“Is that your side job?”
It’s a question I’ve gotten countless times when telling someone I dance for a living. Some variations of this question include “Do you get paid for that?” and “You can study that in college?” Sometimes, the questions are ruder.
I don’t have a problem with questions, and I don’t have a problem with curiosity. I’m sure many of you feel the same way. As a modern-contemporary dancer, though, I’m somewhat destined to have people ask a lot of questions. And sometimes, I find it simply easier to not say I’m a dancer at all.
Part of the problem is that art in general (including visual art, music, etc.) are seen as ‘subpar’. There is a lack of acknowledged legitimacy within artistic disciplines, most largely the result of lack of funding. Financial backing is hard to acquire due to this scarcity, especially for dance artists. Without funding, dancers rarely make a living wage, and births the ‘starving artist’ mentality.
The concept of the ‘starving artist’ is a damaging ideal. It has seeped into popular culture and school systems, in conversations with friends and relatives. On the surface, this is a teasing remark, meant to poke fun at individuals who choose a career in the arts. Not a big deal, right?
A bigger deal than you think, actually. Every time someone mentions the ‘starving artist’ mentality, they are reinforcing the idea that artists do not get paid very much, if at all. This teaches people that if they go into the arts they shouldn’t be getting paid because, after all, that’s just how it is...artists starve.
If you are providing your expertise, service, and skill to something or someone, however, you should be compensated for that. You wouldn’t expect to walk into a restaurant and eat for free, or to acquire new clothes without paying for them. When someone is partaking in an artistic experience (attending a concert or seeing a special exhibit), they are paying the artist to keep doing what it is they’re doing. They are paying for the experience the artist provides.
Art can be a complex process. For example, when dancers create a new piece, they require space, people, and a lot of time. This can be costly. Rehearsing something well enough to present to the public is not an easy task, and it often isn’t something you can just whip up whenever you like.
Skill. Effort. Time. Qualities people should be compensated for.
The fault partially lies with artists themselves. Artists tend to be very passionate about what they do, and are willing to work for less than they deserve in order to get their work out there. This is an admirable trait, but one that is feeding into the ‘starving artist’ machine. However, If a dancer refuses to take a job because it pays pennies, they’ll just find another dancer willing to do so. This makes it almost impossible to build a proper infrastructure for the art form. It makes it almost impossible for artists to take care of themselves without juggling a dozen jobs.
Artists--all artists--need to start taking it upon themselves to seek jobs that pay them adequately. For that to succeed, though, we need to start funding our arts, so that these businesses and companies can pay them what they deserve. It does no good to ask for money when it isn’t there.
Someday, hopefully, the concept of the ‘starving artist’ will no longer be relevant. And when that day comes, artists can create work and dedicate themselves to their art without having an empty bank account. Until then, however, we need to stay strong, keep moving forward, and continue to make art. Sooner or later the rest of the world will catch up.