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The Value of Our Work, Part 2

Yesterday I wrote about getting paid for creative work, and sifting through the comments I realize that there is a point I'd like to make clearer or address better.

To start with, I want to emphasize that my main point was not that doing creative work for free or for exposure is wrong. As I said yesterday, I've done some creative work for free myself, and I even have a friend who is doing pro bono creative work for me (although I did offer payment for it, and would be willing to pay, if she wanted).

My main point can best be illustrated by the following story.

In his autobiography, Isaac Asimov told of the time a woman of his acquaintance asked him if he would take on some volunteer project for the community. From what I remember, Asimov said he would have been fine doing the project, but then the acquaintance went on to say that she would have asked Dr. So-and-so, but Dr. So-and-so was a very busy man.

And that statement stopped Isaac Asimov cold. He was incensed that just because he was a writer, this acquaintance assumed that he wasn't busy and had plenty of time. What bothered him was her unwarranted assumption about his life as a freelance writer.

And that's what bothers me about Google's approach to the artists mentioned in the article. It's the assumption that of course an artist would be happy with exposure as payment. Because it's not Google who gets to make that decision – it's the artists.

In the end, I'd go back to Google and anyone else offering naught but exposure, and ask them this – who exactly do they think is going to pick up the slack and pay artists if word gets around that they'll work for exposure? At what point would Google consider an artist's work to be of value? (As sethg_prime noted in the comments, Google surely paid Scott McCloud to create the online 39-page comic book introducing Chrome to the world. If McCloud's art is worth paying for, why isn't everyone else's?)

Expectations need to be set accordingly.

(As an aside, there's a fascinating chapter in the book Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely about social norms, and how we keep them separate from market norms. Ariely has placed an excerpt from that chapter here, and I encourage everyone to take a look.)


I won't pretend to be well versed in this area, so if I inadvertently stir the pot too much, I apologize in advance.

Could it be that the individualized output of certain forms of labor or creativity have such subjective value that it becomes easier to overlook objective value? If you think that Bob's art sucks and Jim's is great, but your friend has the opposite opinion, how do the two of you fairly value both artists' works simultaneously, and against each other? Rather than think about the time and materials that go into making a work of art, does it become easier to simply hide behind the (incorrect) notion that everything has little value until somebody says something otherwise about a specific piece? Therefore, if an artist is undiscovered (and therefore the works have little value) would advancing the discovery of that artist, which would increase that one artist's value, be substantial payment?

Personally, I know better, and I think that Google's got the wrong idea.
Ah. I was wondering if someone would bring this up.

One of the tragedies of art history is the fate of Vincent van Gogh. Throughout his life, van Gogh was unable to make much money off his paintings, and was in general supported by his brother Theo. (I've read somewhere that van Gogh did not manage to sell a single painting in his lifetime, but I have no idea if that is true.) And yet, years after his death, van Gogh's paintings command astronomical sums. Any one of those sales would have set him up for life. Instead, others end up profiting off of his work.

We tend to assign value to art based on perception, but in general, the main value a work of art has is twofold: the original piece, and right of reproduction. The usual practice for someone who wants to use art is to commission a piece and to purchase the first-time publication rights. The artist, however, retains all future reprint rights plus the right to sell the original piece.

But - and here's the key point - the artist's labor is always considered to have some sort of minimum value. Think of how the Hollywood unions, like WGA and SAG, post guidelines for minimum payment for work. If Google wants to hire an artist to do work for them, assumedly they've checked out the artist already and feel that his or her work has some sort of inherent value to it.
The modern guilds, unions and associations, etc. want to take the place of the mostly-discarded notion of patronage. Today, an artist would need such an organization to bolster or guarantee payments because of a flooded market, but previously, this wasn't the so much the case. Yes, freelance artists did exist, but for the most part they worked on retainer or for specific commission, and far fewer people entered the profession. Similarly, many of those professions also had a strong history of apprenticeship, unlike today, where it appears to remain only in skilled or licensed tradecraft (electricians, etc.), further limiting the talent pool, and increasing the expected payments.

Is there a perception problem? If the market is flooded, regardless of quality, should one expect that the value of an unknown work or artist be similarly diminished?
The "writers have free time" myth goes up to all kinds of lofty levels. When Philip Jose Farmer was living next door to his mother-in-law (my great-grandmother), she would call him up fairly regularly and ask him to help her with something or run an errand for her--assuming that, since he was a writer and working from home, he had plenty of time to help her out.

Of course he usually consented, so he may've not had anyone but himself to blame. :)
Also, your uncle was a kind, generous, and helpful man. :-)

December 2016

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