Artists in Parecon — a Response

This is the aspect of parecon theory where I diverge 180 degrees. I cannot fathom why, or really even how, the work of artists (and I’ll include “commentators” and social critics in that realm, just to make sure I’m dragged in as well), are to be considered in the same way as industrial workers and members of other professions.

(I had actually begun this post as a comment on Michael Albert’s recent post, on Parecon and Art, but it grew too long so I thought maybe it should be its own post so as not to drown out others.)

What’s the main difference? There are actually many, but I’ll focus on two for now. Primarily, I think in a good society, the creative labors of artists (and the like) will be universally honored as virtues in and of themselves, and the act of creativity will be seen as intrinsically valuable to the individual and society alike. Everyone benefits from being creative, as well as from the collective creativity of having tens of millions instead of thousands of artists’ work valued and shared.

The same cannot be said for most other kinds of labor. I don’t think we do (or should) revere most non-creative jobs the same way we view creative jobs. If we believe everyone should be engaged in creative activities — or at least should be encouraged and allowed to — then why should we remunerate some for it and not others? Professional artists won’t need to make time during their time off in order to exercise their creative instincts. But everyone else will have to? That doesn’t sound even remotely fair to me.

I would say the same for other professions that are relegated to the classification of “hobby” among amatuers — but frankly most jobs, for good reason, don’t find people clamoring to participate in their free time. Athletics is the other field to which I believe this applies equally well.

So why should some people get to be professional artists, just because their work is valued by society, and others be relegated to amatuer hobbyists? Really, what we are talking about is some means of evaluating the value of artwork to society, so that people whose work makes the cut are remunerated — all equally and substantially — for their efforts, whereas those who don’t make the cut are not remunerated at all, and are classified as amatuer or hobyist or whatever.

So Amy paints 20 hours a week, for the love of the work. So does Sandra. Let’s say there’s a 1-100 scale rating system for artists who want to be “professional” in our parecon society — meaning they don’t have to work an assembly line by day and use their “spare time” for artistic pursuits — and a score of 30 or above means someone gets to be paid as an artist (this is all arbitrary — I’m thinking in terms of an approval rating).

Amy scores a 30 and Sandra scores a 29. Sandra now has to work 25 or 30 or however many hours a week are required by a typical industrial job, and spends 20 additional hours a week painting. But Amy does an art-centered job complex during that time, and then just paints whenever she feels like it outside the job, during which time she now has an extra 20 hours to read books, go on walks, etc.

This is somehow fair? I think not! I say we draw those “especially talented” artists (which I think is a bogus classification in the first place) into the mainstream productive industries — the ones no one would choose to participate in as a hobby! — and collectively spare the rest of us untalented hacks that much more time to engage in artistic pursuits during our off hours.

Then everyone in society gets the basic materials and facilities for creating artwork — some of which will be widely valued for its particular, individual beauty or contribution, and all of which will be valued for what participation in creative endeavors adds to society as a whole, even if the product is ugly crap.

So there’s an idea for the professional artists (and pro athletes) of today to really be threatened by!

Here’s the thing — unlike certain fields, such as science or engineering, where it is at least conceivable that people would not want to toil without pay but in which talent and skill do make a big difference… — with art, if we don’t pay people to be artists, but we do enable and encourage them to be artists, 99% of them will do it anyway, and will create wonderful work anyway. Same for athletes. And if it proves that, given the resources and encouragement, scientist will pursue discoveries and engineers will seek innovations without needing to be directly remunerated for doing so — then they too should be moved into this category of “unpaid” jobs.

The key is shifting the focus to who is valued, instead of whose product is valued. Do we value the elite minority, hoping that we gain what we need as a society from the small group we can afford to remunerate for their efforts in a given field? Or do we focus on providing resources and facilities and training to everyone, as an investment in the overall contribution of people in various fields? We certainly are going to be losing out of we value Amy’s contribution but not Sandra’s, so why not value them all?

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