At 19, I decided to be a dancer. That decision cascaded out of me like a wave, from a deep
passion that I couldn’t quite identify or describe. Even now, words are insufficient. I suddenly knew what a calling was, and I chose to answer it. And it was thrilling, taking 2-3 classes a day, performing in small theaters and bohemian basements, watching the great modern dance companies and taking master classes with iconic figures. It was fantastic and I let it take me for a ride where I learned so much about myself and the gifts given to me by the Greatest of Spirits.
Ten years later, divorced and a single parent, I had no viable income, no decent health care
for myself or my child, and no back-up credit. I couldn’t afford an apartment, given all the expenses that go along with it, or day care so that I could work. Of course, there isn’t a day care in the world that operates during the hours that a performing artist works. So, broke and out of options, I went back home.
One could ask if I was any good. The truth is, I never lacked for “work”. From the beginning,
I worked. I learned and I worked. And I must have had something, because I was asked to be a part of many projects, even in the very early years. I loved it, and I reiterate, I worked really hard – we all did. But we would rehearse for weeks, many times a week, and receive in payment only $50 per performance, and we were lucky if there were more than 3 performances per project. The rehearsal time was hardly ever compensated, and when it was, it was pathetically symbolic. A living wage did not exist. We would teach classes to earn some kind of consistent money, but we were paid by the student and the actual times we taught. No class, no money, no consistency. And since the number of students in independent studios was always fluctuating, our income fluctuated to the same degree. No, I don’t blame the independent choreographers, composers, writers, those creative artists who grapple themselves with financial viability, needing the performing artist to bring their
creations to fruition. I’ve been on both sides of that coin. But the truth is, I’ve paid out more than the work has paid me. So to live, I’ve been a waitress, a hostess and a model. I’ve set up databases for a museum and a theater on the computer (yes, really, back in the day when it was really simple). I’ve been a store clerk, a bank teller, a loan teller, a bookkeeper, a babysitter and a filing clerk for bad loans……..I’m sure I’m forgetting something, and grateful for the memory lapse.
Today, I am a singer and still have no money, none to speak of, that is, and I used to feel
embarrassed by that fact. Now, I don’t. I came to realize over the last several years that my financial status is a direct result of societal constructs, the appraisal of the value of whatever goods are being produced, and wage hierarchies that go way back. The problem is not that I chose the wrong field. I feel blessed in the work that I do and very gratified when that work touches the hearts of others, which in turn touches mine. The problem lies in the structures of a society that decided centuries ago that the artist is provided for at the whim of a population (or certain members of that population) that may or may not understand who she is, what he is saying and what lens through which they look at the world. Many artists are not appreciated until they’re dead, and somebody else makes a lot of money off the work they spent their days and nights agonizing over.
But what is the pecuniary state of the world of the artist? To pretend that the artistic world is not elitist, to pretend that it is equitable, is to ignore the obvious. There are some few of us, whether lucky or well-placed, who earn exorbitant amounts of money, while most of the rest of us wonder if next month or next year, we’ll be able to pay the bills. The artists who do join the elite class are not the only ones with talent and passion, and the determination to use them, not by any means, but because we live with the illusion that this world is a meritocracy, this state of affairs is accepted as not only admissible, but fair.
There is a small middle class who work at established institutions – universities, conservatories, state funded metropolitan ensembles, i.e. orchestras, dance and theater companies and the like – but its existence does not make up for the great divide between rich and poor in the artistic community. We search for choices in order to stay in our field, but those available to struggling artists range from deficient to laughable. We should not have to teach if we have no propensity to do so, especially if we are not trained. Pedagogy is its own calling and should be respected as such. We should not be thrown into competitive scenarios that pit us against one another, vying desperately for attention, as voyeuristic entertainment, for a mere pittance so we, maybe, survive another year - we do not become artists for sport. We should not have to be dependent on a partner with a viable income, just so that we have the possibility to fulfill our work. A loving relationship should be free of such a burden. In conversations with fellow artists, it becomes clear that way too often, our best work is not the work that pays. Those lucrative events determine what we do, and too often our hearts are left on the sidelines. Out of necessity we fall into mediocrity and meaninglessness and our spirits are drained. Only when we are lucky, do compensation and genuineness come together. However, depending on luck as a way of life is precarious, to say the least.
We need a living wage.
It was during the primary campaign of the USA 2020 presidential election cycle that I first
heard the term Universal Basic Income, or the UBI. I was immediately skeptical. Looking at history, I realized that early communal societies embraced the concept of mutual guardianship and that the current welfare system is a form, albeit very inadequate, of this concept. But this was different. The idea was not based on need per se, but rather on the fundamental belief that every person has an inalienable right to an income. Yes, my skepticism grew out of my mistrust of those who wield power, political or corporate, whom I see as unwilling to concede anything unless they can manipulate it to their advantage and profit from it. But, in my head, the idea wouldn’t let go. Manipulation notwithstanding, the UBI could be the answer, or at least a major part of the answer, for the financial plight of the artist. Has any one of us not been through the discussion with parents, spouses, friends, teachers, etc., who, to be fair, generally have our best interests at heart, about the inevitable monetary struggles of making the creative arts a career choice? “Be reasonable! Do you really believe you’ll be one of the few who make it? Lots of talented people are overlooked.”
Absolutely true and absolutely scandalous.
Certainly, I do see the rub in its implementation - the how to define and identify an artist,
what criteria make someone eligible for the title of artist and at which point in their development, and who decides who meets the criteria - are questions to be wrestled with. Moreover, is there a minimum scale of output? And in what time period? What role does popularity play? Should it play a role at all? Indeed, can the authenticity of artistry be defined in bureaucratic terms? In actuality, no. In my studies, we defined artistry as a cluster, a sphere containing the elements of intention, skill, authenticity, originality, a clarity of sentiment and spirituality, measured out and juxtaposed by each individual artist as a recipe for creativity.
The authentic voice of the artist, regardless of creative channel – words, colors, sounds, motion, kinesics– lives in the spirit of humankind. It can veer the course of popular opinion and reasoning. This voice, when it is true and honest, motivates and inspires, it can change apathy to zeal, and transform hesitancy to resolve. It’s business is illumination and reflection, holding a mirror up for the community from which it springs, magnifying disregarded details held in secret or misapprehension, questioning the “what is” and pondering the “what if”s. These are intangibles and must remain so. Trying to put them into measurable forms will do a disservice not only to the realm of the arts, but to all the potential artists whose creative instincts are just waking up.
Hence, the UBI. You can’t do any of this if you’re hungry or wondering if you’ll be kicked out
of your house at some point or simply fighting with someone you love, about money. Though artistic concepts don’t fit bureaucratic forms, our needs are as concrete as anyone else’s. Even so, this search for definition is not a job for bankers, treasury committees, corporate moguls, business people, administrators or politicians. We, who embrace intangibles must embrace this challenge and be given the dominion to do so. We who understand that creativity needs space, trust, contemplation and freedom must determine our community. And maybe we will be aware enough not to make committees that create new elites, but we will open our gates to the creative traveler who says, “I am an artist.” And it will be enough to say, “Then come in and join us.” And we will live and work, content in mutual guardianship.
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