehend just how bleak a purely free market arts scene would be, or how easy it would be to at least slightly level the playing field. Gutting turns to Minnesota to illustrate the point. “To cite just one striking example, the Minnesota State Legislature recently appropriated over $500 million to help build the Vikings a new stadium. At the same time, the Minnesota Orchestra is close to financial disaster because it can’t erase a $6 million deficit. If the Legislature had diverted only 10 percent of its support for football, it would have covered that deficit for the next eight years.”
So what’s to be done? It’s nearly impossible to put a price tag on the societal benefit of, say, a shadow puppet vampire play at In the Heart of the Beast, and we’re dealing with people for whom the bottom line is the only one that matters. Maybe it’s time for the creative class to go Galt and go on strike. Show everybody what they’d be missing without us and our little “hobbies.” Give them a taste of a world without new music, Photoshop mashups or Pippin revivals. I have to imagine the dreariness of it all would have them crawling back, waving fistfuls of cash in their supplication.
Aw, who am I kidding? Within two days we’d be surreptitiously staging guerilla theater dramatizations of the Great Artists’ Strike and sending anonymous invites to the local critics. We can’t help it. For better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, it’s just what we do.