Coffee vs Books: The Value of Creating Art

Today I had a very hurtful interaction with a family member, who is a fellow artist, and who has made deeply derogatory comments about the amount of hard work it takes to produce a novel, and what that product is worth at the end of the creation process.

This got me thinking very seriously about what I do as an artist who creates novels, and about how the world at large tends to value the products of that hard work.

I got to talking about the issue with some writer-friends of mine, and they helped shed light on the situation. I’d like to share some of my insights, and their’s, with you now. My hope is that by doing so I will be able to help you, and other readers out there, to understand just how much effort we put into making books, and why artists deserve to be paid for their work.

Tinder

This is the image that started it all:

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Nothing new here. My catch line was that I promised to “keep you up later than a cup of coffee.”

Spark

I’m going to share a screenshot of the response I received, with the commentator’s identity hidden because I want to address the issue here, not the person.

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Flame

Now, I’d be lying if I didn’t tell you how much this hurt me personally. This came from someone I love dearly, and is the latest in a long-running habit of rubbishing my art. It’s not only personally insulting though, it’s so deeply ignorant of the issues at hand that I almost don’t know where to begin. Let me do my best. There are 3 main areas I want to break this down into:

  1. What is the value of art in our society?
  2. How can you compare art to other, more material products?
  3. Why do artists tear each other down instead of supporting each other?

These are HUGE questions, and I don’t feel like I’m entirely equipped to answer them. It would be incredibly arrogant for me to try and pretend that I know all the answers. Let me see what others have said.

In his piece in The Guardian in April 2014, Sir Peter Bazalgette, the Chair of the arts council in the UK, said:

“…the primary reason we make both public and private investments in the arts is for the inherent value of culture: life-enhancing, entertaining, defining of our personal and national identities.”

That whole article is wonderful, you should read it once you’re finished here.

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Art enriches us, entertains us, defines us. Yet, as consumers of art we so often expect to receive it for free that artists are pressured into giving away their work left, right, and center.

It’s so common, that we’re told painters only get rich after they die (or I was, anyway).

But show me a man who has no interest in art of any kind. We all need creation in our lives. And for the artist that need burns so hot and so deep that the only way to cope with life is to make. Books, paintings, music, drawings, sculpture, crocheted blankets made by our grannies that we hand down to our children.

Yet, we are told that art has no value. That it’s not even worth the price of a cup of hot coffee.

How is this possible? How can it be a just world where I work for my whole life to create art for people to enjoy, and I’m told that my soul’s work has no value?

It’s not right. One of my friends points out that the whole argument (coffee vs. book) is flawed because:

Will

 

It’s true. I don’t write novels to make money. I do it because I can’t NOT do it. Believe me, there have been months where I’ve been unable to sit at my desk for more than 5 minutes at a time. I couldn’t create. I was so drugged up on painkillers that I could hardly string a sentence together. The pressure that built up inside of me was akin to Mount St Helens. I was a pressure cooker about to burst.

But I don’t write for myself.

That may seem paradoxical, I know. But bear with me. I have to write, because I want to tell people stories. I want to entertain, frighten, amaze. I write for you. I even write for the insensitive person whose been making derogatory remarks about my art for the past…ten years.

And that art has value. Inherent value as illustrated by Sir Peter Bazalgette, and the value of the time it’s taken me to learn how to write competently (some would even say “well”), to tell a story in a way that doesn’t get lost in the middle, with characters you love, and something deep that stays with you for a long time after you’ve read it. How do I value that? I charge for each copy. And I don’t feel bad about doing that. And I think that every creator should be adequately compensated for their work. Not the first time someone buys it, but every time.

You don’t expect Microsoft to sell one copy of Office365 and never charge anyone again.

You don’t expect Gordon Ramsey to sell one perfect beef wellington and never charge for another.

Why do people expect writers and graphic artists to work for free? It takes us decades to perfect our craft, years to create a single book, and then we put them into the world for people to love, and are told it’s “too expensive” and we shouldn’t charge.

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Finally, we need to address the question of why artists pull each other down. This is a terrible state of affairs. From my single, bitter detractor here, to the whole “Sad Puppies” debacle that tore the fabric of the Hugo awards into shreds, there is no shortage of examples of artists criticizing, deriding, bad-mouthing, threatening, and hurting each other.

We are all creating in this world together. We all have to swim against the same stream of negativity, fight for our place in a world obsessed with monetary value, and try desperately to express ourselves. Nobody understands what it’s like to be a creator in a world of bankers as much as another creator.

I’m definitely not the first creator to speak out on this, and I’m pretty sure I won’t be the last.

What I will be, however, is not putting up with people like this in the future. I am extremely fortunate in that I have an incredibly supportive group of writers and family who get where I’m coming from. This one, however, is no longer welcome to air his arrogant, myopic, opinions to me.

What do you think? Have you had any experience with the culture of “free art” out there? How have you dealt with it?

I love hearing from you, please leave a comment before you leave.

2 thoughts on “Coffee vs Books: The Value of Creating Art

  1. Thank you Ben, I think you’re right. There’s definitely some unresolved issues between us.

    I don’t think that invalidates the issue of artists demeaning each other’s work though, I’ve seen that across forms on many occasions.

  2. Hey Angela,

    I have been following this thread on Facebook and I’m sorry you were so distressed. That said, if somebody said to me what your loved one said to you, I’d probably shrug and move on or ask him/her if they had any advice about marketing. This isn’t because I’m some ultra-confident wannabe ubermenschen, it’s because I don’t have much baggage tied up in my writing.

    Your reaction and the way your loved one couched some (what I perceive to be covert) barbs in an otherwise innocuous post makes me think there’s a ton of emotional baggage you and your loved one have symbolically connected with your art forms. This makes me think that there’s an unresolved interpersonal issue here between you and this loved one and it makes me think the discussion about art is a distraction from what’s actually causing you pain.

    In any case, I wish you luck,
    -Ben

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