Start the Debate

Polly Carl from Howlround talks about artists and organisations working together “to blur the lines between media as reportage and media as megaphone for change”


From Darkness to Light – Fair Trade for Artists
New blog, by artist Gaynor O’Flynn

2014 photo Gaynor O'FlynnI am an artist. I work across disciplines in music, film, installation, digital & performance art. I am also the director of t.b.c. : the beinghuman collective : a group of artists, creatives, technologists & cultural entrepreneurs who believe in the power of art for social change.

My career started after I dropped out of a Law degree at Sheffield University, the then socialist republic of South Yorkshire. I moved to London, went on the dole, did an unpaid internship at Riverside Studios, Hammersmith, it used to be called volunteering, a somewhat more honest word.

My first proper job in the cultural industries was on Channel 4’s The Tube. It was a labour of love & brilliant training. I received more than a fair wage for my work under the union, yes union as in trade union, rules in place at the time.

25 years later how the world has changed!

The cultural industries are a massive part of the UK’s economy in a way none of us could have predicted. The size of the creative industries is comparable to the financial sector, 7.3% of the economy, growing at 5% per year almost twice the rate of the rest of the economy, according to the Work Foundation the creative industries employs 1.8 million people.

But this is not the whole picture.

The work of creatives is much greater than the financial stats show. Our festivals, music, culture, art & creativity impact our economy is so many indirect ways. We attract tech start-ups, tourists, financiers, scientists, academics to UK to visit, live & invest in brand GB. We revitalise inner cities, breathe life into dead village & town centres, help keep open indie pubs, shops & clubs. The work of millions of creatives is central to our economy, our communities, our exports & our spirituality.

But as an artist who is freelance, fiercely independent & for bad or worse driven by creativity more than economics I see a deeply disturbing trend.

The fame & fortune route that is promoted to us is simply not sustainable. The cultural economy cannot support a world of Lady Gaga’s, Damien Hirsts’s, Steve Jobs & JK Rowlings & for cultural, creative, moral & spiritual reasons actually not all of us want to follow that path.

However, we do want to make a good living, be respected & create great work.

But, niche artists without the fame tag, are being asked to work for free across the board, the mantra “you are promoting yourself” is quoted to when we play live, when we engage with the tech industry, when we speak at events, when we screen films, when are designs, photos, footage, music, compositions, words & text are used across not only in the digital but also in physical world.

Yes, we are promoting ourselves but we are also promoting the festival, venue, restaurant, tech company, gallery & company who is asking of your work, time & skills for free.

And this in an ever-expanding media landscape is for the purpose of The Dark Arts event, my main point.

As artists & creative we really need to wake up to the concept of Intellectual Property in the post-digital age.

When we co create media channels & content with tech must become more savvy & aware of how the tech industry works. Big data, cool content, our content drives traffic, virtual bums on seats which in turn drives revenue, lots of revenue.

But does the independent creator see any of that revenue in an open & transparent way, NO!

Don’t get me wrong, I am not against a free economy, most of the world runs on barter, exchange of skills & I work for free & ask people to work for me for free but only when no one is making a profit & the work is for the common good.

And that is the important distinction we must draw. When someone, somewhere is making a profit from creative content then we must work as a society to create a digital, legal & social infrastructure that is fit for purpose, rewards quality content creators & plays fair.

When the owner of Tumblr a site very strategically marketed to hipsters globally from Brooklyn to Hackney, Delhi to Austin … has the gall, as he did in person, at a Guardian Activate Event for those who, ‘make the world a better place through technology’, to tell me to my face that a company that exited & sold to Yahoo for 1.1 Billion dollars making him a cool 275 million dollars personally is not yet ‘monetized’ as a platform it is time for hipsters, creative, artists young & old to wake up & smell the new corporate greed. To start to realize yes you are promoting yourself & we love technology but you are also promoting tech & multi-billion industries that act in a way that may not be in line with your ethics & beliefs.

