Cultural capitalists and the fair (non) payment of artist fees

The issue of artists’ fees and payment has felt particularly topical over the last months. As the Big Society revealed itself in the form of unemployment, Workfare and cuts to social services, the question of working for free was never likely to be too far away. Within the arts, issues around funding are often further complicated with a false correlation between investment in the arts and cuts elsewhere being made.

Before discussing why artists should be paid though, it seems appropriate to make a defence of the amateur (a word – lest we forget – that shares the same Latin root as the French ‘amour’). There’s something unsettling about a call for fair artistic payment that moves too readily into a call for all artistic work to always be paid. Being paid changes the nature of the work, it brings it into a capitalist frame and shifts it away from a place where the work is done for reasons other than money (perhaps as a favour to a friend, because there is a political pertinence to the work, or maybe even just because it feels good).

In a world where a price is readily paid for pretty much everything already – there is value to be found in those arguments that assert that work should occupy a place outside that1. As a thought experiment, it’s interesting (and perhaps slightly concerning) to wonder what art would be made if the average wage of an artist was on a par with a banker.

There are occasions on which artists perhaps shouldn’t be paid a wage for their work; for that which is made at such times will sidestep the affects of market conditions and funding criteria. As Michael Sandel remarks, ‘Economists often assume that markets are inert, that they do not touch or taint the goods they regulate. But this is a mistake. Markets leave their mark. Often market incentives erode or crowd out non-market incentives.’

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Of course, the issue with which we’re concerned with here is not one where we need to worry about artists being paid too much. Rather, it’s the opposite that I am concerned with; the lived experiment that deals with the practicalities of living as an artist in a capitalist society, one in which the demands of rent and food aren’t going to be satisfied by making art in an absolutist vein2.

I don’t want to dwell for too long on the question of whether artists should be be able to make a living from what they do or not. That is an argument to be made in another blog post by someone else (and not by Winston Churchill). In summary though, if we are to have a diversity of people in a position of being able to dedicate their time to making art, then systems need to be put in place that ensure that it is not just those wealthy enough to have access to alternative sources of income that are able to do so.

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In the mid-eighties, Pierre Bourdieu published a remarkable text called The Forms of Capital. In this he presents a model for understanding the ways in which power is both transferred and maintained in society. He acknowledges the significant role money has to play in this dynamic whilst also acknowledging the more subtle conduits of power; those channels that funnel relationships between people that operate in a less easily quantifiable manner. Of particular relevance to what I’m writing about here is that which he describes as ‘the institutionalised state of cultural capital’.

To do Bourdieu something of a disservice and define cultural capital simply as that which gives an individual status, academic qualifications are a prime example of the institutionalised form. In other words, to receive First Class Honours from Cambridge will give a person a particular position in society (a position of some power, aside from any expertise or knowledge they may have gained) whilst even those less formally associated with such an institution will have something of its status conferred on them3.

Understanding this system of transferral goes some way to explain artists’ willingness to work for free in return for being able to list a performance on their CV at Late at Tate, or to say that they have performed in an ensemble for an artist held in particularly high repute4.

Perhaps unsurprisingly considering Bourdieu’s use of language, there is a potential for similar problems to arise in the operation of cultural capital as there are to be found in the mechanisms of financial capital (in fact, the interaction of the two forms of capital would suggest that what might appear as two issues, are in fact one problem). In a nutshell, under capitalism those with a lot are in a position to get a lot more by paying others to work for them. Through their work, the overall store of capital (be that money or cultural capital) is increased, but when it comes to dividing up the profits, the fact that the lead artist / institution ‘risked’ (or alternatively ‘was privileged enough to hold’) their original store of capital is used to justify a disproportionate share of the return.

A key question to ask is who benefits most from the artist giving their work for free. The institution/lead artist or the volunteer? Or to put it another way, who loses out more – the venue if they should pay the artists, or the artist by working for free?

