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Why We Need to Reimagine the Starving Artist Stereotype

You don’t need to choose between your creative dreams and making rent.
Image by Ben Thomson

This article is supported by Monash University's Graduate School of Humanities and Social Sciences. In this series, we ask a bunch of professors about issues relating to their industry.

Even though they're often placed at opposite ends of a spectrum, creativity and money don't have to be mutually exclusive. The starving artist stereotype has been perpetuated across generations, and it's now ingrained in us that to pursue creativity means accepting the fact that we're going to be broke for a very, very long time. As any painter who has caved into studying a law degree will know, this idea is damaging because it means we so often go for a 'safe' career choice out of fear of financial failure.


But it's not about the jobs themselves, the issue is an endemic miscalculation of value. The idea that you have to be a struggling creative is wrong, and the world is becoming more sophisticated with how it assigns value to work.

We asked Justin O'Connor, professor in the field of creative and cultural Industries, why jobs in the creative and cultural industries are the way of the future and why Australia needs to keep pace.

VICE: Why do we so intensely undervalue cultural and creative work?
Justin O'Connor: I think there are two problems relating to this: because they are creative jobs and because they are pretty exciting, they tend to justify what somebody once called 'sacrificial labour'. You're going to work 10 hours a day, you're going to work for free, you're going to go and be that intern because it's great! It's fantastic! And it is, sometimes, but it's not great after 20 years when you're still doing the same thing. That's something we've got to take care of a bit more. The other bit is yes they're proper jobs and yes they represent a viable career path, but governments still tend to see them as kind of luxury items. They're way down the priority list in Australia. Not elsewhere, I should say.

Why is that though? I feel good after I see a concert or visit a museum; my city feels better when these things are accessible to me. How do you put a value on this?
It depends what you mean by value. A monetary value? How do you put a value on life, or put a value on a city? It's these kind of questions that lead you into numbers and I think that one of the biggest catastrophes of the last 30 to 40 years is that the cultural sector has said, "Alright, we'll try to show that we're useful. We produce this many jobs, we attract so many people who spend $X for every visit." But what the culture sector has forgotten about is: what is the value of culture? Part of that is to make life worth living, at its simplest. And that's very hard now to get across to government, because they're so used to seeing things in economic terms. It's a big challenge.


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How can we overcome this?
At the moment, the government thinks that their main job is to allow as many platforms in as possible. Netflix, Google, Amazon, Apple, all of those global platforms provide the stuff and the only job of the government is to make sure people have good connectivity so that they can get their credit card out and buy it. And it's that complete commercialisation of the cultural and information system which is where we're at.

So, the question we ask is: is culture more than just an individual's expression of preference through their credit card? Are there some collective things, some urban civic things, things that people should be able to get exposed to? Are there things that people need to be educated on a bit more to understand a bit more?

It's no longer about the government giving money to 'The Arts' locked up in museums, it's now about how we deal with this massive explosion of culture and platforms.

How do you want to see the government change its relationship to culture?
It's about finding a way of making it more reflective of local and national communities and giving public value back to it. We've had years of attacks on public broadcasting, so that almost anything that's done by governments is seen as bad or wasteful or inefficient or controlling. There's now a reassertion of the value of public broadcasting, but also public spaces.


More than ever, we want to look at how independent cultural producers can find a space and a voice within it all. And that means getting paid. It's about viable and sustainable jobs and whether people have got enough to live on. Because, apart from a few saints or people with trust funds, you can't currently engage in cultural production, criticism, and participation unless you've got some kind of financial base.

Taking that further, there's a lot of talk now about universal basic income, and also talk about providing a certain level of cultural wages or social wages so that if people are going to get paid, one of the conditions is that they do something of social or cultural benefit.

Are you saying that I might prove my parents wrong and a creative career is sustainable after all?
You will certainly prove your parents wrong. I think it is true that these are the jobs of the future, perhaps not often in the way that it's presented. They have been presented as 'the old industry is gone, this is a new knowledge economy' and I think that's very one-sided because we've got to decide what this new economy is. But also, it's like, how do we want the economy to work for us? So these debates, just within the cultural industries, are actually representative of wider debates. You know, the economy is supposed to work for people and not the other way around.

At the moment, it's not doing that.

This article is supported by Monash University's Graduate School of Humanities and Social Sciences. You can find out more about the Master of Cultural and Creative Industries here.