What you need to know:
- In school, art is often sidelined and rarely associated with the success of a learner.
- On leaving the school system, artists come face to face with a society conditioned to expect art to be either free or dirt cheap.
- The starving artist narrative starts at home, where parents discourage children from pursuing art.
The phrase ‘starving artist’ doesn’t make too many people uncomfortable because our society and culture are rigged to ensure that it remains accurate.
A week ago, the Artcaffé chain of restaurants attempted to change this narrative by making a scandalous offer: free coffee and exposure of artistic work. The artists would get to showcase their art on coffee cups.
They sweetened the deal with an internship. Artcaffé was just doing what the Romans do, with a nicotine twist to keep the artists alert and compliant.
Kenyans were rightly infuriated by the offer. But the truth is that no amount of mathematics wizardry can tell you how many coffee cups it takes to declare an artist non-starving. So until that formula is passed, one can safely assume the only template Artcaffé was working with was the culture they had witnessed around art in Kenya: that it’s often treated as something to be enjoyed but not paid for.
They might have thought they were doing artists a favour by offering to pay “something small”, a phrase that’s just a euphemism for: “You won’t afford your next meal with this payment”.
Had we ignored the ruckus for a minute, looked into our cups and attended to the root of the indignation, we would have discovered that Artcaffé is not the problem. We are.
The starving artist narrative starts at home, where parents discourage children from pursuing art because they will starve to death. In school, art is often sidelined and rarely associated with the success of a learner. On leaving the school system, artists come face to face with a society conditioned to expect art to be either free or dirt cheap. People will ooooh and aaaah at the artist’s photograph, painting, film, book, pottery or music but baulk when asked to pay for it.
If Kenyans truly supported art, then artists would not be continuously forced to fight the piracy monster. Joe Khamisi, a distinguished parliamentarian, lost the battle to piracy, and subsequently his royalties in 2018. His book, Kenya: Looters and Grabbers: 54 Years of Corruption and Plunder by the Elite, 1963 – 2017, was grabbed online and circulated for free.
Exploiting their talent
Anyone who shamelessly consumes or distributes illegally acquired online copies of books, music and other forms of art is complicit in the starvation of artists. Any bystander who doesn’t find a problem with this is the problem.
The creativity of artists will never grind to a halt if we keep exploiting their talent, but their motivation certainly will.
We don’t want that to happen, especially not at such a time when the Covid-19 pandemic has cast a pall of anxiety and misery over everything and art has been a source of relief and healing for many. Art can’t flourish where it isn’t valued. Let’s appreciate it by putting our money where our mouths are.