A few months ago, The Guardian’s pet right-wing columnist Simon Jenkins wrote a piece about funding for the arts. In his piece, Jenkins attacks the government for spending billions on high-end pieces of capital investment while the cut and thrust of British cultural life is mostly self-sustaining and subject to the laws of the marketplace. Jenkins wants us to take away from his piece that British cultural life does not need state funding but what I take away from it is the fact that the government has failed to focus on the right thing. A cultural life is not necessarily one based upon consumption of high-end artistic products such as the output of the Royal Opera House (which recently received a £2.4M recession bail out), but one based upon creation and participation. Which would benefit the most people? £2.4M so that the Royal Opera House can continue charging £60 instead of £80 for seats with only partial views of the stage or £2.4M for small theatre companies, amateur opera productions and magazines drawing attention to both? Culture is something that is there to be participated in. A healthy amateur scene not only gives future professionals a means of perfecting their crafts, it also makes it easier for people to try their hand at art and engage with it in a way other than through consumption.
The problem is that while scenes (whether they are theatrical, operatic, musical, artistic or anything else) are funded largely by good will, they do frequently depend upon people who demand rather more concrete remuneration than good will and social capital. These demands create over-heads. The higher the over-heads on artistic production, the greater the drain on good will. This leads to higher ticket prices, expensive membership subscriptions and greater and greater demands upon those people who are willing to contribute for the good of the scene. These demands are part of an attitude that can only be described as “Fuck you Pay Me”.
Example the first :
One of the great problems with amateur opera is venue. In central London there are few buildings large enough to stage theatrical productions that have not been turned into either bingo halls or churches. Churches are a traditional venue for amateur productions because, in principle, it’s a win-win relationship. The company gets to stage a performance in a pleasant venue and the church gets to contribute to the cultural life of the local community and advertise its niceness to Christian-minded folks who care about such things. After all, aside from the electricity, it costs them nothing. However, more and more churches have realised that they can make money from charging rental fees. This is not a question of a few pounds for the electricity and the upkeep but hundreds and hundreds of pounds. Enough that some companies either have to cut back on performances or seek a new venue. Clearly, this flies in the face of any claims churches might make about being ‘involved in the community’. Unless you define “involved with” as “parasitical upon”. Nor are priests the only people with their hands out. Musical and theatre directors demand payment, as do costume designers and musicians. Fewer and fewer amateur opera companies perform with full orchestras as even amateur orchestras demand large fees and the kind of set working times that you would expect from a professional contract rather than an amateur production put on for the sheer joy of participating in a piece of art.
Example the second :
Strange Horizons is an SF-related website that I review for on a semi-regular basis. The website is free of adverts, is free to access and it relies for its funding upon the good will of the SF community because it is a boon to that community. Everyone benefits from the continued existence of Strange Horizons. However, looking at their funding page, I was struck by the disconnect between what most contributors are paid and what short-fiction writers are paid. Critics get paid one tenth of what short fiction writers get paid and fully half of Strange Horizon’s weekly editorial outlay goes on short fiction. Publishing a short story costs Strange Horizons more than six months’ worth of web hosting. The reason for this is that Strange Horizons hopes to attract the best writers and the best writers demand professional levels of pay.
The issue is radically different levels of expectation as to the possibility of doing stuff professionally. Most SF critics know that they will never in 1000 years make enough money to turn professional and so they write for their own sake and for the soft benefits that comes from being a member of a society. Similarly, most opera singers realise that they most likely will not make it as professionals and even those who do not recognise that you will have to pay your dues until they get their big break. Conversely, many musicians, even at an undergraduate level, expect to be professional. The same goes for a lot of science fiction writers. They want to be able to quit their day jobs and so they pitch a lot of their stories at the level of publications that pay professional rates.
In an ideal world this would not be problematic. We should all be able to support ourselves doing what we love and only what we love. Sadly though, this is not the real world. Just as most opera singers will not turn professional, most writers of short fiction will never be able to quit their day jobs. There is a market for opera and for science fiction but they are not large enough to accommodate anything even remotely close to the number of people who expect that market to support them financially. By agreeing to pay professional rates to the people who demand them, amateur scenes are effectively pandering to the professional fantasies of groups of people who are ruthlessly Thatcherite in their attitude to the arts :
There’s not enough money in the kitty for an orchestra? Fuck you pay me.
Strange Horizons fund raisers have to work twice as hard to publish short fiction? Fuck you pay me.
I’m still at university and I’ve been offered a chance to gain experience in an operatic production? Fuck you pay me.
Obviously, I am simplifying matters somewhat. For starters, many writers happily write for free or allow people to reprint their stories without demanding payment while many of the lucky few who do turn pro use their increased visibility to do stuff that benefits everyone in the community. Secondly, the existence of professional SF writers, musicians and directors is, one might argue, a good thing. By pumping money into the scene, Strange Horizons and amateur opera companies are contributing to the existence of a market that can allow people to quit their day jobs. By withdrawing from the professional arena, Strange Horizons would damage the market. Indeed, this is the challenge that is currently being faced by film criticism as the willingness of so many people to share their opinions about film on the internet has resulted in the perceived value of film criticism decreasing. A decrease that has resulted in a shrinking of the market for professional criticism and an ensuing series of layoffs among film critics employed by newspapers. This suggests that the best sort of amateur scene, one in which people give their time and effort simply for the pleasure of creating something larger than themselves, is one that can only be achieved by damaging the associated professional scene.
The heart of the issue, for me, is whether it is worth sacrificing an amateur scene for a professional one. The ability to support yourself by doing what you love is a wondrous thing and something worth aspiring to. In some cases it even results in better work than if the same individuals had been forced to work day jobs. The idea of a world in which everyone is forced to work in order to support themselves whilst only doing what they love in the evening and weekends is a horrible thought… and yet it seems that this is the world in which we increasingly live. The refusal of some to realise this is ultimately endangering the future viability of a healthy amateur scene as pandering to the fantasies of people who dream of quitting their day jobs comes at the cost of more work for others and more drain on the good will of an amateur scene that is already thinly stretched.
The issue of our society’s refusal to pay people to do what they love is a social and political one and it needs to be addressed at that level. The problem is with capitalism itself and that problem cannot hope to be addressed by paying a disproportionate amount to some hobbyists at the expense of others. The blending of the amateur and professional scenes has resulted in would-be professionals feeding like beasts from the deep upon the good will of those amateurs who do offer their services to the community simply for fun and social capital. To extract $200 for a short story from a website that is funded by good will is like demanding money for theatrical direction or musical accompaniment : Parasitical.