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Talking Independents: Commerce vs. Creativity

This week we’re Celebrating Independents by shining a spotlight on the artists we love. And what better way to kick it off, than hang out with our own Artists-in-ResidentsSteve Leadbeater, George Rose, and Fiona Skipper. At our Melbourne HQ, where these three fantastic folks are currently creating killer work and beautifying the place, we had a chat about one of the most pressing issues for independent artists — money.

Check out the discussion below to find out if Steve, George, and Fiona think whether making money from art hurts or helps creativity. And make sure you chime in with your thoughts in the comments.

RB Resident Fiona Skipper

"Being really broke sucks and romanticizing it is stupid. It limits what you can do, the size of projects you can take on, the materials you can afford, the quality and number of prints you can afford to produce, etc." - Fiona Skipper

RB: Often it’s argued that money and art are completely opposed to one another. As a practicing artist, what is the relationship between the two for you?

Fiona Skipper: I have a hunch that if you work in commercial art you do probably lose credibility in the eyes of people at the tops of certain fine arts fields. But unless you want to be some kind of strange austere, mysterious, avant garde conceptual/performance artist, nobody’s really gonna judge you, nobody cares that much. Who cares about the people that do, anyway? They seem like jerks :)

George Rose: Oh but they’re out there, Fi, not even at the top of the fine arts fields! Sometimes people just want to judge you based on arbitrary or personal motivations, sometimes it’s jealousy, or sometimes it’s personal beliefs that they think you should also abide by… but I come across it a lot in the “street art/mural/graffiti” scene.

FS: Some people who are successful video game/film concept artists use a pseudonym, and use their real name for their “serious” art for that reason (or vice versa).

But in the last decade or so, there’s a very fast growing appreciation and demand for illustrative, figurative, lowbrow kinda styles. So people like James Jean, from an illustration background, can branch into weirder, more personal art and sell every piece to serious art collectors with deep pockets, who mightn’t have bought his older, prettier work. He didn’t need to hide his background at all because it’s not embarrassing.

Maybe this means for people like me who are just starting out and dreaming of being a full time artist there’s less to worry and agonize about.

GR: There are so many lines breaking up the art worlds and its so easy to be misjudged and put into a box. I applied for a “fine arts” grant a few years ago and after they saw my website was told: “oh no, your practice is too commercial, you cant apply.” I tactfully inquired if they would prefer me to be making a living as a waitress instead of making a living off commercial art whilst having a separate private “fine art” practice in my “spare time” (aka when I was not working on commissions). They allowed me to apply but I had to make it very clear that I was not applying with my more “commercial practice.” It was such a strange thing to be frowned upon by earning my keep with art from this particular arts body.

Similarly with painting murals, there is still a stigma among some arts communities that it’s bad to be paid to paint on walls in public… but really I’d prefer to be paid to paint then be paid to sit in a office *my idea of hell*. I guess it’s like anything. Money and art can work together in the exact same way that any service/entertainment driven industry and money can work.

Steve Leadbeater: Well, in our society, if someone wants to make a living from their art, unless they trade their work for accommodation and groceries, they will need to make money from it to continue. Money itself isn’t the root of all evil – but blind human greed comes very close.

RB Resident George Rose

"I think as an artist, you mostly want other people to understand what you do and say with your work, and if someone is willing to pay for it, then it can be a thumbs up that they either 'get it' or 'love it.'" - George Rose

RB: What is the biggest risk in making money from your art?

FS: I think if you’re reliant on the income from your art alone, naturally you may have to take on projects that you would rather not, and you may even become known for this kind of work which would be a huge bummer.

Surely the benefits outweigh the risks, unless the commercial art environment you’re in is totally soul-destroying. Then it would be better to do a totally non-art-related job, where your enthusiasm for art is still intact at the end of the day.

SL: I think the real risk is that the money affects the art in an unintended/undesirable way. But it could make you take your art more seriously.

GR: It’s scary to be out on your own two feet and making money solely from your art, because there is no safety net. There is no one person telling you what to do and a nice paycheck every week. I think it’s just a risk because of the way our society is structured economically…

RB: Are there benefits in being paid for your art, besides the obvious one of receiving a paycheck?

SL: Regardless of the intention or their work, most artists want to be able to continue to create; being paid encourages and facilitates this.

GR: It’s so true, Steve! Also it’s a pretty positive validation when you get paid for your art, that someone wants to invest money into what you have produced. I think as an artist, you mostly want other people to understand what you do and say with your work, and if someone is willing to pay for it, then it can be a thumbs up that they either “get it” or “love it.”

