Image: Buster Keaton on a dangling ladder with another person below, from silentlocations.com
To higher-earners in the arts:
This is mostly directed to those of you who work in building-based organisations. I know most about dance and performance, and a bit about theatre. If you don’t work in those fields don’t think I don’t mean you. I do, but the details might be different. I trust you can do the translation. I’m also mostly thinking from the position of an independent, freelance artist.
I am not the best person to be writing this, but I am the one writing, so I suppose I’d better just get on with it. I have some inherited wealth due to an early parental death, which means I have housing security and an elderly Honda, and I am quite sure that if I was in a very difficult financial position I would have access to more resources to keep myself safe and well. This is not true for all people, and certainly not all people in the arts, and certainly not all freelance artists working in dance, theatre and performance. For the past ten months I have been working in a university and bringing in just over £2000 net a month. This is around twice to three times what I have typically earned in the rest of my career. The contract ends in less than a month.
So here it is: when I hear you saying that you couldn’t live on less than your £50,000+ salary, your £40,000+ salary, or even £30,000+ salary, or even your £20,000+ salary, what I hear is that you could not live how I do year to year. I hear that your life, with its big house and decent car and holidays and nice clothes and first-hand furniture, is better than mine, and that you couldn’t imagine having a life like mine, with its modesty and worrying. I hear that you think my clothes aren’t as good as yours, or my food, or my social choices, or my excursions, or how I spend my time. The way you spend your time is better, and you couldn’t spend your time the way I do; the way you spend your time needs more money and you absolutely couldn’t do without it. You couldn’t share your home with someone who isn’t your family. You couldn’t not buy another coat this winter. You couldn’t go to the scruffy gym. This is very painful.
Sometimes when I try to have discussions about this with people who earn more than me I see in them a sense of admiration – aren’t I good at organising my money? Aren’t I good at not ‘treating’ myself to a really nice bottle of wine? This is annoying. I’m not good at this because I’m good at this. I have no special talent. I have had serious necessity. Other times what I hear is that it’s not so much that your life is better than mine and you couldn’t do differently, but that my life is good enough for me. Somehow I am deserving of my more frugal way of doing things. But it is not good enough for you.
Let’s be clear here: I do not believe in social mobility. Social mobility is a ruse. Again: social (we mean economic, of course) mobility is a ruse. Not on a personal level; during my childhood my parents acquired more wealth so now more money than their parents. It is easy to forget that social mobility is a ruse when we see such examples. Outwith the arts, though, we still want people to do work that is typically lower-paid and that we consider less valuable. We want this work done always, whether or not you personally are middle-class or whatever. We still want people to work with our waste; we still want people to serve children food at school; we still want people to work on the factory floor; we still want people to clean; we still want people to care. This is what I mean when I say that social mobility is a ruse. We can’t all be middle-class; we can’t all be in graduate jobs when not all the jobs are graduate jobs. We don’t need or want everyone to do typically middle-class jobs, so we should hope for a better life for everyone, regardless of the kind of work they do.
I say this because when I have brought up the massive pay inequality between some non-artists in the arts (managers, directors, academics etc.) and independent workers, particularly artists, there is a sense that there is a ladder. The people at the top of that ladder have worked even harder than those at the bottom: they have maybe worked for decades to develop a career. Yes, they have put the hours in. But there are still the people at the bottom of our ladders who are suffering because of low-paid and precarious work. The people further up the ladder feel they are not exploiting those lower down because maybe once upon a time they were paid less and lived in a cramped houseshare and didn’t have much spare at the end of the month. There are several reasons why I cannot stand for this argumentation:
- I graduated from my undergraduate degree in 2008 (I had been working in community dance semi-professionally since 2001, but that’s by the by). Remember 2008? The crash? Then do you remember 2010? Austerity? My entire career, pretty much, has been during austerity. There has been little public funding for the arts and state support has been shit, and increasingly so, over the decade. When the people who are at the top of the ladder were at the bottom, it was before all of that. When they were at the bottom they had more support and there was more funding. I have read the reports.
