On Value and Creativity


So, the other week when social media was blowing up because some asshat thought it would be a good idea to blatantly disrespect every author on the planet by asking which pirate sites were best to illegally download books, I had a thinky thought while I was out walking my dog.

You’re gonna have to bear with me. I’m gonna ramble. This is a little incoherent but there’s a point in here somewhere.

Anyway, me and Lily were ambling around and I bumped into someone I often see and walk with while our dogs play together. Generally, we talk in non-specifics: the weather, dog poop, park gossip…stuff like that. Which meant this person knew I worked from home but I usually don’t get any more specific than that. Except for some reason she asked me what exactly I did for a living, and I told her I am an artist.

And she said, “Oh, I bet that’s nice.”

At the time, I thought nothing of it. It’s generally the most common response so it wasn’t unexpected. But something about it irked me that day. It wasn’t until a little later that I found myself thinking, “Actually, no. It’s not nice. It’s my job.”

Now, don’t get me wrong. I know I’m as fucking privileged as it gets. There are six years olds making bricks out of mud somewhere for a handful of food a day; single parents working three jobs just to keep the heating on and shoes on their kids feet; people who dig holes in the ground with a pickax all day long for minimum wage and less.

Compared to those people my life is a dream that I don’t take for granted. But I realized there are assumptions that people have about the creative arts, whether it be art or words or music, that makes the aforementioned piracy asshattery common place.

Part of it, I think (and I’m just guessing all this stuff btw. Don’t imagine I have anything scientific to back it up) comes from the fact that we all start life as creative powerhouses. As kids we all draw, and paint, and play make-believe. We dance, and play dress-up, and direct our stuffies in complex theatrical depictions of schoolroom politics, or reenacting the latest Disney epic our tiny brains have latched onto.

But then that ends. Sometimes we grow out of it naturally. Sometimes it gets channeled into other more practical pursuits. But one of the things that invariably follows the “That must be nice” comment is “Oh, I used to love to paint/draw years ago.” It actually started getting to me how many people have said that. How many people have been told by a teacher that they weren’t good enough, or came to believe that there were better ways of spending their time, even though they loved art. It makes my heart break that they’ve missed out on something they obviously once found so fulfilling.

But through this experience of lost creativity, I think people end up viewing artistic activities as i) childish, and ii) a frivolous waste of time. So, I think it’s possible there’s a resentment there. “Why should you get to play with paint all day when I have to work in a stinky telesales office?” That kind of thing.

But I think the main thing that the asshats use to justify their amoral behavior, is that what we call “the creative arts” as adults, is called “play” when kids do it. So, they see a writer or an artist or a musician and they remember what it was like to do those things when they were young and didn’t even know what a mortgage was. And they say, “Oh, I bet that’s nice!”

And that’s what irked me.

Writing a novel, or painting a picture, or making an album or a movie is not nice. It’s fucking difficult. It has as much in common with childhood pursuits, as playing shops with your Barbies has to do with running a business.

Is making art nice? Sure. I guess. But it’s also hard. What I do is not easy. I have to work at it. Partly, I blame tampon commercials and made-for-TV movies. People think artists all swan around in kimonos, with their long hair flowing about next to an open window, or that you’re bounding around splashing paint about Jackson Pollack-style in cargo pants and a vest, all artfully smeared in paint.

The reality is mostly you’re in an old dressing gown that really could do with a wash, trying to pick the pet hair off your canvas, squinting through your glasses, with a rich tea in your mouth, praying the paint will dry in time before you have to get it to the framer.

Another one of the things that happens because of this idea of art being a childish pursuit underpinning people’s perceptions, is that everyone thinks they’re an expert. The number of times I’ve been in an exhibition or an art gallery and some visitor has been looking at some artwork, then turns to their companion and says, “I could do that.” Holy Moly. That enrages me. I feel like going up to them and saying, “Go on then! Let me see you fucking try it.” Because 99 times out of 100, they can’t. I certainly couldn’t. The same way that the artist next to me can’t do what I do.

And more importantly, the all-knowing non-artist didn’t do it. They didn’t go to art school, or take any classes, or apply themselves, or find their own style and way of expressing themselves. They didn’t put in the hours and make a beautiful, challenging thing. They think the artist is just playing at it, so it must be easy.

