Monday, October 12, 2009

Someday I Want to Do This for Nothing

"Someday I Want to Do This for Nothing"
A Response to Amanda Palmer's "Why I Am Not Afraid To Take Your Money"

A friend of mine forwarded me Amanda Palmer's recent posting on the relationship between artists and money, and was extremely curious about my take on it. There's almost nothing that I disagree with in what she says -- I just want her, and all of us working artists, to take it one step (or perhaps a dozen steps) further.

Her basic thesis can be summed up by this quote:

    "artists will now be coming straight to you (yes YOU, you who want their music, their films, their books) for their paychecks.
    please welcome them. please help them. please do not make them feel badly about asking you directly for money.
    dead serious: this is the way shit is going to work from now on and it will work best if we all embrace it and don't fight it."

What she's remarking upon is the way that, for the first time in a very long time, independent artists are able to appeal en masse to their audiences directly for money and potentially receive that money with minimal intervention by any other entity (taxes and PayPal fees notwithstanding). Palmer references a recent webcast that she did where she made $10,000 (through a direct appeal to her listeners and auction of her belongings -- I haven't heard the webcast, nor have I given Palmer any money). For a while now, the way that artists received money to continue/create their work was through 1) selling a discrete product or experience to an audience (i.e. a CD, a painting, a chapbook, a single night's performance of a show or movie), or 2) receiving advances (sums of money) from a gatekeeper to those audiences (like a record label or theatrical distributor or publisher), or 3) individual patronage (wealthy individual supporters -- parents, lovers, would-be lovers, angels and madmen) that often comes with many, many strings attached. Now, if you have an email address and a bank account, you can sign up with PayPal (who will take 2.9% or less off the top -- a pittance compared to other gatekeepers) and have a direct funnel for your audience to send money to you. No managers, no agents, no labels, no overhead... just you and PayPal and your bank (and the State -- can't forget taxes).

This, frankly, is fucking awesome for the artist -- who commonly has received in the realm of 5-10% of the total money brought in by their art when handled by the major players. (And that's if they're lucky and extremely savvy and were able to afford good lawyers up front, which most are least the first time around. Most artists get fucked to the tune of 0-2% returns, if they break even at all.) But what Palmer also references in her breakdown of the current situation is that people feel ashamed to ask for money for their art. They feel ashamed of being viewed as a beggar, impoverished and desperate for money. They feel ashamed of being desperate for money. They feel ashamed of having the line between selling their labor or the produce of that labor (via some item or event) and selling themselves blurred. Palmer names herself as shameless and fearless and brazen -- willing to stand on her soapbox naked asking for a few pennies. She describes a stint working as a living statue for five years:

    "i stood almost motionless on a box in harvard square, painted white, relinquishing my fate and my income to the goodwill and honor of the passers-by.

    i spent years gradually building up a tolerance to the inbuilt shame that society puts on laying out your hat/tipjar on the ground and asking the public to support your art.

    i was harrassed, jeered at, mocked, ignored, insulted, spit at, hated.
    i was also applauded, appreciated, protected, loved... all by strangers passing me in the street. people threw shit at me. people also came up to me and told me that i'd changed their lives, brightened their day, made them cry.

    some people used to yell "GET A FUCKING JOB" from their cars when they drove by me.
    i, of course, could not yell back. i was a fucking statue, statues do not yell."

It fascinates me that in her description of her time as a living statue Palmer locates people's hostility towards her as being about the fact that she was begging for money -- and not more directly in that she was an artist, performing, in sometimes strange and incomprehensible and sublime ways, and asking for money in exchange. Everything that Palmer describes as experiencing, I locate for myself in being an artist who creates and puts work out in the world. My art and me personally via my art will be (and have been) harassed, jeered at, mocked, ignored, insulted, spit at, hated, applauded, appreciated, protected, loved. To my thinking, that paradox, that collision of response, defines the position of the artist in culture.

Now, yes, Palmer is also speaking to the ways that art is not valued as labor in much of modern society. The work of the artist is not valued -- and that is, in no small part, due to the fact that our hours of work are not easily quantifiable. How to make discrete the time I spend dreaming about my next movie? How to put a wage per hour on the time spent picking out the melody for a new song? The "value" and "worth" -- as it relates to money, the universal quantifier of our age -- of an object, or an action, or an experience is never concrete. But nowhere is that arbitrary evaluation made more clear than on the valuing of art.

