An email pops into my inbox. The subject line looks promising: CREATIVE WORK NEEDED. I am on the run from a career in law, currently working as a writer, designer, and photographer wherever and whenever I can while trying to get my fledgling salsa club to spin and dance with the stars in a city where social dancing is welcomed like a leper in a biblical community. I am 27 years old. I live with my girlfriend. I have things in my life called responsibilities and bills. I can sleep on the responsibilities, but I cannot afford to sleep on the bills. No, seriously, I cannot afford to sleep on the bills—the financial ironies of an entrepreneur’s life are amusing at the best of times, which is rare, and as painful as a knee to the groin at the worst, which is often.
As soon as one bill is settled, another rears its head; I cannot cut and burn the stumps as quickly as they appear. The pundits tell me to work hard; the books say I should work smarter. I do both in differing quantities depending on my specific level of panic or the time of the month.
The expenses of my life are not legion. And, thankfully, they are not incalculable. They are finite and modest: rent, food, commuting costs, the odd dinner out. They, however, remain factual considerations which demand my attention and warrant my stress. If I had remained at my old post in the advertising world I would not be counting my pennies so scrupulously. In my comfortable office chair, at the 27-inch iMac which used to be my creative and temporal rabbit hole, looking glass, and wardrobe I would barely register emails asking for creative work. The extra income was never enough of an incentive to pull me from my leonine afternoon slumber when the fresh kill of a pay cheque was in my wallet.
But the world has done a lot of spinning since my employment days, bringing different seasons, and different hours have cometh.
And with them, the man.
I open the email.
My name is Joanna. I got your contact details from Person X. I looked over your portfolio on your website and I am very interested in working with you. I work for World Wild Lies Fund (WWLF). We specialise in discovering species many scientists have long thought to be extinct. Anyway, we’ve just discovered the snarfled gorflax—a half ferret, half pangolin hybrid. It’s the cousin of the ordinary gorflax you might have read about last year—yeah, we discovered that too.
Anyway, after looking over your portfolio we’d like to work with you on a photoshoot for this rare animal. We’d like some concept proposals—three should do it. We’d also like a write-up about the shoot, and about our discovery—we’re thinking of submitting the written profile to National Geographic. We can send you all of the relevant information, all you’ll have to do is whip it into shape. Oh, we’d also like to produce some promotional material such as radio and television scripts, and online campaign material. If you could come up with some Cannes-worthy ideas and strategies which would push this animal to the forefront of conservation agendas we would be much obliged.
Looking forward to hearing from you,
I read the email twice just to make sure everything in it is real. I even Google the snarfled gorflax and, what do you know, there it is: often thought to be a mythical creature, and apparently last sighted by sailors in 1352, the snarfled gorflax’s discovery on a remote island in the Pacific is being touted as the scientific finding of the century.
I look up the organisation too. Impressive website, some celebrity endorsements, and press clippings in the kinds of newspapers and publications I only dream about being featured in one day.
This could be it, Rémy, I think. This could be the break.
I reply to the email.
My gosh. You found a snarfled gorflax? Well, damn. Congratulations.
I can definitely produce all of the material you want. The photoshoot sounds like it would be fun; the rest of your deliverables are also fascinating. I am pretty interested in the project and would, provided with more details, be willing to take it on.
A project of that complexity—it is not everyday someone drops a snarfled gorflax commission on your plate, you know—would take me about three weeks to complete. Attached to this email is a preliminary cost breakdown for the research, the concept work, the write-ups, the photoshoot (which also includes the fees for the art director I work with on projects like these), the scripts, and the campaign strategy.
If there are any other deliverables you would like please let me know so I can factor them into the breakdown.
I hit the send button and wait.
I am buzzing. I have some ideas already coalescing in my head about the photoshoot. My writing brain is already sifting through my mind’s stored boxes of science fiction and fantasy comic books, classic literature novels, films, music, and random montages of my life trying to find a story or concept which will complement the snarfled gorflax.
I can see the digital strategy rolling out; I can see the television scripts in my head.