I think the same thing goes for writing too. I’m starting to hear, “Oh, I should write a book.” To which the answer is, Yes! Yes, you should. But will you? Because it’s hard. Because you have take criticism, and know stuff about grammar and plot structure (apparently), and write twenty drafts, and wrangle editors and proofreaders, and you have to deal with publishers or publish the thing yourself…and then sell it! It’s not enough to just have an idea. You have to manifest it, and make it real.

But the asshat who thinks 99¢ is too much to pay for a book that took six months or more to write doesn’t see any of that. They see the end result –– the final product –– as some kind of magical apparition, not caring that it took a great deal of effort to get to that point. They don’t get it because they think that writing must be a “nice” job to have.

The other thing about being a kid and being creative, was that we had the freedom to do it. We were taken care of and given free rein to explore, and live in our imaginations. That is until the creeping darkness of adult responsibilities snuffed that all out. So, I think that there is also an assumption that if you are creative, you must have plenty of money to justify spending your time that way.

As an artist, people seemed genuinely surprised to find out that I don’t make a lot of money. I once, to my shame, laughed hysterically in the face of a man at a party when he asked me when I first started to make a living as an artist. I genuinely thought he was making a joke. Apparently not.

Like the rest of society, there are the lucky 1% who make a bundle, and then the rest of us are slogging away for a pittance. I once worked for weeks on a painting that sold for less than £300. I have to admit I cried that day. Also, never used that gallery again.

Creative work isn’t generally valued. It’s almost as if there’s a penalty people want to apply because they think that we’ve already been gifted the reward of a pleasurable experience in creating the thing. Because they can’t conceive of the execution of art in any form as being anything other than “nice”. But I’m as guilty as anyone at perpetuating that. I feel pressure to reassure people that I love my work because I feel bad that I get to do something everyday that most people dream about. It doesn’t matter that most days I think I might stab myself in the head if I have to sharpen another pencil, or daydream about giving up the easel for a career in retail. People don’t want to hear that. They want the tampon commercial. And because you’re living their dream, God-forbid you take it for granted and ruin it for them.

At the end of the day though, none of this really matters. What does matter is this.

When I first saw the picture of the woman who had asked about book pirating sites on Facebook, claiming that she was too poor to buy books, my first thought was that she was wearing a lot of make up. Not that I’m anti-make up or anything. No, it just struck me as noteworthy because for the previous two weeks, I had been washing my hair with shower gel because I didn’t have money to replace my shampoo. My mum sends me money for food and stuff occasionally, but when the pain medication for my dog cost £2 a day, you can imagine ‘luxuries’ like shampoo don’t seem that important. I don’t buy clothes. I don’t go out and socialize. I don’t have holidays. I haven’t been to the cinema in five years. As Western standards go, I’m pretty poor. This isn’t a “poor me, give me sympathy” thing, all I’m saying is that I get it. I absolutely understand what it’s like to have no money. But you know what…I still buy books. I might have to wait for a sale or special offer, but I still buy books. I make the most of the free ones I can get, but even then I feel guilty about it and try to make sure I leave reviews to help the author. I read a lot of fanfiction. So, when I was looking at this woman who thinks paying less than a dollar for something that took half a year to make is too much, and all I could think is that she’s wearing a hell of a lot of foundation for someone claiming to have no money.

She’s not poor. People who download pirated books aren’t poor. People who buy them from Amazon, read them and return them aren’t poor. They just don’t value books. They don’t value the authors. They don’t value the author’s time or skill or determination. They’re lazy and selfish and fucking awful.

So the next time someone asks me what I do for a living, and I tell them and they say, “Oh, I bet that’s nice.” I think I’ll be inclined to shrug and say, “Meh, it’s just a job.” Maybe that way, they might end up valuing my work more than if they thought I was actually enjoying myself.


One Response to On Value and Creativity
  1. Damaria Senne Reply

    Amen. I’m a creative too and today I interviewed someone whose response to my writing job was, “I don’t have that luxury.. ”
    It was hard to swallow writing is the job that has paid my bills for more than 20 years and some days I worked all the hours nature gave because I’m not part of the 1%; just a working writer.
    Luxury? Ha!!

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