Why creative work is constantly undervalued

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It is important for both sides to realize the value of art: For artists, to manage their insecurities, protect their art, and secure a career. For non-artists, to respect artists, recognize their role, and fully enjoy the benefits of art. Illustration by JL JAVIER

Editor’s note: The opinions expressed in this commentary are the author’s.

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — Many people consider art as a hobby or a collection for the rich to hang on their walls. That art does not cure the sick, build a great wall, or divide a sea. That art is an activity that some lawyers or chemists may also be doing at home in their leisure time.

The kind of appreciation that some people have for art also rises from a distance. This is why art becomes a hostage to stereotypes and a shock to traditional systems.

People rarely see artists, their sleeves rolled up and hunched over a desk, studying various elements of design, principles, software, methods, materials, trends, histories, and relevant industries in order to hone their craft, find opportunities where their skill set is needed, and produce sensible artwork. There are people who believe that artists deserve low pay because their work does not require technical skills — as if art is produced solely by impulse, vanity, or some internal dissonance.

The fury that celebrity Jameson Blake sparked after offering to pay graphic designers with a shoutout on social media last week is a reminder that creative work remains undervalued and struggling for its place in the grand scheme of things.

And this issue will be sleeping forever if we choose nightmares over letting the sunlight come through the window: Where are both sides coming from? Where can they meet?

Most people may appreciate the mystery and aesthetics of art — the unconventional forms, play of colors, that magical rush and awe. Even if it is for photography, painting, literature, graphic design, or filmmaking, such appreciation does not instantly and necessarily have weight.

Artists invest in courses, workshops, and events where they can make connections. Why? Because art may be a landscape suffused with lines and colors, but these things funnel through invisible doors, namely livelihood, physical health, personal relations, artistic growth, and maybe a search for purpose.

However, we cannot completely blame some people for not appreciating what they do not always understand, especially those that are produced by fluid ideas, abstract discourse, and imagination. Why would they pay for things their hands can’t hold and don’t directly affect their realities?

Consumers choose the “abstract ideas” they pay regardless if they see them as art or mere entertainment. And when they pay — for a movie or concert ticket for example, they know the amount won’t make them fully adjust their household budget. It’s either their extra money or a dismissible part of their savings. Even if the economic models are different, there is still a trace of that experience and the perception that art is not part of our core expenses when they work with artists.

Add to this the fact that we are shackled to our culture, which generally considers the likes of doctors and engineers as the definition of success, the pillars of our economy, the pride of their hometown and their parents.

Art is everywhere

It is important for both sides to realize the value of art: For artists, to manage their insecurities, protect their art, and secure a career. For non-artists, to respect artists, recognize their role, and fully enjoy the benefits of art.

If we look around, art is everywhere. It is so common that we hardly see it anymore. It is woven into our language, our streets, our movements.

Everyone has a role, and not all roles directly solve the world’s problems. We address them in varying degrees. Engineers lead the construction of highways so we can travel from one place to another. Marine biologists ensure that life in the sea is rich and healthy, but they can’t save the entire 70 percent of the Earth alone. They need the help of other scientists, the support of government, businesses, and communities. Teachers do not turn us into millionaires after graduation but they guide us in learning and getting where we want to be.

Artists help us with introspection; the way we see, feel, and understand things because this world has a way of hardening our hearts and confounding our brains. Artists create instruments that make us question and refine our principles before they bleed into larger institutions.

Art may not be able to write down the drugs we need to take for our cough, but it is the song we sing when drugs can no longer comfort us.

Art is what captures the bliss of one’s wedding day and makes us feel good when we share it. Maybe other forms of art do not make us feel good, but that does not decrease their value nor stop them from being art.

Ideally, there is art in designing a city, where everything should have its place, with proper distances from one another, but the public officials and the business moguls we may be admiring for their fame and wealth are too busy cramming their structures into every corner to recognize art and our welfare.

Museums that display the works of our local artists remind us of our culture, our identity, our history. These are things we hardly remember nowadays but are actually important as we contemplate our politics, economy, and socio-cultural spheres and make decisions that could shape our future.

Art for exposure

Is it wrong to ask artists to work for free? Yes.

The answer is not that simple when the question is, “Is it wrong for artists to offer their services or products for free?”

It is difficult for newcomers to consistently land on decent clients or employers if they don’t have a solid portfolio yet. Even the talented ones need to create their own opportunities in a crowded industry whose market is not as stable as those in other fields.

There is a story posted online about a photographer who did a shoot for free once, and her subject, a famous celebrity, became the cover of her portfolio and her website. There were also other photographers that day, but she was able to capture the subject in a unique angle. When she presents her portfolio to clients, the picture becomes an instrument in starting their conversation and stirring interest in her work. She said she was not compensated for the photo, but it gave her strong professional value.

Knowing when to make such a decision with consideration to context and consequences requires serious reflection. Not all artists have the same exact career paths. Professional value can be achieved through various forms, such as awards, attendance in conferences, and recommendations.

When to not make such a decision has been perfectly demonstrated by the offer made by Blake. It is not appropriate for many reasons.

Even if we consider his offer valid for argument’s sake, would it be a smart professional decision? What type of audience does Blake have online? Is it the right kind of exposure? Are all kinds of “art for exposure” appropriate? Would it convince clients to hire artists because they got a shoutout on Twitter?

To dictate the value of any design and suggest that graphic artists could work for a shoutout is an indirect way of looking down on them. A dry river is still a river. What would celebrities like Blake gain when they have presentable social media platforms? It would spruce up their image and help attract more audience. What does a huge following mean for celebrities? Endorsements. Projects. Money.

When we ask our artist friends to do something, we must always offer to pay. Even if they are our cousin or friend, offer to pay. If your request would be used for your social media accounts, a new shop, or a flyer for an event, offer to pay. Let the artists be the ones to decide and say if they would offer their services for free or not. Let it come from their lips, not yours. Don’t take it personally.

By offering to pay, you are actually telling them, “I respect what you do and I support you.”