- Not all the people at the bottom of the ladder will ever move from there. I think of some of my heroes, independent artists of the highest calibre, in my not-very-humble eyes, who are still scrabbling for cash month-to-month. Not everyone can climb the ladder.
- However you cut it, if there is a ladder, the bottom rungs are made up of the lowest-paid workers. They are keeping the ladder from falling. You, high-earners, are literally standing on their shoulders. You think you paid your dues? Do you? FUCK PAYING DUES:
- Paying dues means that you have to have the resources to pay. It is by nature exclusionary.
- PAYING DUES MEANS SOMEONE IS SUFFERING! NOW! SOMEONE IS SUFFERING NOW!
I hear the arguments about high salaries being necessary to attract the best talent. I disagree. I think different people are suited to different sorts of activities and have multiple motivations for doing the work they do. If people are motivated by money then perhaps they can go and work in another sector where salaries are generally higher.
I hear the arguments about these high-paying jobs being very responsible, difficult, and demanding jobs that actually take up 80 hours a week. First, if you are in one of those jobs, you are in the position to shift the working culture to delegitimise overwork. If you don’t do this, you are making a rod for your own back, and for everyone else. Stop it. How about splitting the job in two, working less, and making space for another person to work in the arts? Then you wouldn’t need to be compensated so richly in a sector where people are suffering, trying to pay their damn dues. I don’t want to legitimise hard work as the source of money, because that’s not how it works (I can think of too many examples to make me think you can’t too), but many of the independent artists I know who are paid poorly also work very hard.
I hear the arguments about independent artists choosing to make the sacrifice of decent, stable income because they get to be liberated in their work, follow their own curiosity, choose with whom to work and so on. We get to have fascinating conversations and think the world anew. It’s really great. But we are also working in a system and are hemmed in by that; we also do shit-tonnes of admin and often more, because we don’t have the benefit of scale; we also have to meet the needs of many clients and stakeholders and partners. Further, all arts workers get the benefit of working in the arts. You too, high-earner, get to have creative conversations and dream up new ideas and think about the relationship between the arts and society. AND you get paid a proper salary.
I really want you to think about this. Without independent artists (who are currently working precariously), there is literally no point to your job. None. It is absolutely meaningless. What you do every day has no value. It is worthless. You need independent artists if you are the CEO of a dance organisation, the artistic director of a theatre, the boss of a sector support organisation. You know that there will be an endless supply of us – not because ‘we can’t do anything else’ in some romantic way, but because of a set of conditions including promises from the sector and its related HE organisations that a career is possible – so you know we are expendable. This is exploitation of the highest order. It is absolutely disgusting. If you care one bit about cultural life – about the human beings you see every working day – then you will do something about this. How dare you not do this.
(An aside: the organisations in which you work were never set up to do this. They were established to support and organise and lobby for and present artistic practice – I am certain of this in dance, because, again, I have read some of the reports, but I expect it to be the same in other fields. Because of many things (professionalisation of arts management, a dogmatic belief in and practice of trickle-down economics which doesn’t work anywhere, the way that organisations often sediment and become more conservative over time etc.), the whole thing has flipped. Now it’s the organisations – and the people earning salaries in them – who set the agenda, and artists are asked to supply goods according to those agendas. You can change this.)
So, you see, dear high-earner, this ladder business has to stop. It has to stop now. I am sorry that you suffered, that you ‘paid your dues’, on your way up this ladder. The ladder was always unfair and you managed to succeed, probably some privilege and a lot of talent and skill. The ladder didn’t have rungs for lots of talented, skilful, creative, determined people who just couldn’t get on its rungs. Now, I am asking you to use your weight to lever the ladder on its side. Yes, you will get less. You should literally be paid less for your work. You should. I am saying that. Yes, it will take time for you to acclimatise to being paid less, and you will have to reorganise your personal finances, but I am still asking you. Because underneath it all – the assumptions, your peer group’s expectations, the unjust promises that were made to you – I really, really, really hope that you don’t want to be complicit in exploiting the people around you.
I will help you do this. Contact me.