Thursday, 26 September 2013

Love and Money

Something I’ve seen slink into almost all conversations about freelance work is the idea of love vs money.  As if these things are opposed forces - a dichotomy which I believe to be false.  

Let’s define some terms. 

I’m talking about freelancing as a fantasy artist here.

Me: Freelancing my largest body of experience in working life. It’s something I’ve done fairly successfully for 15 years or so.  These days most of my work is in-house for Cubicle 7, as an art director and illustrator but I still freelance evenings and weekends. Keeps me limber, let’s me take a look at what’s going on around me, and I like to think it reminds me of what it’s like to be one of the fine women and men who work for me when I’m ADing.  And believe me you do forget.  It’s good to be reminded that what has become an entry on the “to do” list for me and my boss for freelancers is the difference between eating and not eating.

Freelancing in this context is where an illustrator agrees to make illustrations, for a client, for money.  There’s usually an inference of a brief and a deadline.  I’ve previously summed it up as “creative work to a brief, for money, on a deadline.”

Money is very easy to define.  We all know what money is.  There’s an interesting side to money though, especially in business.  In our private lives money means paying the bills, buying food, paying the rent or mortgage, clothes, fun times, video games, books, days out at the zoo.  A mixture of necessities and luxuries, but all quite direct transactions.  That does make quite an interesting phenomenon in itself, but I’ll try not to get distracted by that.

In business money can mean other things.  Money can very directly be converted into time.  You will have heard in the cliché “time is money” until those words lost their meaning.  It’s worth revisiting that and unpacking it until you understand it afresh.  Money can be keeping going.  Money can be investment.  Money can be training.  Or confidence. Money can be raw materials.  Money can be pay and be converted into all those private life things I listed above.  Money is not just personal luxuries, which sometimes you get the feeling is being inferred in these discussions. 

These ideas can be hard to hold in your head all at one time. But that’s nothing compared to love.

Love even harder to define clearly.  It’s a big old emotive mixture of giving, selflessness, admiration, affection, joy, wonder and so on and so on.  I will take a risk that we probably all know what love means in the context of doing something we love.  Whilst it’s very hard to define in a couple of sentences we can still examine how the term is used and what is meant by it, and what that means for us, the freelancer at the sharp end.

A dichotomy is frequently defined as “
division into two mutually exclusive, opposed, or contradictory groups”.  

A false dichotomy (or false dilemma) is the classic “either or” logical fallacy.  We are being asked to chose between love or money.  We apparently cannot have both. And who would chose money over art, but a very very poor artist?

Hmmmm.  So maybe we should give some art away to prove how dedicated we art in our love of art? Or not worry about our working conditions or pay level too much.  Wouldn’t want anyone to think we were just in it for the money, right?

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

So terms having been defined, with varying levels of accuracy, let’s look at the context where this love vs money thing comes up.

The context I see most often arising is a discussion about how to make a living from one’s art as a freelancer.  Or how to make a better living from one’s art as a freelancer.  There’s a huge desire out there to be a freelance artist.  And hey, it’s a cool job, right? Drawing orcs and dragons all day every day?  

You’re probably now anticipating some kind of ball busting, “FAME COSTS AND RIGHT HERE IS WHERE YOU START PAYING! IN SWEAT!” speech.  You’ll be disappointed.  Being a freelance artist is an amazing job.  It’s nothing like digging ditches or breaking rocks. Or working in a nursing home, or punching numbers into a spreadsheet, or answering the phones in call centre, or getting shot at by rebel fighters in Afghanistan.  Or spraying industrial solvents in the bilges of oil tankers.  Or sewing clothes 16 hours a day aged 8 in a sweatshop.  At no point will you get your own, or someone else’s, blood or shit on you.  You will (mostly) not be mindlessly occupied in a repetitive menial task for 8 hours a day.  That’s a pretty good start as jobs go.  And heck, you do get to paint dragons and elves and all that cool stuff.  The rumours are true!

However it’s a very difficult job to succeed in. And by succeed I mean “make enough money from it to do it as a full time job and have something approaching a normal life financially”. So a lot of people have a lot of questions to ask about how best to succeed.

Almost always you will see some advice given, or commentary offered, that sets up love as the opposite to money. “Just concentrate on doing what you love, don’t chase money”.  Or “I prefer artwork that comes from the heart, not art that chases a pay cheque”. “Don’t devalue your art by doing the same as everyone else just to earn money”. It varies in it’s vehemence, but it’s the same point underneath. “Real artists” don’t care about money.

So who says these kinds of things? I note these kind of comments come from three broad groups of people.  These are generalisations. And a little bit mean.  Oh well.

1: Publishers who want to hire freelancers who “are in it for love, not the money”. 

2: Bystanders, usually art lovers, offering what they think of as helpful, encouraging advice.

3: Freelancers who as yet do not make anything like a living wage from their artwork.

More rarely you’ll hear this from experienced artists, and rarely from larger or less desperate publishers. We’ll come back to those rare and very interesting instances later.

Let’s break down some motivations for these different groups.

Number 1 is really obvious, and it’s not one I want to dwell on. I’ve found over the years dwelling on negativity is really detrimental to your wellbeing as a freelancer. There’s an awful lot you could be negative about, and what begins as little nips can swallow you whole in the end.  (Note to self - write article about sustainable mental wellbeing strategies for freelancers)

Keeping it short there are people out there who will say things just to get what they want.  What comes out of their mouths (or more likely keyboards) is all about furthering their own ends.  There are a lot of reasons behind this behaviour, not all of which are awful.  These people are often really up against the odds, and do what they can to make their businesses function. I don’t like it, it’s anti-integrity, it’s dishonest, but I also try not to get too hung up on it.  

