Valuing the Donut

I was speaking the other day with a friend who is a visual artist about her thoughts on patronage and art and a bunch of other stuff posed by Amanda Palmer in The Art of Asking. Both my friend and I had a similar experience when we discussed the books with our partners: their response to Palmer’s ideas were “I wish I could support you so you could do nothing but make art.”

We were both bothered by this statement. Not because we don’t want a patron to believe in us and facilitate our work. Nor because we don’t long for financial stability and the space of time to create (these things can be like a unicorn in that I believe achieving them is the only thing standing between my mediocre life now and the great things I could do).

But the implied values in the statement are that “making art is doing nothing” and “artists need to be kept.” Now, I don’t think our partners really think these things so baldly; however, the language implies the paradigm that society has about what it means to be an artist and a patron. Even Palmer at one point addresses the prejudice that she is successful in her art because her husband happens to be a famous writer. This prejudice belies the years of work and success she had before being wed and that the current trajectories of her art do not depend on her husband’s financial care.

Not that it’s wrong to split live work with a partner who keeps the financial side of things while you work somewhere else; the wrong is the assumption that the “only reason” she is doing what she is doing is that someone else making her work happen. If someone else is making your art happen, then you are not an artist; you are a hobbyist.

Palmer is neither kept nor dabbling. She is working her ass off for something that is her vocation; and she is reaping (at very public times) the rewards for that work.
My friend and I aren’t dabbling either. We make our own work happen regardless of how much patronage we get or how many other life obligations we accrue. We would be making art even if we had zero patronage. We don’t want to change that.

The conversation about patronage is a tricky one especially in a society that values money-linked careers and commodities. We scratch our heads when we need to attach a value to something that doesn’t have a market equivalent. How much is vision worth? An idea? Societal change? Motherhood?

For the latter, award-winning journalist Ann Crittenton found a way to ascribe a dollar amount to the price for motherhood (in her book of that title). She looked at divorce settlements—how much money the domestic spouse (aka wife in these instances) were allotted by the court after sometimes 20+ years of marriage. The amounts were shockingly low considering the worth of the partner with a money-paying job. Somehow the decades of keeping the other side of life aren’t valued like a 9to5 that can draw a paycheck. Again and again, a court (society) just could not see what of value the woman–who worked her whole life to develop our country’s most valuable commodity, kids, and kept everyone clothed, fed, housed, typing up reports for the other spouse while he was in school/early in career, etc . . . –had contributed that equaled 50% of the stack of green paper the husband accrued.

Of course when we look at it, we can see that the husband wouldn’t have been able to be as successful as he is if the wife hadn’t don’t all that stuff on the other side of life. But do we really see it? When it comes down to it and we are face to face with this woman, do we see her life as worthy work? We don’t know how to value that other side of life because it’s the invisible side.

It’s that other side of life that makes art so important. Why raising kids and making things isn’t trivial. When it works, no one notices that it’s actually happening. The world is just a better place. How much is that worth?

Going back to the “I wish I could support you” comments, the issues with assuming that people who serve the other side of life are not truly offering something of real value is what makes patronage so tricky. We are programmed think that the patron is giving us something we don’t deserve. That we haven’t traded back something of equal value. That in asking, in taking the donut, as Palmer puts it, we are taking a handout rather than accepting the due worth for the things we put into the world.

I think women have a harder time with how to value ourselves in the creative life. Probably in part because of the patriarchal system that perpetuates the myth that a stay at home (because of course that’s what an artist is) is a person who is somehow freeloading. We have to work twice as hard and sacrifice three times as much (my own figures) to be seen as contributing equally. A woman artist gets this doubly.
We resist taking the donut because we don’t want to be perceived as freeloading.

And certainly the takeover of many crowdfunding and patronage sites by people who are asking for things that seemingly don’t seem connected to anything they’re adding to the world isn’t helping with that perception. But there I go, judging another person’s worthiness. Trying to assess the intangible thing they may be adding to the world and deciding if it’s valuable.

I too struggle with the paradigm that patronage is “free” money. I hate that I will instantly and quietly judge whether or not someone is worthy to get success, support, praise. I try to see if they’ve worked hard enough to deserve it. The problem is the default thinking that artists don’t deserve because what they do is nothing.

I also judge myself. I’ve spent some time in daily pages making lists about how what I do is valuable. I worry that without the peer-reviewed panel of a “real” job that offers a paycheck as indicator of your worth, I will never know if I matter.

This essay is a bit squirrelly in focus and points because of my own paradigm struggle. Untangling my convictions from a societal paradigm from good living from compassionate heart from judgement and jealousy—the skein is too knotted right now. I can only hope to tease out a bit more and then a bit more and then a little bit more over patient time.

In the meantime, I will keep affirming the value of artists who do the hard work of changing how we see the world.

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