The Penniless Researcher

An old creative writing teacher of mine recently posted on Facebook that Iggy Pop, a famous musician, could no longer support himself on his work. He blamed this on consumers, referring to a “give-me-stuff-but-I-won’t-pay-for-it culture.” This struck me as an unfair analysis, so, along with some other readers of this fellow’s Facebook posts, I looked more deeply into the issue.

The first thing that we found was that Iggy Pop has a net worth of $12 million. The issue here might be more along the lines of managing one’s money rather than not actually having enough money. The general point remained, though. Even if Iggy Pop is not actually as poor as he makes himself out to be, many artists are. Next, I tried to think of a solution that would offer artists a living wage while not taking art away from those who could not afford the prices it used to fetch before digital distribution.

The first answer was obvious: the radical divide between the rich and the poor is to blame. The middle class is the greatest consumer of affordably-priced art. If each member of the six billionaire Waltons – heirs to the Wal-Mart empire, buys a book, that’s six books sold for the price of a book. If the Waltons’ wealth-equivalent of middle class people each buy a book, the exercise is left to the reader, save to say that that’s a lot more books sold.

On another thought path, what if we could encourage art by subsidizing it? It turns out we do with the National Endowment of the Arts (NEA), but it gets so little funding ordinary folks like me don’t even know it exists.  This led me to think: what would science be if the National Science Foundation (NSF) were gutted like the NEA?

There would still be lucrative industry jobs, just like artists can get good careers as commercial artists, and there would be a few scientists who manage to develop something amazing, patent it, and become vastly wealthy, just like Iggy Pop, but then there would be the rest of the scientists, studying things with no direct benefit to any corporation. These scientists would likely be much like the struggling artists of today, barely making ends meet, telling themselves again and again that it’s all about “loving your work” while the roof of their cardboard box house/personal lab caves in on them from the rain. Then the public would benefit from their work. Maybe they’d get a private donation or two – enough that they could afford a new box. A big refrigerator box where they can lay down at night, and some plastic wrap to keep it from getting soggy and falling apart. Newly dry, and safe inside strong, reinforced cardboard, they think what a gift it is to be spending every day doing what they love.

But I digress. My old creative writing teacher and I agreed that more money to the NEA could help get new artists off the ground and encourage our nation’s creativity without shutting out the less wealthy consumers. I suggested that he write a letter to his representative to make this happen, and he said that although he lived in DC and didn’t have a national representative, he had already written several to various local representatives, crediting his letters and those of others with keeping the arts program open at one of his local schools. “Oh,” I said with a start, “you’re way ahead of me.”

 

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3 thoughts on “The Penniless Researcher”

  1. Just thought it bears mentioning that the NSF has been cutting funding and it is pretty hard for PhDs in certain fields to get jobs doing what they are trained to do now. Most science PhDs cannot go into academia, at least if they want to ever be professors. People are welcome to be underfunded overqualified perpetual postdocs if they want. At least that’s not living in a box, but it’s a big letdown from what people often expect when they start grad school. Thank goodness for industry and transferable skills. I do agree that science has it better than the arts, though, for sure. It’s just not that great.

  2. There are issues, though, with being dependent on grants for your work. To some extent, you are beholden to your patrons. I still say for artists the way to go is to have a consistent, reliable job that is compatible with your art and that allows you time to pursue it. An interesting post.

  3. I’m late in responding to this blog. I think your concern over support for the arts is all too well founded. However, check out the NEA more carefully. I think you’ll find they are reluctant to support the more avant garde among artists–being an arm of the government . . . Need I say more?
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