Although closely linked, the mechanisms by which cultural and financial capital operate can’t be conflated exactly, not least because cultural capital – unlike money – cannot be quantified into discrete units and measured, whilst it is also  important to observe that – as Bourdieu himself commented – a world in which we reject any notion of capital at all would be one in which social position is dictated by either chance processes or absolute uniformity. My intention here is simply to draw attention to some of the processes that are in operation when artists agree to work for free.

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Our current position is one in which arts funding is in crisis, significant changes to how the arts are funded appear almost inevitable, and with artists and performers often operating as non-unionised individuals (particularly performers working outside traditional theatre), it is they who are the easiest targets when money needs to be saved. With stories doing the rounds like that of the Arts Council officer who advised that budgeting to pay performers properly would have little effect on the potential success of a Grants for the Arts application5 and reports of institutions offering space and marketing support in return for a percentage of any future income arising from work developed, there is a palpable sense that anywhere where money can be saved, it must be.

Artists must also take a share of the responsibility for negotiating a way through this, for the assessment of the potential for abusive practices in any given situation also sits with them. As perhaps is growing apparent, it is hard to define a clear code of action (other than to call for ACE to more rigorously enforce its guidelines), and yet perhaps we can begin to develop a checklist of questions that need answering at times when volunteers are called for:

  • What is being given back in exchange for the volunteered labour? Is it the promise of future returns of cultural capital that may never pay off (being able to list a particular association on your CV) or will an experience of tangible benefit be provided (for example, the experiences of those who volunteered for Nic Green’s Trilogy have been – in all accounts that I’ve come across – incredible).
  • Is there any budget involved at all? If there is, who is getting paid and how does this relate proportionally to others? Is there any talk of how profits will be shared should money start coming in?
  • How is the cultural capital distributed? As a society, we have a tendency to focus on celebrity and genius, and such focus on individualism makes it hard to accurately credit all those involved in a work’s development. As I keep emphasising, is a line on a CV that very few people are likely to read sufficient payment?
  • How much like paid work is the volunteering? There’s a difference between being a responsible volunteer and and unpaid worker.

Further debate can be found though the online and face-to-face meetings of The Ostrich Group – a collective of artists, producers and other arts professionals that is rapidly becoming something of a hub for these issues – and has acted as a stimulant for many of the ideas in this writing.

1 I’m reminded here of Michael Sandel’s first 2009 Reith Lecture in which he discusses the effects of markets on morality – making the argument that if we pay children to read books, or nations to accept increased immigration then, although we might increase childhood engagement with literature, or raise the number of asylum seekers that are resettled, such marketisation can act to obscure the joy that comes from reading for its own sake or risks transforming the plight of people in need into something calculable as part of a revenue stream.

2 In the short-term at least (the utopian in me demanded this footnote).

3 It is perhaps worth emphasising that it is not just conservative institutions that operate in this way. The beauty of Bourdieu’s theory is that it is equally applicable to a range of different societal groupings that an individual might move in. Association with any institution – a football club, an anarchist group, a particular bar even – can give a certain status. The example of educational establishments has a particular resonance however since such association is marked with an institutional ‘stamp’, the qualification.

4 Of course, it is typically felt to be a little crude to want to work with an artist simply to gain the benefit of association with their name. Voluntary work in these instances is usually presented as an exchange; one in which the lead artist’s knowledge and experience is passed on to those volunteering their time and energy to facilitate the work. Though great in theory, there is always the risk that what is described as a workshop will be little more than a devising process for developing finished work or even a straightforward rehearsal of ideas already developed by the lead artist. The differences between a workshop, devising process and rehearsal are incredibly subtle, yet key to understanding the potential for abuse.

5 Despite the section of ACE policy which states ‘Applications for grants for touring should ensure that, in addition to adequate fees, subsistence payments are in line with the relevant trade union agreements’


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Tim Jeeves is an artist and writer who, at certain junctures, in particular contexts and amidst a myriad of other inclinations, will turn his attention towards the flexibility of identity.
Aware that these words may invalidate such investigations by being read as a statement of a constant self, he has embarked on a project entitled 'Artist’s Statefragment'.
Viewable at , this work, written in hypertext, enables an increasing number of artist statements, each addressing a different aspect of his practice, to be viewed non-linearly and with fluctuating priority.

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