Suffering for one’s art is romantic, but it’s still suffering

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THE LIBRARY AT UNIVERSITY COLLEGE, University of Toronto, contains a collection of Canadian first editions previously owned by the late great Canadian poet Al Purdy. Visitors to the library can flip through Purdy’s books and enjoy all the inscriptions to Al from other huge names in Canadian literature. The poet Gwendolyn MacEwen, for instance, had written in a copy of one of her collections, “To Al, the second greatest poet in the Commonwealth.”

Avie Bennett, former owner of McClelland & Stewart Ltd., Canada’s venerable literary house, is the reason this collection exists. He bought all of Purdy’s books, while Al was still alive, and donated them in Al’s name to the university. Purdy once reminisced that no sooner had he received the cheque from Bennett, than his wife used it to pay for an addition to their small house. Imagine your book collection being so valuable it could pay for renovations. Why, with that kind of money, a great Canadian poet could build himself … a library to house all the first editions he no longer owns.

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Could Al Purdy not have afforded renovations to his house without selling his prized book collection? Shouldn’t his earnings as a poet have done that for him? Certainly not, because Al Purdy was a Canadian cultural worker, a member of the lowest paid, most poorly compensated and under-benefited group of highly skilled professionals in the world.

Yes, yes, poor artists. Whining, again, about not having any money. Don’t we give them grants? Haven’t we given them an entire radio and television network with which to push their wares (in between hockey games). Don’t Canada’s writers, dancers, musicians and visual artists regularly appear before us, looking just fine, certainly well-enough fed to make it through another interview about their latest work without collapsing? Are there no poor houses?

The idea of the starving artist is such a cliche, we hardly even take it seriously anymore. It’s almost expected that creative professionals in Canada will suffer financially for their professional choices–as though that is the only true path to quality art. But artists in Canada do not starve, as a rule. What Canadian artists do instead, as Purdy’s example shows, is struggle to lead reasonably comfortable lives in a weird and patently unfair economic relationship with the products of their work.

As an industrial group, the cultural sector generates enormous revenues for the Canadian economy–$39 billion * worth of revenues. That’s billion, with a B. Put in perspective, that is more revenue than is produced by the agriculture, mining, forestry, or oil and gas sectors.

This $39 billion is generated by a measly 131,000 working artists in Canada. That amounts to–are you ready for this–$297,710 in revenue created per working artist in Canada per year. What’s the average yearly earnings of Canadian artists? Don’t ask: Statistics Canada tracks about 500 different occupations in Canada. Of those, fully three-quarters of them make more money than artists, who continue to make about 26 percent less than the average Canadian worker.

Of course, these stats are probably skewed too high by the upper tier cultural earners–your rock and movie stars, the high-end novelists who sell movie rights to Hollywood producers. These folks do quite well for themselves, but their rising tide of income does little to float the boats of other artists. For the average artist intent on living off her cultural output, it is a hand-to-mouth existence. With no medical benefits or disability insurance, no pension, little if any job security, it becomes easier and easier to understand the expression “suffering for one’s art.” These days, the suffering has nothing to do with existential angst, and everything to do with sleepless nights wondering how to feed, clothe and educate the kids.

When we talk of arts subsidies, we need to recognize that artists themselves are the subsidies. Cultural workers provide for this country a wealth of production at the cost of their personal financial security. I think of it as using my own retirement savings to pay for Canada’s strong and vibrant culture. You’re welcome. Who else does this for their industry?

It’s not surprising then that the great majority of professional artists I know, I have met near a filing cabinet or water cooler, temping at an office in Toronto. If they’re lucky they’re temping–because that would mean, presumably, they are at least making some of their money from their art. Many have taken full-time jobs outside their chosen practice. Of those, it is the lucky few who find the time to continue their art in any meaningful income-generating way.

Yes, there are grants, and yes, artists are grateful for them when we get them. “When” we get them. Since i998, the Canada Council for the Arts reports a 50 percent increase in the number of eligible applications to their granting programs, without a concurrent increase in grant budgets. That means an emerging writer today has half the chance she had eight years ago of getting a grant, no matter the quality of her work. Just before the Martin government fell in 2005, the Department of Canadian Heritage responded to a lobbying push from Canada’s artists, and effectively doubled the budget for the Canada Council over the coming five years, which is great news for my industry, though it is not nearly enough. Increased funding needs to be tied to a more reasonable tax strategy for cultural workers, or at least more reasonable expectations for what they will do with the money they are granted.

A good novel should take five years from conception to launch. Imagine working for those five years–writing the book, rewriting, self-editing, finding an agent (if you’re extremely lucky), finding a publisher (see finding an agent), editing again, copy editing, launching and touring. By this point, the average Canadian novelist will be lucky to have made a modest advance on sales earnings from their publisher. Somewhere between a couple hundred dollars and a few thousand (the days of the life-changing advance, if they ever existed in Canada, are long gone).

Let’s be generous and speculate a $2,000 advance. For five years’ work. Sometime during that five years, the novelist has also managed to apply to every granting program she can find. That’s about 15 separate applications if you happen to live in a major city with its own arts council. From those 15 tries the novelist gets one hit, but it’s a big one, a provincial arts council subsistence grant for $12,000. So, now we’re at five years of work and $14,000 in revenue to the worker.

Where do grants come from? Taxes. Where do they go? Taxes. Of that $12,000 “subsistence” grant, a working artist can expect to pay upwards of $2,000 in income taxes (depending on how much they make at their other jobs). Wave goodbye to the advance on royalties.

Let’s examine this word subsistence. Who can be expected to subsist on $12,000 a year? Who are we kidding calling this a subsistence grant? Clearly, anyone subsisting as a writer in Canada today will need another revenue source, yet the many granting bodies still have a rule demanding anyone receiving their subsistence grant cease all other revenue generating work during the period of the grant. They call it “buying you time to do your writing.”

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I live in Toronto, with a Toronto mortgage. I have two children in pre-school daycare. Twelve thousand dollars a year barely buys a couple of those miniature daycare chairs for my boys, let alone time for me to do my writing. The novel I am publishing this year was written on weekends away from my family, evenings, late nights and early mornings, and one intensive month at an artists’ retreat on Toronto Island. I have received a provincial grant in the past, and it helped to pay for the time I took writing a book of poetry, in another life, before kids. If I had to depend on a very generous $12,000 to pay for this novel … well, do the math. My kids or my book. Something has to give.

Should we, as a country, care that our artists can’t really afford to be our artists? Art still happens, doesn’t it? Working in an ego-driven business, artists are actually willing to sacrifice income for acknowledgement; and if they’re willing to give it away like that, why should we pay for it? Well, ask a free market question and get a free market answer. When was the last time something you got for free really seemed like the best possible thing? Free stuff, generally, is crap. With no revenue flowing back to the cultural industry, no real industry exists to produce our culture, and what we get instead is a cheap knock-off of other cultures. Canada talks awfully proud about our “culture” out there in the wider world. It’s time we started paying for it back at home.

* Unless directly attributed, all statistics courtesy the Canadian Arts Coalition.

Degen, John