I can also see the awards, the glory. I already have an acceptance speech thanking my family and telling the haters to suck it scribbled down on a napkin somewhere.
Yes, I am genuinely excited for this project. You can tell because I moonwalk three times in the kitchen and twerk for a full minute in my lounge.
I receive a response from Joanna a few minutes later. After composing myself—twerking is tiring—I sit down to open it.
Thanks for the quick response and for the considered service breakdown. We looked over your rates and, unfortunately, the WWLF does not have the budget to cater for them. We can, however, compensate you by crediting you with the work, sharing it on our extensive online platforms, and, providing you with more exposure.
Let me know what you think.
This is what I did not want. I was really hoping after a couple of years of freelancing and paying my dues—putting out my work gratuitously in exchange for retweets, Facebook shares, and promised namedropping—I would be in a different phase of my career.
Now I have a decision to make.
This could be a big break—the project all creative freelancers hope will bring their name and skills to the world; the kind of project which makes the Nike global creative director cough on his morning coffee, make a hurried phone call, and fly to my dusty corner of the world to get me on the company’s lucrative payroll after many expensive lunch dates on his part and coy rejections of salaries quadruple my net worth on mine.
This could be it.
It could also, sadly, not be it. It could be another resource-heavy, time-consuming undertaking which will severely constrain my ability to engage with other financially remunerating work. The hours I will spend on research, writing, and editing will be taxing. The days I will spend working on this project will not stop at sunset—the work will carry on late into the night. The emotional strain of having to produce my best work at my own expense will test my patience with those closest to me. I will ignore my friends and family. There will be arguments with my girlfriend.
I might even lose my health. Like many creatives-for-hire I do not have medical aid. I do not know whether this snarfled gorflax was given its shots. One bite and I could be left with a malady a thousand House scriptwriters typing on a thousand typewriters for a thousand years could not concoct.
Coupled with the risk, as well as the wear and tear my equipment will be exposed to during this project I am inclined not to take it on.
I know the pitfalls of this project because this is not the first snarfled gorflax-like project into which I have been asked to throw my creative labour. There have been many others—every freelance creative has crossed paths with snarfled gorflaxes or lesser spotted frumpwapples.
They promise so much—potential fame, prospective fortune—and deliver so little.
In exchange for entering into a working relationship for a non-paying client you will receive all of the accompanying stresses which come with working in the professional creative industries but no compensation to make the time worth it: crippling deadlines; tense working relationships with people who do not fully understand the scope of work they are asking you to do for naught—not even coffee, not even access to their digital resources; and snarky emails requesting constitutionally offensive amendments, backed by asinine reasons for the said amendments (“Make it more…funky”; “Can you change the font to something which makes me feel like I am losing my virginity again?”).
This is what awaits in each snarfled gorflax project: creative stress and strain with no tangible remuneration.
Regardless of whatever path I take, the minutiae of my life—the bills, the rent, the food, the costs of being an adult—will still carry on, rarely missing an appointment with my wallet.
I make the hard choice: I am not a freelancer, I am a paidlancer. This snarfled gorflax is not for me.
I script a short response to Joana and then say goodbye to the project.
In my nascent freelance career I cannot accurately count the number of times I was asked to write, design, and take photographs in exchange for exposure. When I started snapping and writing in 2008 my mentors encouraged putting as much work out as possible, in as many print publications and online portals as I could find. The exposure, they said, would aid in having a portfolio of work which would point not only to my work ethic but also to my ability to churn out commendable work each and every time in a diversity of mediums.
Diligently, I heeded their advice. I wrote and wrote. I took photographs for free. Each published piece felt like a step in the right direction, like a foothold on the climb out of creative obscurity to paid, recognised, and respected work. If a gig paid it was a bonus, if it did not I paid no mind. My name being on paper, on websites, and in links mattered to me more then.
Soon, I reasoned, I would claw my way out of the eternal pool of internship and send out invoices á la Jerry Maquire: show me the money!