Joni Mitchell sings a song about this very problem, and it comes from her perspective of her music after she became famous and moneyed. She describes standing on a noisy street corner, and hearing a street performer playing his clarinet "real good, for free."

    "Now me, I play for fortune
    and those velvet curtain calls
    I have a black limousine
    and sixteen gentlemen
    escorting me to these halls

    And I'll play if you have the money
    or if you're some kind of friend to me
    But the one man band
    by the quick lunch stand
    He was playing real good, for free"

    *lyrics from Mitchell's live album Miles of Aisles, when she was even more famous and moneyed than when she first wrote this song (notably, the number of bodyguards goes up and up over the years. Compare this from 1983 when she stops naming a number at all with this (probably early 1970s).

The problem is more than just the slippery non-quantifiable nature of the labor that goes in to the making of (much, perhaps most) art. It is that art, I believe, defies monetary value and worth at it's core. Tell me about the first time you heard a song that brought you to tears. Tell me about the side-splitting laughter you've guffawed in your chair watching a movie. Tell me about the art that passed through your senses in some way and suddenly, unexpectedly, made the world clearer, in a crystalline instant, to you. You were changed forever. Now put a price tag on those experiences. Put a price tag on the item/event that gave those experiences to you.

It can be done. But if ever there was something that felt like ramming a square peg in a round hole, this is it. I could place a monetary value on my laughter, my tears, my arousal, my exhilaration, my catharsis, my inspiration, my desire. (And wouldn't late capitalism love it if I did?) But what we need, and need quite desperately I think, is a sense of value that is not quantifiable by money. It's a complex, sticky, idiosyncratic process -- what breaks my heart open is not necessarily what will break yours. It's unclear what profit a person could make off such a shift in the paradigm of value -- or if "profit" by its very nature would become meaningless without a value system based on money. Perhaps what would become valued is an ineffable sense of excellence. Wouldn't that be something? Labor valued for its excellence -- for its flow, its ease, its beauty, its extraordinary simple perfection, its superlative nature, perhaps even its joyful ordinariness -- not for its forced corrolary to pieces of paper or bits of pressed metal we agree have value, or to be more honest and contemporary, these rectangles of plastic that transmit electrical signals that we agree have value.

You see, I'm an artist. I dream big. I test the edges. I question the foundations. I want to see behind the funhouse mirrors of this illusory world -- and what I dream of, what I glimpse, I want to share with you. The yearning of my heart for a more just, liberated world calls me to these dreams, these theories, this push to see the world differently.

But let's talk turkey, too. My art (and the art of others) provides my heart with comfort, provides my head with solace and inspiration, but it does not generally put food on my table. And all my grand words and dreams and artistic labor infrequently translate into money for my landlord at the end of the month. I perform other labor to make that happen, and I am enmeshed in a system where that labor is translated into paper and electric signals that have a monetary value, and I trade those bits and pieces for food, for clothing, for shelter, for the fines on my library books, for the yarn I knit into this winter's shawl, for the electricity I use to power my computer to edit new films and write new scripts. All of that, and more, comprises my reality. And the hunger in my belly I've felt when I did not have enough of those pieces of paper or electrical signals to consume more than Ramen noodles and tap water, and I was considering calories not as a restriction but as a goal to meet for the day -- that has played it's part in my reality, too. The holes in my shoes; the worn out clothing; the cutting anxiety of standing in a department store wondering what I could afford and leaving empty-handed; the neurotic pride of never buying clothing from the Good Will; the kept tally in my head of how much the groceries are costing against what I know is in my bank account, done so that I can avoid the embarrassment of having to put something back; the realization that until recently I've (probably) never partnered with a person "worth" less than a quarter of a million dollars, and that I'd managed to do that unconsciously; the fact that in order to make the art that I envision in this historical moment and this economy, I'm looking at raising something on the order of several million dollars to do it... and the only things that I know who have that kind of cash are multinational banks and corporations investing in movie studios, the same institutions that bleed us all dry...

