Art & Mind

Because Artists Are “Regular People” Too

Protest sign by Micheile Henderson

It may seem a bit odd that I haven’t written about the current strikes going on in the creative industries in the U.S., especially given my thoughts on the appreciation of artists – of all stripes – during the pandemic lockdown and well … forever. But I assure you it is not due to lack of concern or attention. Quite the opposite. 

Over the past month, I’ve been slowly getting back into the groove of things at work after a short medical hiatus, but that hasn’t stopped me from going to the mattresses on social media regarding the WGA/SAG-AFTRA strikes, verbally tangling with folks who are more than happy to consume creative entertainment, but apparently think actors and writers don’t need safe working conditions, healthcare or a living wage. 

I promise this won’t be a screed about those conversations, but I’ll simply share what I’ve been saying about art and its value in our lives for over the past decade since I started this blog. 

I’m not surprised that there are those who, despite watching film and television to their hearts’ content whenever they want, don’t believe that the creative professionals that help keep us sane, empathetic and inspired deserve to be well compensated for it. At least, I’m not surprised to see that here in the United States.

For a good century or so, the conservative voices in the U.S. have poisoned the well of public opinion with regard to artists. Conservatives have fought hard to make sure artists receive little financial compensation for their work, while taking advantage of it at every turn. They have tried desperately to dismantle the National Endowment for the Arts, claiming that it’s not the government’s place to provide funding for the arts, despite the fact that artistic tourism adds billions of dollars to the U.S. economy annually, and helps bolster local and state economies exponentially.

As a matter of fact, according to the Arts and Cultural Production Satellite Account, which tracks the annual economic value of arts and cultural production from 35 industries including both commercial and nonprofit entities, the overall arts economy in 2021 represented 4.4 percent of GDP, or just over $1.0 trillion—a new high-water mark.

Clapper board by Harald Muller

No, instead conservatives tell the masses that artists are pampered children who can’t hold down “a real job” and therefore don’t deserve to be treated with the same wages, protections, and respect as a marketing manager of a pharmaceutical company or an insurance salesman with a family of 4 to feed. 

In the minds of many, artists are not parents, disciplined thought-leaders, or people who make the world go round. They are not serious people who lead serious lives and they don’t contribute anything we should value on par with those who can make a product on an assembly line or those who can pull an item from the warehouse floor so it can be delivered to your door within 5-10 business days. 

Because artists, actors, musicians, dancers, writers and the creative kind dare to have a skillset or career that can’t be monetized in the manner that will make it even easier to exploit them without a union, conservatives have painted the artistic class of our society as frivolous, petulant and capricious. They’ve told you that artists are children who never grew up, and every day is a day of play and frolicking in the sun while you toil hard behind your desk, your counter, your apron, your forklift.

They’ve told you that artists, actors and writers are not like you. They’re not like “regular people.” They don’t deserve your compassion, understanding or empathy. You should demand they get back to work entertaining you for pennies because pennies is all they deserve because it’s not like their jobs are … hard, right? 

In the U.S., albeit born from the minds of conservatives, this perspective has been perpetuated by people across the political spectrum. Why? It’s anyone’s guess. 

Could it be because conservatives hate anyone who challenges the status quo – something many artists are known to do? Yes. 

Could it be because millions of us had dreams of following an artistic path when we were young, but were told to “grow up” and be realistic, so we’re jealous of those who didn’t “grow up” and dared to continue to pursue their dreams? Perhaps. 

Could it be because our cultural infrastructure is based on exploiting anyone who isn’t at the very top, and this is just a means of making sure those who follow non-traditional careers don’t escape that grind? It’s certainly possible. 

Regardless of why people choose to believe, I want to challenge the idea that artists, actors, writers, dancers, and musicians aren’t regular people. Anytime I see someone state such nonsense, I have to wonder what they think a regular person is? 

How many stories have we heard of actors laboring in bookstores, waiting tables, moving furniture, or working construction – and sometimes all in one month – before they got their big break? How many musicians have you heard of working multiple part-time jobs (before it was the norm for millions) to pay rent while they struggled to rehearse, play gigs and get the attention of a record label? How many writers have toiled away in soul-crushing office jobs for years while working on a spec script, play, or novel at night?

To say that artists aren’t “regular people” is to say you don’t see regular people at all. 

Pay Artists protest sign by Patrick Perkins

The artists are the ones who are making the world go round every day while trying to also express themselves with their art. In addition to raising families, they take care of their parents, grandparents, aunties and uncles. They sign up for classes to help them improve their writing pitches, film editing skills, improv timing, and brush techniques. They do laundry, go grocery shopping, tinker with home repairs, and struggle to keep their weight down in a world of unending stress. And most of them do all of this while working “real jobs” day after day, month after month, year after year while chasing their dreams and creating art. 

Most actors aren’t like Jennifer Lawrence or Timothée Chalamet, stumbling onto star-studded success early in their career. Most actors are like Leslie Jones and Paul Giamatti, slowly climbing their way up the ladder of success in the hopes of being in a position to make a living off of their art and just their art alone by the time they’re in their 40s and 50s. 

And most actors (or writers, musicians, dancers, comedians, etc.) will never be able to make a living off of their art alone. But they should and could if those at the top didn’t:

  1. hoard most of the wealth for themselves, 
  2. exploit the workers who do all the heavy lifting, and
  3. reinforce the idea that the skills of the creative class have no value to our society while those in the C-suite make money off of the very value the creative class produces. 

If there’s any takeaway from this current situation, it’s that the “regular people” should absolutely see themselves in the artists that are on strike. Not only because they too are being exploited like those writers and actors, but also because those artists are regular people just like them. They do what everyone else is doing while also sacrificing so much to create what makes our lives immeasurably richer.

So yes, let’s recognize that they are not the petulant ones. Artists are the “regular people” out there every day working right alongside you before going to their dance class, band rehearsal, poetry reading, or writer’s circle at night, then home to cook dinner, help their kids with their homework, and edit the last act of the script they’re writing, before turning out the light so they can wake up and do it all again tomorrow. 

And for those of us who may not think of ourselves as artists (or at the very least, as actors or writers), please support the unions and speak up on their behalf not only because together we are all struggling in our day jobs and night jobs and side hustles and one-offs. But because we slog through this grind every day, then return home at night to wrap ourselves in the music, books, art, film and television that reminds us to smile a little because life’s not all bad. 

We appreciate the value artists bring to our lives because we need it in ways we may never be able to quite articulate. And we will continue to respect what they create and how much our world is better for it. 

This is why we can, should and will stand in solidarity with the striking artists. Because artists are “regular people” too.

We All Live Here by Brandi Alexandra

Top Image: Protest sign by Micheile Henderson on Unsplash | Second Image: Clapper board by Harald Muller on Unsplash | Third Image: Pay Artists protest sign by Patrick Perkins on Unsplash | Bottom Image: We All Live Here by Brandi Alexandra on Unsplash

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