FS: I think the environment you make paid art in is critical. For example in tattooing, if you’re in a studio where nobody has any real enthusiasm or they’re overworked and miserable, it kills creativity and growth.

But, in a studio where people are still curious and inspired, they share artists they’ve found with each other, geek out over it, and actually talk about art and even make art together; it’s a wonderful environment.

Having art making/crafting as part of your routine out of necessity, as your job, means you don’t ever put it aside and eventually drop it as just some hobby you used to do. You keep it in your mind all the time.

If you take photos on commission and don’t care what you’re shooting, you’re still able to hone your skills.

RB Resident Steve Leadbeater

"I hate 'the starving artist' myth as much as 'the designers work for free' myth. I believe art and design are legitimate pursuits worthy of respect." - Steve Leadbeater

RB: There is a stereotype of “the starving artist” that is extremely romanticized. How do you fall into this stereotype, or alternatively, how to do fight against this idealized analogy.

FS: Being really broke sucks and romanticizing it is stupid. It limits what you can do, the size of projects you can take on, the materials you can afford, the quality and number of prints you can afford to produce, etc.

It’s all well and good to think of Van Gogh buying paint instead of food, but when you’re really broke, you can’t afford paint OR food and you just bludge off your loved ones. That’s not nice.

The image is pretty ridiculous. I remember reading a biography of the Austrian artist Egon Schiele that showed this: he was at a point in his career when he was well-paid by sponsors/patrons, he ate at nice restaurants every night, and lived a pretty leisurely life, but in his letters to his parents back home he whinged in an hilariously self-pitying way how he lived in poverty and hardship.

I think nowadays acting like that is seen as super childish and self-indulgent, the image of the super-cool art student who parties all night and makes crazy art, but lives in squalor in an unheated warehouse, like a rockstar.

Older people roll their eyes at it, and see immediately that it’s a carefully crafted image.

I feel like most people outgrow it when they turn, like, 20, unless maybe they live in LA. It’s pretty silly.

SL: I’m never starving, but often I’m so engaged with my work that I forget to eat, drink, or sleep.

I hate “the starving artist” myth as much as “the designers work for free” myth. I believe art and design are legitimate pursuits worthy of respect. Although it’s encouraging to see that businesses are finally starting to place importance on the value of creative problem solving.

GR: It’s an unnecessary and unfortunate stereotype, I think that you can be “a starving many things” if you really tried… but I cant think of many starving builders or plumbers out there working in construction for the love of their jobs.

I resent the idea that you should dislike the thing that you do for money, a.k.a. your work and the idea that if art is the thing you love and the thing you do for money, then you’re doing it wrong. Like, I should feel really privileged that I love what I do or that I am good at what I do for money “naturally,” and therefore should just do it for others who cannot, for free or cheap. It’s a lot of hard work, it can be amazingly rewarding, and it can be equally frustrating and stressful… its not an easy straight forward path as it’s romanticised in the main stream at times.

The starving artists stereotype is about as boring as the bohemian artist who gads about with unwashed hair, bare feet, and sits around smoking, drinking coffee, and copulating all day. Not everyone making art is poor, not everyone is struggling, not everyone is bohemian. I had a man sit next to me on a plane once who when he found out that I was an “artist” told me about how amazing it must be to just “do whatever I want” and “be free” like I was sitting in my daybed most days, waiting for some inspiration to come. He didn’t want to hear that I had just finished up doing an install for a project where I had worked 11-14 hour days till the early mornings for a week straight and was heading to another job. Nor that this was not an uncommon occurrence in my work practice.

We should really as a society value our culture a lot more and maybe taking art seriously is a key part of that.

RB: If money wasn’t an issue, how would your artistic practice change?

SL: The scale and frequency of my work would increase. There are a lot of techniques I’d like to experiment with that are currently out of my reach. But generally with my work, the idea and process are more important than the execution.

GR: I’m With Steve here, there are a lot of larger installations I’m in planning mode for, until money is not an issue with my practice. I really love the idea of art as theatre — creating large scale and immersive works that people can get lost in. But in order to produce such works, budgets really need to be taken into consideration.

FS: Taking breaks and holidays is always a good way to recharge your batteries. It’d be very nice to be able to do that!

The RB Residents' booths at our Melbourne HQ

What do you think? Share you thoughts about commerce vs. creativity in the comments.

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