I'm talking about putting a price tag on my passion. It happens every day, in every cost, in every dollar of rent (dear god) that I pay to live in one of the most expensive cities in the world, in every calorie I burn worrying about making ends meet, in every compounded dollar of interest I owe at the end of every month on the debts I took on to get where I am now. If I were to only look at my life as a cost/benefit analysis, nothing would make sense. By any account, at least until recently, I would have been deemed a fool. But that is what we are, us artists. We are fools. We are the jesters, the ones turning these codes of protocols on their ear, reversing the assumptions, sticking our tongues out at the king. And sometimes we're killed for it. But sometimes, something sublime happens instead of the endless miserable debasement that is work for hire.

Recently, I started working on a major television series doing an extremely specialized niche trade. I am paid a startling amount of money for this quirky expertise of mine, and my union (I.A.T.S.E Local 52) makes sure that I enjoy innumerable benefits and guarantees that I have never experienced under any other working circumstances ever. I projected my income for this production season, and it breaks six figures. I am the first person in my family to ever make this kind of money. Contrast this to two years ago when I barely broke $20,000 in income, and last year when I made a respectable $38,000 on my own freelance and union labor. Contrast this shift to the rest of my life, where I've never made more than about $42,000 (and that was working full-time for a non-profit and approaching a nervous breakdown of unhappiness). This year, I will make around three or four times that. However, my years of stringent poverty stay with me. I am wrestling lately with how much of my life has been determined by poverty, and how much of my life I would not change for all the riches in the world. It is a surreal process, but it is one that has shed a great deal of light on the machinations of finance, and particularly the cruelty of usury.

Which brings me back to what's extraordinary about an artist's direct appeal to an audience for financial support. Palmer exclaims that this is the way that the system works now and we should all just get used to it, but I would appeal to her and to all of us to take her thinking further. Palmer auctioned off her possessions, and monetized her celebrity status onto the value of those possessions. In addition to that sale of self (if celebrity can be described as a sale of self, which I believe it can -- what makes it fascinating is that the self is, ostensibly, limitless) and object, Palmer also sells her art and labor via her CDs, her DVDs, tickets to her shows and so forth. But beyond that, in a note at the bottom of her post, she offers the opportunity for people to just give her money directly. It could be argued (and she makes this argument) that that money is a payment towards the potential of future work, and if you like her work, then you should support her monetarily. But Palmer could decide, tomorrow, that she will never make another object of worth for sale ever, and all of the money she's received would still be hers. It is not, in the strictest sense, a trade -- rather, in many ways, it is a gift. (It's certainly the only thing in the U.S. tax system a person could record it as, and if someone were to give her more than $12,000 in a single tax year -- without receiving anything in return or showing it to be a loan with reasonable interest -- it would have to be reported as a gift.)

In the gift, there is a critical subversion of the very system that fucks artists and laborers and everyone else. As McKenzie Wark writes in his astonishing "A Hacker Manifesto" (and please bear with me through the abstract density of his language):

    "20. Private property arose in opposition not only to feudal property, but also to traditional forms of the gift economy, which were a fetter to the increased productivity of the commodity economy. Qualitative, gift exchange was superseded by quantified, monetised exchange. Money is the medium through which land, capital, information and labour all confront each other as abstract entities, reduced to an abstract plane of measurement. The gift becomes a marginal form of property, everywhere invaded by the commodity, and turned towards mere consumption. The gift is marginal, but nevertheless plays a vital role in cementing reciprocal and communal relations among people who otherwise can only confront each other as buyer and sellers of commodities. As vectoral production develops, the means appear for the renewal of the gift economy. Everywhere that the vector reaches, it brings into the orbit of the commodity. But everywhere the vector reaches, it also brings with it the possibility of the gift relation.

    21. The hacker class has a close affinity with the gift economy. The hacker struggles to produce a subjectivity that is qualitative and singular, in part through the act of the hack itself.
    The gift, as a qualitative exchange between singular parties allows each party to be recognised as a singular producer, as a subject of production, rather than as a commodified and quantified object. The gift expresses in a social and collective way the subjectivity of the production of production, whereas commodified property represents the producer as an object, a quantifiable commodity like any other, of relative value only. The gift of information need not give rise to conflict over information as property, for information need not suffer the artifice of scarcity once freed from commodification."