In retrospect, I can confidently say some of it paid off but a lot of it has not. Not because my work was not good, or because I did not get exposure—I am diversely Googleable—but because when I was ploughing away behind my keyboard or my camera for free there was a glut of young freelancers all vying to put out their best work to get ahead in the game. Everyone was trying to get exposure. A prospective client, magazine, or website never had to look far to find a writer, photographer, or designer as good as me or better than me. And because it was easy—and remains easy—to find someone willing to do work for free securing paid work was—and is—difficult.
The upper echelons of freelancing, then and now, are already staffed by old hands, tried, tested, and monopolistic. To be a junior in the industry is to do the free work.
It will probably remain this way for a while unless the creative industries change their modus operandi and recognise maximum thresholds for the kind of labour which can be done for free.
I have no qualms against people putting out their work for free—I did. Like internships or apprenticeships, it is commonplace for some trades and professions to require a period of unpaid service before one can go on to charge fees for their work. If one is still learning their trade or craft, and they are willing to exchange their labour for tangible training and work experience I am all for it. In that instance, the work is not for free—foregoing a dollar for working with a master craftsman is an opportunity I would encourage any young creative to take.
The free work versus paid work argument, especially at apprentice or junior level, is not what I take issue with. What irks me is the general reluctance to recognise that creative work—artistic work—is work, and that whether such work is done for free or remuneration there are numerous hidden costs which often cannot be adequately quantified on a service invoice.
These other costs—what I call the art work—are what firmly convince me that, at the very least, creative professionals of all levels should be permitted to charge fees for what they do.
Because creative work is work.
It is work in the same way building a house is work, in the same way providing a multinational with financial consultation services is work. The only difference is when it comes to art, artists—painters, writers, dancers, musicians, photographers, graphic designers, and anyone whose output can be enjoyed in more than one dimension—use words, pictures, and sound. Artists use their bodies. They use our minds, their emotional and spiritual beings, intangible resources which cannot be traded on a stock exchange or a labour market but which, nonetheless, have value—commercial and otherwise—in the world around us.
And, perhaps, because they do it well or make the execution of their craft look effortless it is assumed they do not “work.”
People assume art—in this instance being any product made by the aforementioned categories of people—just makes itself.
Anyone who believes that is not conversant with the life of an artist. It is a life based purely on work. But unconventional work.
Not only does an artist live the normal, every day life of bills, food, taxes, and mortgages—if they can afford them—but they also have to live their other life: the creative one.
The creative life is one of constant observation and participation, of being connected to the world and simultaneously being disconnected from it. It is feeling, smelling, hearing, and tasting the world; imagining and synthesising new sensations, new feelings. It is about mastering the artistic gaze; taking cognisance of emotional experiences, filing them for later scrutiny, or burning them for firewood to keep an idea warm; it is interpreting and reinterpreting everything over and over again.
It is a life of struggle, of constantly trying to bring into existence that which has not existed before.
To be an artist is to be constantly pregnant with an idea, a concept, or a dream; to carry it around for days, weeks, and months, sometimes even years, constantly searching for ways to feed it—and yourself—and, finally, to bring it into the world with the available resources to the best of one’s abilities.
And giving birth is not easy. Women will tell you.
It is painful. It takes time. It takes all of you. And when it is all over the birthing process leaves the mother completely exhausted. Physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. Everything that you can —ally be is exhausted.
The spectre of death also hovers around the birthing process. The mother could die, the child could be stillborn. Artists are quite familiar with this cruel duality of creation: the making of one thing sometimes brings about the termination of another—the artist, the idea, or the desire to create.
When it comes to making art there are so many risks involved.
Still, artists go through the process. For an idea. For a painting. For a paragraph which slides off a page and glides into a reader’s mind. For a sound which brings tears to a listener’s eyes, for a photograph which makes someone consider their humanity.
What most commercial enterprises fail to realise is that everything an artist does is work, and that the work often starts at a young age, at infancy when one is inexplicably drawn to colours and sounds. It continues all the way through childhood, stimulated by pictures, books, music, and the wonder of the unfolding world. In teenage-hood, this life is tested, forced to conform, forced to make hard choices about the rest of its young life. If it is supported, it will continue into adulthood, if it is not it flickers and dies out, taking its reluctant place amongst the drudgery of the world.