Using the “love over money” strategy is a brilliant one for these people.  It allows artists working cheap to save face as “true artists”.  It shuts down discussion of pay, because anyone querying the pay level is cast as a money grubber rather than a “true artist”.  Smart move if you want cheap and you’re not too worried about integrity.

Number 2 is a hard one to deal with.  These are often given as really well intentioned pieces of advice.  People who consume the end product often have a different relationship to artwork than those people who make it, though the two overlap.  They regularly don’t have much understanding of how art is made, what it takes to have the time and expertise to make professional quality art.  They often (quite sweetly) project a lot of their own Romantic feelings about art onto artists.  So many myths about art come from this source.  I don’t want to be too negative about this group - they are our end users, and we owe them a debt of gratitude. But we must also be very selective about taking professional advice from non professionals.  They just don’t see the full picture.

Number 3 is another tricky one. On one hand I don’t want to put anyone down, least of all those who are struggling. We’re all on that journey, and I certainly spent years not making the money I wanted to out of my art.  Some people apparently justify or defend where they’re at by saying they aren’t interested in money.  I understand why - it’s a defense mechanism, and I almost always read into it a desperate sadness or disappointment.  This is a mean spirited thing to say, but it’s notable how this always seems to spring from the lips of those who don’t have any choice.  Ouch.  But let’s be fair and honest -  I don’t see all that many people who can sell originals for $3000 giving them away because “they aren’t in it for the money”. 

So there you have it - a rather vulgar series of paragraphs attacking the witness.  I say these things not to cause hurt, but to empower the people who need to be empowered, and who are being hurt or at least bamboozled by the false dichotomy of love vs money.

But these are the simplest parts of that “love vs money” thing.

As mentioned above you will sometimes hear someone from a more reputable company, or a highly experienced freelancer talk about the importance of love.  A respect for putting love into your work isn’t limited to huxters, everso slightly naive consumers or penniless aspiring artists.  It isn’t misguided or fake.  There’s an important but almost invisible difference when these more experienced people talk about the importance of loving your art.

I’m certainly not in anyway against love.  I love love.  I love art. I love making art.  Well duh.

I mean to write something equally lengthy about that myself soon:  I recently came to the conclusion that the important part in making a work succeed is simply “love”. A while ago I found myself labouring over a piece of artwork and couldn’t figure out why I couldn’t get it to work.  And then I realised I’d put insufficient love into it. I was solely getting it done, and I didn’t care about it in the right way.  Filling the canvas without caring sufficiently that it was an engaging, exciting image that I cared about.  Now certainly not all of my work translates that love to the viewer, but without ever saying it out loud, I strive for it to always be in there.  Love is very important and often overlooked in favour of technical concerns - which actually are often an unrecognised expression of love in themselves.

As an aside I do feel a bit weird repeating the word “love” over and over.  I’m not a hippy.  I have quite a hard business head.  But love is good for business.

And I’ve seen similar things expressed by other more experienced heads than mine.  You can find what you truly love doing quite far into your career, and that can be when you really fly.  

This assumes a certain level of comfort though.  It assumes being in a place where you can pause to think about what you’re doing without starving, with enough time paid for, with enough materials and a space to work. It’s about the opportunity to make some choices about what you’re doing.  And I would argue that necessitates money. Awful, filthy, degrading money can actually be the springboard for wonderful, joyous love.

The most precious thing in the world is the time to love what you're doing.  And money can buy you that time.  Money (in this context at least) is not the enemy of love.

For most people starting out, and for a good few years, you might not be lucky nor skilled enough to have that breathing space, and in those times you’re aiming at being able to express that love by earning money.  

And this is finally getting to the point - love and money are not, not, not mutually exclusive.  As a freelancer you need money to express the love.  Money buys time and space and means to be creative.  Time, space and means are needed for love.

From another angle, as I’ve intimated several times already, love can and does earn money without being any the less for it.  Love and money have an intertwining relationship for the successful freelancer. 

Doing what you truly love does not automatically mean being poor, or suffering.  Do not be tricked by this oft-spoken lie.  Some of my best work which had the most love in it has been made for my best paying gigs. 

It would be dishonest not to also mention that some of my best paid jobs were for things I had little way of loving - they were 6 month long grinds, banging out visual assets for video games that paid very nicely thank you. It was good stuff, it served the needs of the clients. But it was all largely technical exercises in professionalism.  And yet I always try to get some love in there, to engage with the subject matter, to make the game the best it can be in my small section of it.  Painting, for example, 20 different swords can either be a robotic slog, or you could maybe use it as the spur to research something about swords, be they real or imagined.  Learn something about real swords, learn something about swords in fantasy, learn to love it and love to learn it.

All the while being handsomely paid for what could be a boring gig.

Sometimes jobs just don’t make much space for that.  And sometimes as puny humans we fail to sufficiently engage. I don’t anticipate everyone being crazy about every gig they do - even when it’s ones I’ve commissioned.  We have to be realistic, but we also have to have goals.  But those kind of harder to love jobs can be the very thing that gives you the freedom to express some love.  Even they still provide that intertwined relationship between love and money.

So sometimes you’re working hard to earn money to be able to put the love in.  Other times the love makes the money.  Sometimes, ideally it’s a combination of both.

When you come to ask for more money, or better conditions in return for less money, never let anyone tell you that it’s a gesture of anti-love for art.  It really isn’t.  Quite the opposite.

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