    (my emphasis)

The value of information, freely circulated, is much like the value of art as I've argued it here -- only taken to an even further abstract extreme. While Palmer asks us to accept the direct monetization of art, labor, and item, and to support artists by submitting to such a system because of the possibilities of unmediated exchange, I argue that there is even greater possibility in viewing this money as a gift. Yes, we currently live in a society that is run by money, where means of existence and qualities of desire are quantified by money, and where survival in many, many cases and "quality of life" in all cases (while a subjective scale) is still predetermined by the availability of money. That's a reality that we live with, even those of us who dream of other worlds and work towards those worlds. In that regard, yes, without question, artists still must submit to their artistic labor and their products being monetized (or to the selling of their bodies and energy to perform other labor to continue to create their art) and, while that continues, there must still be an exchange between the recipients/owners/experiencers of their art in the form of money or other items of value. Until this system is overthrown, we will starve without that exchange. And if we're starving, regardless of Hemingway's rejoinder that hunger is good discipline, we will only be able to create so much, dream so much, think so much of new and better worlds, before our bellies and our pain will interrupt us or preclude us from the work entirely. To that end, yes, you, our audiences, must continue to send your money to us. You must value our art the way you value your phone bill or your coffee or your debt payments. You must be willing to send us money so that we can pay our phone bills and buy coffee and pay off our debts. And in the same vein that you do not shame the operator or the barista (I believe you probably should shame the collectors), it is important to not shame the artist for asking for money. We already feel it -- the square peg of commerce raping the round hole of our creativity -- enough. Our art was not meant for your dollars and interest. Our art was meant for your heart. We compromise to a point, yes, but the moment it becomes solely for the money, you feel it and we feel it too. And all is degraded to cheap, hard cash. But there is the possibility that you can beat all of that, you can avoid the measure and the crassness of exchange, with the profound and elegant sidestep of the gift.

This is why I do not join Palmer in her vision of a future of "cheap art," where the wealthy can come to our dinner parties and not leave a tip or a donation. I envision a future of free art -- free as in liberated, free as in beyond the cheapening and concretizing of money, free as in able to achieve excellence without the illusion of scarcity. I work in the movies and in television, and I long to and aim to do my own work on a grand scale. But what I know, and know for certain, is that were it not for this exploitative system and the protection and prevarication of my union, I would do this work for free. I do not perform this labor for my television show -- I do not work for 12 or 14 or 16 hours straight before the subway commute and maintain my concentration and my energy for them -- solely for a paycheck. I do not dream of making my movies for the money that will be collected by them. I do all of this because I have the extraordinary luck of having ignored all the naysayers and brutalized ones, and found the thing that I am the best at in all the world. I have found the labor that makes me excellent, and out of which my excellence becomes manifest. And dear god but I want to give that to you, my comrades, my friends, my lovers, my strangers... and, yes, my audience, present and future. And someday, someday if we work very hard and dream with clarity and boldness, I will do this for nothing and give it to you freely and we will all have dinner to go home to.

Until then, when it causes you no harm, buy the CD even though you downloaded it, go to the theaters and see the movie even though you torrented it, tip the bartender and buy a drink (even water) when you see a show in the local dive bar, put cash in the can passed around when you go to hear someone read... We're changing this world, all of us, but until then... your money still counts. When it does you no harm, give it away.


  1. I love your response article to Amanda Palmer's article "why-i-am-not-afraid-to-take-your-money."

    I enjoyed reading your thoughts on the subject. It's refreshing to read a piece on this topic that is not a rant. Your intelligence, passion and integrity comes through your words clearly. Thank you for posting this and sharing your thoughts with us. I totally and absolutely agree with everything you say. I'd welcome an opportunity to have more discussions with you about art and creativity.

    Jun Kitatani

  2. Thanks for reading, Jun. I am also interested in having those conversations -- there's little that I like to talk about more! :) Feel free to email me ( or @me on Twitter (@circlesoffire) anytime.