Freelance Living: A Self-Serving Proposal

Funding for the arts has never been simpler: give me all your money.

Always the same three questions from Uncle Leonard, all oddly the same: Do I have a job? No. Do I receive a regular paycheck? No. Am I making a decent living? No again.

I’m getting used to it. I’m a freelance writer. What do I do for a living? You’re looking at it.

To me, the money is irrelevant. But not to my family. I tell myself it’s the “starving artist” cliché that concerns them. They’re simply worried about my wellbeing.

Strange as it may seem to the kinfolk, my lifestyle actually emulates the classic capitalist model: conjure up fabulous ideas, put all your energy behind a single vision, bet the farm and soon you’re Walt Disney. Or Arthur Miller. Or Yanni. I’m pursuing the American Dream; my relatives think I’m a vagrant.

The truth of the matter is we all need hard, cold cash in order to survive. Most people are able to redeem their labor for compensation in the form of a straightforward hourly wage: carpenters, dentists and prostitutes have been selling their services for ages. Before currency the barter system was used, making it possible for artisans to participate: some woman in an igloo could swap a few hand-carved marionettes for a little gunpowder or some salmon jerky and call it an even trade.

No longer. Today, even the local coffee shop is a multinational comprised of shareholders who wouldn’t think of accepting a few framed poems for an iced latte or three. “Art is worth something, dammit!” At least that’s what I keep telling the barista when the caffeine headache kicks in and I’m short on coin.

Life’s full of tradeoffs. In order to make ends meet, I live in Seattle rather than Santa Barbara and drink less than I’d like to. A former roommate and one helluva dancer said “screw it” and went to law school. One of the best poets I’ve read gave up the rejection letters and Top Ramen to write those witty Dewar’s ads. A painter friend steals from Diamond Lot parking boxes.

Admittedly, only insane artists choose to stick with it. There are far too many obstacles blocking the road to success in a calling that rarely pays a decent wage, ignores health care and is easily ridiculed as “unrealistic.”

Interestingly, the word “art” is defined by Webster’s as “skill in performance acquired by experience, study, or observation.” Point is, art is serious business, whether the artist gets paid for the work or not.

I understand that the odds of “making it” in my profession are slim. Thank God I’m not a mime. Nevertheless, as they say in the lottery ads, you can’t win if you don’t play. And I’m perfectly willing to compete for greatness on the open market, knowing full well that without an agent, sugar daddy or licensed action figure to back me up, most of my blind submissions will fall upon deaf (and, if you ask me, often dumb) ears. To keep my spirits high, I write positive notes to myself on the SASE attached to every proposal I send out. For better or for worse I’m in for the long haul.

Still, it’s nice to have a backup plan. So I’m proposing a new relationship between the public and the artiste; sort of a monarch and court jester arrangement, whereby artists are paid to amuse, enlighten and entertain on a local level. I’m not suggesting that comics hang out at Bill Gates’s house and tell jokes for cash, though a saxophonist playing a few jazz riffs in front of Paul Allen’s manor might not be such a bad idea.

What I do submit is that more artists create experiences accessible to the everyman: neighborhood sculpture gardens, street craft fairs, garage recitals, local hootenannies, sidewalk murals, community newsletters, campfire performances, block party poetry slams. Imagine kids on the corner selling lemonade, but along with your frosty cool beverage comes an entire vaudeville show! How much would you pay to see that?!

All art, of course, is not created equal; some of it’s just bad. And I’m not saying that the public, the federal government — or even you — should pay for garbage. My recommendation is that each citizen pledge a small amount of their yearly discretionary budget for art they do like: indie rock-and-roll, homespun biographies, sculpture (in your) gardens, strip shows — whatever floats your boat.

The responsibility in this scheme falls equally on artist and audience: If performers put on a bad cabaret, pass the hat and come up with only nickels and dimes, they’ll have to change their tune for next month’s show. With practice, they may prosper.

If you don’t like this idea, I’ve got a short-term suggestion for saving the arts: Send cash donations for this thoughtful essay, to: Starving Artist LLC, c/o Michael Stusser, P.O. Box . . .

Illustration by Demian Johnston