If an artist manages to survive into adulthood one would expect the years they have spent reading and writing; painting or dancing; engaging with difficult social concepts; blending in but not conforming; and nurturing their psyches and souls to consume the world around them and reproduce it in interesting ways, would finally be remunerated in some way.
At least, one would think, by quoting for labour and material charges in their invoices, they would be compensated for the years of experience they survived.
In one dimension they are. In another, they are not.
Paint, the cost of canvas, paper, ballet shoes, a guitar, and the electricity needed to run a music recording studio—all of these are quantifiable. But what price would one attach to the creative life? The one spent dealing with anxieties, wrestling with interpretation, negotiating spiritual and emotional hurdles?
The costs of the creative life are equally as taxing, but they are rarely remunerated.
The first time I became fully aware of the hidden costs of an artistic life I was working in advertising. Every client’s brief was treated like it was a snarfled gorflax. It was approached as though the cure for cancer would be found in the number of Facebook likes we harvested with clever copy. It was never enough to make an advert because people would see through it.
We had to make art, something which moved people, which plucked at strings in a person’s being and made them resonate with whatever we wanted them to go out and buy.
Making an advertisement is easy but making an artvertisment is not. Anyone with a piece of paper and a pen can make the former, but creating the latter is more complex. To find a concept with high emotional content which is engaging and relevant is not a task you assign to Janice from accounting—you give it to an artist.
And the artist descends into their other life—their colourful childhood, their memories of a long-dead parent; they sift through bedtime stories searching for simple truths; they plumb into memory, they delve into thought, they dig deeper, and deeper into their spiritual depths until they find the thing which arrests the eye, the ear, and the soul.
Then they chisel it out of the rock of their being and bring it up to the surface.
I can remember this process—the brainstorming, the search for a story, the search for truth—it was often harrowing. I looked for advertising ideas and copy in the same places I looked for my fiction, for my photography, for my humour, for my wit. I would ransack my mind’s libraries for a joke, for a one-liner, for an experience which could be tied to a client’s goals.
The process of artistic creation process was not new to me. I think it started in second grade when I became acquainted with Roald Dahl’s books. Revolting Rhymes; The Giraffe, the Pelly, and Me; George’s Marvellous Medicine; The Twits; The BFG; Matilda; Charlie and the Chocolate Factory—all of these would pepper my imagination with new images and new words. My entire memory of primary school exists as one big Quentin Blake illustrated montage.
Even in high school, and at university, with more sophisticated literature and academic texts my mind would always be brewing something, always thinking of a phrase, of an image, of a line in a song. I would try to figure out ways to communicate what was going on in my head. I would pull disparate ideas from my curious life and throw them in a beaker, watch the mixture bubble, and then drip the new compounds into a test tube and marvel at the new creation.
Sometimes my creation would succeed in its goals, sometimes the monster would not even flutter an eyelid after I called down the thunder and the lightning and the rain and the tears. The entire enterprise never seemed strange to me. I was simply enjoying the process then. Art for art’s sake.
That was not how the creative industries in which I would later work functioned though. I was required to give birth to new, viable, and sustainable ideas every day.
Whereas my budding creative pursuits were akin to sustainable farming—I would work with one idea, rotate between words, pictures, sound, dance, sport, or my other life’s many influences—in advertising I went into the fields of my imagination with the bulldozers. Like a strip mine I peeled back layers of my being, detonated chunks of my life’s experiences and heaped the dirt and the ash on one side. When I had gotten the one piece of ore for which I had come I would depart; after cutting down a forest of imagination I would leave with one seed and leave the bleeding stumps behind. Pave paradise, put up parking lots, and then put billboards on top of them—that kind of thing.
The next challenge of the day would be to figure out how to get people to swipe their credit cards and apply for loans they did not need or would never be able to pay back.
I never felt like I was really being remunerated for that second life. Nobody was paying me for being an artist.
