change · collaboration

Art in the time of precarity

Last week, Camilla Gibb, celebrated Canadian writer, who authored Sweetness in the Belly, The Beauty of Humanity Movement, and The Petty Details of So-and-So’s Life, among other, wrote an op-ed about the lack of financial support for writers. In “The More You Writer, the Less You Make,” Gibb exposes the penury writers live in, even if they attain the elusive measure of success. Writers’ average incomes, Gibb points out citing the Writers’ Union, is $12,000 a year. Still, she says, when you’re fairly young and “do what you love,” it is still a privilege. She continues:
You don’t squander that privilege. You work your ass off. And hopefully you’re rewarded for that effort. It worked for me, as it did for many writers of my generation, perhaps the last for whom it was possible to live off their writing. In Britain, writers’ incomes have fallen by 30 per cent in the past eight years, collapsing to what one Guardian headline called “abject” levels. 
I shuddered at the familiarity of this proposition. How many current PhD students still say the same things to themselves, that in spite of the abysmal academic job market, it is totally worth working your derrière off through grad school while subsisting on ramen and insecurity, because your ideas are important, and they deserve to be followed through? That gratification–or living above the poverty line and eating nourishing food–will be delayed only momentarily. That surely, the magnificence of those ideas will carry one through to the deserved and coveted position?
Trust me, I do not mean to be sarcastic in saying the above. Gibb’s op-ed made me question, yet again, if we have the tools to tackle this systemic assault on arts and humanities. Training PhD students for alternative career paths, Alt-Ac and Post-Ac, would benefit everyone: the PhD graduates as well as their employers and society at large. However, are we putting a band-aid on this systemic issue that has come to devalue–literally–artistic work, while coveting creativity and innovationat every other step?

As Gibb mentions, instituting big prizes is awesome, but hardly a solution to fostering a vibrant literary culture that would actually enable most of its key participants–the writers–to subsist. See a pattern here? I could go on, but I fear a rant rearing its ugly head, and there’s no reason for any friend of H&E’s to be subjected to such. So, can I ask you, instead, what it is we can do collectively to advocate on behalf of the value of the arts, the humanities, and to get the word across that artists cannot live on the beauty they create alone? How can we create a sustainable system that does not entail the patronage of a nefariously-motivated or politically-driven Maecenas?

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