We need a concept of Fair Trade for Artists, to persuade “generation free”, which is actually is all of us: from governments to tech companies via all the companies en route to the consumer to follow a small is beautiful principle, to become more aware of the importance of quality creativity for our society & to pay a fair price for our work.

We need a global digital database & we need to work with the tech industry to create this. All the stake holders: government, collection agencies, unions, lawyers, artists, creators, media, technologists across all disciplines must work together.

The global database could be connected to the www database, our url’s are owned by one company. That could be linked to government tax codes.

We then need government to act not only on behalf of digital, tech & big business but also to really understand the benefits of a healthy, SME & freelance creative community for a strong vibrant economy.

We need our audience, our venues, our shops, our media, our online services to support a concept of Fair Trade for Artists, Fair Trade for Creatives.

We need to question why we have the term banker “****er” when we refer to the 1: 99 % dynamic in banking but still our media in particular idolises the 1% in cultural industries many of whom are behaving in a equally greedy, non ethical way. Yes big names we need you to play fairer & leave more of the pie for the 99%.

The tech sector will be as destructive for society as banking became if we don’t all start to protect our beautiful, hard worked for creative assets & campaign for a more transparent, ethical, open route to knowledge & content. Google is not The Encyclopedia Britannica but a massive, global, online, ad agency. Current neuroscience also tells us that  our subconscious rules our conscious, tech & brands now this as the holy digital grail of geo location via mobiles direct to pay now plays out.

We need to realise that as the digital domain becomes part of daily life for many human beings on the planet, we need new laws, data management & infrastructure that is fit for purpose but first & foremost we need a united moral commitment to respect our artists, creators & cultural entrepreneurs.

Gaynor is currently working on major commissions in Delhi & Mumbai in India, will be speaking at The Mind Life Institute, Boston In October with The Dalai Lama & Arianna Huffington & is curating the British Chapter of The Kathmandu International Art Festival, 2015. She is the Founder of The Beinghuman Collective & the Beinghuman Warehouse in East London. To find out more about Gaynor’s cross discipline art project to raise awareness of the need for Fair Trade in the Arts




Artist as Entrepreneur 2.0 – by Andrew Horwitz, Culturebot, NYC. Word document, 17kb

Artist as Entrepreneur 2.0 from Culturebot on Vimeo.

Here are links to interesting articles linking in to the debates at Don’t Panic! – Arts in Austerity

The arts: beauty and the bean counters
Guardian editorial on how the value of the arts is defined

Bryony Kimmings – You show me yours… – an artist-producer’s frustration at the economics of creating and touring great work.

Getting Paid – An a-n forum on artist payment

Arts Council England’s Advocacy Toolkit

What Next? – A movement for fresh thinking and policies in the arts’ engagement with the public.

Taking Risks in Times of Adversity, by Adrian Ellis

Creative & Cultural Skills video on apprenticeships and traineeships

Joining the Dots

In Battalions – a report on Theatres and new work by Finn Kennedy

Art as a Mirror of Society – The Art Newspaper

Equity Calls for Crackdown on “Exploitation” of Performers – The Stage

The Creative Society’s ‘Fair Access’ Campaign

CCSkills Creative Employment Programme

Arts Council England’s guidance on Internships In The Arts

Politics of Art: Contemporary Art and the Transition to Postdemocracy by Hito Steyerl, published by e-flux journal

Seeing Value in the Arts, by Andy Horwitz, Culturebot (NYC)

Are There Too Many Artists? by Susan Jones

Exploring the world of artist-led organisations, a-n blog led by Susan Jones

What are artists really worth? Susan Jones in The Guardian

Instrumentality or artistic autonomy? The pursuit of Cultural Value by Susan Jones

a-n infographic on artist earnings

Who feeds the artist? by Xenia Pestova

Whitey responds to a request to use his music for free

Wage for Work takes dOCUMENTA (13) curator Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev to task (Youtube video)

Why We Should Lie – Talk given by Andrew Brighton:

The question I will attempt to answer is, how should we approach writing those reports and applications that ask us to show that what we do aids social cohesion or produce economic benefit?