To be fair, I was paid. For writing. For typing. For clicking the relevant button on a camera. But even when the money came, allowing me to pay for one life, I would still be exhausted from the other. The birthing process often left me more tired than the squats I did and the miles I cycled.
Eventually, I resigned from advertising but that feeling of being mined for ideas has stuck with me. Now, whenever a snarfled gorflax without a budget crosses my paths I think of the burning craters and stripped tracts of my mind where nothing grows and say, “How about no?”
I know it is something which cannot be adequately remunerated in commercial terms—that second life—but whenever someone asks me to do something for free these days I always think about the effort I will have to go through in order to create. The costs, for me, are never worth it when at the end of a project I will not be able to pay an electricity bill or buy a meal.
Some would romanticise the struggle and highlight the role poverty played in the works of some the world’s most renown artists. This does not help. The argument basically states art and poverty go hand in hand which, in essence, relegates artists to a poorer class in society. It conflates poverty, the inability to provide sufficiently for oneself and one’s responsibilities, with struggle, the hard process of capturing what the artists feels, thinks, sees, hears, smells or tastes in an honest way.
I reject the notion that poverty should be an essential characteristic of the artist’s lifestyle. Poverty should not be a watermark for producing art. Poverty should not be used as justification for anything, really. Poverty is to be escaped.
So I charge fees. When I meet potential clients I have my creative enthusiasm in my right hand but I keep my legal education and carefully drawn contracts in the other like a southpaw, cocked and alert. I demand deposits for services because I refuse to be a third-world country handing out mining concessions to multinationals. When a project moves on—as each one inevitably does—I will be left with the fallout and the fatigue.
The money will pay for the time and the costs of the materials I use—one life. It will only symbolically remunerate the creative process, recognising what I do as work. In the artist’s world there are no profits, just failed attempts at breaking even.
Say I have not convinced you that artists work. And that their labour matters. And that their labour deserves remuneration.
Okay, let us get rid of them. Let us starve and marginalise them until they no longer exist. Let us not just get rid of the artists, though, let us also rid ourselves of their entire contributions to human life.
What shall we listen to on our iPods? What shall we read in the small hours of the night when we need comfort?
We have also gotten rid of drawings and paintings. So the Sistine Chapel is virgin, the Louvre is empty. We have doctors, lawyers, engineers, economists, politicians, and scientists, and Bob from HR. They are cool people, but, you know, they do not really make you dance. Bob does not make you laugh.
Who is going to record the revolutions when they are not televised? Who will turn boys into men and girls into goddesses?
Artists. That is who. But we have gotten rid of them.
There is a war going on in Vietnam, and there are liberation struggles fomenting in some African countries. The oppressed are fighting for their right to live, to choose their destinies. I would like to show you what horrors their oppressors are visiting upon them but I cannot because we got rid of all the photographers and the pages of the newspapers are blank, too, because we got rid of the journalists.
And look at the sunset, or the ocean, or the stars in the night sky. Are they not…okay?
You are straining for words, you are looking for a way to describe the majesty you are seeing. The colours you feel, the sound you taste. You are looking and seeing and feeling and everything is…okay.
The food is okay, the weather is okay. The holiday was okay, the sunrise is okay.
Love letters are okay. Sex is okay. I mean, you would like to describe the feeling you get when your lover does that thing with the other thing which makes you feel like you are being inhaled by a tornado but you cannot because we got rid of all the poets who fill our minds with body politics. So now even sex is okay. When it is really good is more okay.
And that is what life is. It is okay.
Okay is death, though. A slow, insidious death.
Life is not about being okay. It is about words that set pages on fire, about songs which heal broken hearts and cover bruises. It is about pictures which end wars, about days when the sun is more than science, when love is more than biology.It is more than just being okay.
The first person to splatter paint on the cave walls knew that. They knew art makes life worth living.
Since the mere process of living in today’s world is already hard, the artist, whose job it is to do life, to produce the things which make our time on Earth more than just clock-punching, already has to live three lives: theirs, ours, and the creative one.
They should, at the very least, be paid for one lest we starve the artists and kill the bees.
Because snarfled gorflaxes will not bring themselves to life.