Statistics are not my thing. I think they are really, really important, especially when gathered in real scientific methodologies. But, well, a good friend of mine took a statistics course in university while getting his science degree and was essentially taught that you can take statistics and glean any kind of information you want from them. In a sense, you can also lie with them. Still, we are lost as a society without them. When statistics are approached with serious intent and are purposeful they are invaluable. I wish I had more of a passion for this kind of information gathering and analysis; it’s a missing part of my education.
Recently a coalition in Saskatchewan of arts groups announced that they are undertaking a survey of the financial lives of artists. Their preliminary findings are that artists are underpaid and don’t value themselves in monetary terms. Woah! Big shocker there. I applaud this undertaking as the public continues to be unaware of how much it costs to have art in our world. We need these studies, and I have been harping on it for over a year now. This kind of information can be used effectively for advocacy only if it is done in a truly scientific and rigorous way. But it can be also be used against the arts if the survey is poorly handled.
A local survey done in my little community about the financial lives of artists was taken several years ago. Initially I applauded this effort but then I read the questions which seemed to resemble what a credit card company would ask you with no details about the costs of exhibiting, transportation and no emphasis on the fact that artists have to leave our county continually to make money. But the most jarring aspect of the survey was that it included retirees who have used their huge pensions and RRSP’s to pad their golden years hobby. The results were not widely shared because as suspected no one like me did the survey because of the questions. Apparently in my community people in the arts are rich and very comfortable. Money and help not needed thank you very much.
It was an example of how dangerous gathering stats can be if done with a strong slant toward an expected outcome. This is where my friend’s lying with statistics course could have really paid off. Our federal government has ruthlessly decried war on anything that statistics can illuminate as reality; they are determined not to see sociological patterns thereby throwing our day to day realities into the abyss and creating policies that have nothing to do with the world we live in.
A blog post I wrote about art as a sociological phenomena (one of our Prime Minster’s most hated axioms) inspired some really interesting comments. The most informed came from York University’s Michael Maranda who has in fact created his own socio-economic studies on the arts, and they are possibly the most comprehensive done in our country to date. He was recently quoted in a forum about these issues in NYC at the Artist as Debtor summit; he deserves even more recognition. Michael believes that bad stats can be worse than no stats at all. He has some misgivings about the Saskatchewan survey and has said so publicly on Facebook. I tend to agree with Michael as his work outlines all the most salient aspects of living life as an artist such as this nugget, “…while the median income of artists in the 2007 study was $20,000, this included income from all sources. Income from studio practice alone, however, was negative $556.”
What I like most about Michael is his commitment to the fact that statistics can go a long way toward advocating art’s role in our lives. How much money it costs to make our world civilized and cultured plays out in graphs and pie charts as they convey real economic structures. I admit to being rather typical in that for many years I was completely ignorant about the role economics played in my life. I don’t come from money nor have parents around to help so I have lived crappy job to crappy job in order to pay for my not-illustrious but dedicated-to art career. I was bound to have a Saul to Paul moment in my economic desert because we all have to ‘get real’ at some point.
The 2008 financial debacle changed everything for me. Suddenly I had to confront the very real idea that I may go broke because I had no nest egg to rely on and my lack of ambition had not secured me a proper income through exhibiting or selling. What happened exactly? I gave myself a crash course on economics and realized that in fact my contribution to the arts had never been fully compensated; I was broke because I had never been properly paid for the things I was doing. I am not saying my lack of economic success wasn’t my fault; it just wasn’t entirely my fault.
We have all had our artistic lives subjugated; we think we are not as important as hospitals or poverty coalitions. We are. But we won’t matter any more if we continue to base all of our artistic ambitions on this myth that art can’t be quantified. Art doesn’t appear out of nowhere, it is labour intensive and this labour comes at a cost as all labour does.