I hope what I say will be entirely banal, obvious and un-objectionable. It comes from having been an art bureaucrat and writing about the political economy of the visual arts. I am not sure how apposite my argument is for other art forms.  I take the concept of ‘the arts’ as a thin concept, a politically convenient banner for a diversity of communities of practice and their publics.

What I will argue is that faced with political demands to justify public expenditure on the arts we should be ethical liars.

Why should we be liars?

We should be liars because the discourse, in which we are asked to justify ourselves, is incommensurable with the evaluative discourse of art. We are like cheese justifying itself as chalk.

Arts institutions are in the business of proposing that some things should be valued rather than others. What one should value is a component of the question, how should one live. In other words, what things should be valued in the good life is a question intrinsic to asking, what is the good life.

Schematically, we work by offering descriptions of the art we value. We are saying, look at it this way and you can see why this should be valued. The public culture of art is an economy of contending descriptions.

It is far from clear that contending descriptions reinforce social cohesion or yield an economic benefit. Further, if we allow supposed economic or social benefits to determine what we do, then what we do is no longer part of the public culture of art. What we do becomes part of the discourse of political responsibility.

In the discourse of political responsibility, one is obliged to pretend you know the consequences of your decisions and policies; that you have the power determine the future. In practice, economic policies and social engineering are pretty incompetent. For instance, where we are now socially and economically is not the intended product of past policies. No one is claiming responsibility for the recession and the banking crisis, the decline in social mobility and education and the growing inequalities in incomes and wealth.

Modernity is ethically incoherent. As Alastair MacIntyre put it,  ‘Liberal political societies are characteristically committed to denying any place for a determinate conception of the human good in their public discourse, let alone allowing that their common life should be grounded in such a conception.’ The contending descriptions of art enact and reflect on our ethical incoherence.  Modern political discourses solve this problem by being apparently valueless, they do justification by utility. If the measure of all things is their contribution to national wealth and security as the utile ends then arguments about what one should value and how one should live are heresies.  They question the utile Gods.

In what way should we be ethical liars?

When we fill in those forms, we should be like crooked accountants who run two sets of books. The Potemkin accounts and the real accounts. Like Robert Maxwell, we should keep the real accounts in our heads. We should pretend not know that the discourse of public accountability is valueless, incompetent and antipathetic. But the managerial way of thinking can leach into the mind; we can climb the career ladder by internalising the discourse of control. We can become like a native working in the colonial civil service who comes to see their own people through the eyes of the occupiers.

As I have said, we are in the business of proposing that some things should be valued more than others. We do this in the modern public sphere which is the site, in principle, where all can contribute to public reasoning about the common good. As public institutions, we should be open to all. But a multi-cultural society is by definition a society of communities with diverse ideas of the good life. In practice, we serve those people who think art is part of the good life. At the core of this audience are artists. It is to them and the committed public that our real accounts are rendered. Certainly we should reach out to new audiences but primarily for our own endogenous interests. I am far from convinced that we should assume that people without art are victims, that they are lesser or inadequate persons in need of cultural rescue.

We lie ethically by remembering on whose behalf and for what we lie. Our practice should be embedded in that congregation that holds that the problem of what things we should value as art is part of the problem of how we should live. We hold, in other words, that a reflective public culture of art should be part of pubic reasoning; that our kinds of reasoning constitute a public good worth lying for.

As I said, I hope this view is entirely banal, obvious and un-objectionable.

3 Responses to Start the Debate

  1. Pingback: Artist as entrepreneur: the American model or same old American dream?

  2. Pingback: Ed Mckeon on ‘The Dark Arts? Getting Your Message Across in the (New) Media’ | The Sampler Blog

  3. Pingback: Ed McKeon: The Dark Arts? Getting Your Message Across in the (New) Media | The Sampler Blog

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