In 1935, with the country in the grips of depression, President Franklin Roosevelt created the Federal Music Project, part of Federal Project Number One, which included related programs for visual artists, writers, and the theater. Despite his patrician upbringing, FDR was not a great patron of the arts, and was only lukewarm about the program. His wife Eleanor, a culture enthusiast, was in fact the driving force behind it. However one thing FDR did recognize was that artists were unemployed and suffering just like everyone else, and deserved to participate in the benefits of the New Deal. In addition, he felt that the arts would help entertain and enrich the public, taking their minds away from their difficulties. In short, FDR decided to treat artists as workers.
Although many of the problems facing creative people today are related to the general plight of workers in our society, there are also cultural factors. Many of the problems faced by professional musicians and artists in general can be traced to the refusal of society to view what we do as real work. Some of this refusal in turn can be traced to certain myths about artists and their role in society. Unfortunately, as artists we often internalize and even perpetuate these myths. While there is a grain of truth to some of them, the overall effect is to make it hard to see ourselves as skilled workers, deserving of the same respect and compensation as any other profession.
One of these myths is the Artist as Mad Genius. In this conception, the artist is an isolated, vaguely disreputable figure, following his inspiration in private, unafraid to suffer, content to be remembered after his death. Those who simply get up, work hard and support their families without unnecessary drama aren’t real artists, or at least not as good.
A related myth is the Artist as Starving Bohemian. This person lives in poverty, but is happy because he can survive on the nourishment of his own genius. What reason is there to pay someone who is only in it for the art? Getting paid would only taint the purity of the accomplishment. The arch-enemy of the starving artist is the sellout. This is the traitor artist who is strangely immune to the charms of poverty and agrees to produce inferior art for money! At any rate, artists enjoy what they do, and real work is by definition unpleasant, so artists don’t deserve to get paid. Note that this principle does not to apply to people who enjoy being doctors, lawyers, or politicians.
Some artists achieve fame and fortune of course, but then the promise of fame is used to exploit others. Every musician is familiar with being asked to play “for the exposure” (“people die from exposure” is the proper response). The idea that you could hit it big is an enticing one, and it is used to get artists to do a lot of free labor. This makes creative work more like playing the lottery, and less like real work.
The Federal Music project produced thousands of concerts, provided free music lessons, and organized music festivals. Critically, its workers recorded thousands of hours of american folk and blues music, leading to the creation of the field of ethnomusicology. Together they preserved a precious cultural heritage that would have otherwise been lost. A popular target of budget cutters and red-baiters, the program eventually ended in 1943. In many ways, the idea of artists as everyday workers died as well. We would do well to revive it.