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The Exploited Artist vs. the Insecure Artist

The Arts should be re-evaluating itself as an industry as often as we vote for our politicians. That can only happen by analyzing the market psychologically, sociologically, and philosophically. So let's start that process now.

The Arts market is rife with basic "truths" people tend to accept...for no logical reason other than “it’s just the way it is.” But the dialog around making the Arts sustainable can not move forward without breaking down one particularly troubling assumption: Artists tend to get exploited. Why?

1. Art Comes From Adversity.

Adversity haunts artists because they tend to populate the fringes of the mainstream. When an artist becomes a star, we expect a backstory that originates from the bottom rungs of society. Or at the very least, someone who slaved away at their craft, broke, for years before being “discovered.”

It appears that much of great art is in fact found in juxtaposition to the social contract of convention. Those deep waters are stomping grounds for exploitation...partly because any deviation from the norm lends itself to insecurity. So which came first, the exploited artist or the insecure one?

But let’s address for a moment some exceptions: Taylor Swift, Bonnie Raitt, and Miles Davis, none of whom had troubled pasts and are undoubtedly talented artists, whether you like them or not.

There are other examples across the Arts. Some were born into money or had access to privilege from pre-existing connections. Some were simply in the right place at the right time or knew the right people. But I think there are two important points to be made when addressing the exceptions of the “Art comes from Adversity” assumption:

  • Define adversity. To quote Bob Dylan’s One Man’s Loss: “One man's loss always is another man's gain. / Yes, one man's joy always is another man's pain.” The point being, if you feel suffering, it is...suffering.

Adversity manifests itself divergently on the personal level. Losing your first love can lead to suffering! I always thought all those songs about drugs could just have easily been written about love. Addiction, withdrawal, abuse, hunger, these come in different packages that can not be neatly tied up with a one pink bow labeled “Adversity.”

  • Exceptions exist to every rule. Chaos Theory recognizes that there is an unexplainable force (dark matter) that holds together the fabric of our universe. Maybe there are artists who are just, quite simply, an anomaly.

So while allowing for that margin of error, I will focus on the majority. Art tends to derive from adversity.

2. Arts are not worthy of the same status as Wall Street, Government, or Tech.

This is why we see continued cuts to Arts funding. Hive-like logic tells us we could probably survive without the Arts, but not without economics, a basic system of laws, or the technology that allows us to communicate, explore, and build our world.

The unfortunate fact of the matter is that the value of the Arts is immeasurable, primarily because of the discussion around what defines art (#WhatisArt). How do you create a controlled environment sans art to measure against one rich in it?

One might argue that creative thinking, in essence art, manifests itself in every environment...including in the way Wall Street has learned to skirt the law, government draws party lines, and tech is largely designed in artistic packages - you certainly wouldn’t have been able to convince Steve Jobs that the iPhone is not a work of art.

So it is by a basic, static definition of “art” that our society relegates artists to the fringes.

3. If you're a “real” artist, you can’t possibly be making money from it.

There is something inherently immoral about making money from art. This has been subconsciously drilled into our minds since childhood. Along with that comes the guilt of pursuing a career in the Arts. Artists are told to have fall-back careers. Or worse yet, learn to juggle a “real” job. If you choose full-time work as an artist it must be for a non-profit...right? Or you’re waiting to be discovered.

Well you can only be discovered by an “other.” And once an artist is deemed worthy of success by an outsider, somehow that validation makes all those stigmas of making money from art disappear. The “other” uses business/entrepreneurial strategies to bring the artist into the fast-paced commercial market. A record label, gallery owner, patron of the arts, venue owner, producer/investor - these are all “others” seeking to exploit opportunity.

It’s certainly not always bad, but by placing their career in the hands of an “other,” it leaves artists extremely vulnerable to exploitation. The base assumption that artists can not and should not find success independently reveals a methodical flaw in how our culture views the Arts.

The psychology behind this is complicated because partnering is not inherently a bad idea, especially if it catapults a career. No one can work in a vacuum and it takes a village to grow a business. The point is not to avoid partnerships. The point is to find #AnotherWay to avoid exploitation by working within existing systems.

Occasionally an artist becomes an “other” and begins cultivating rising stars of their own: A&R reps, curators, agents, indie labels, self-producing actors, galleries owned by visual artists, etc. Becoming the 'other' only corrupts when it perpetuates a system of exploitation - the abused becoming the abuser.


At some point industry itself needs to evolve to maintain sustainability. The music industry hasn't made any systematic changes since the Kesha controversy. The film industry has an opportunity with the Weinstein scandal...but nobody seems to be talking about the industry's systemic defects, associated with a history rooted in abuse and exploitation.

The real heart of the issue is the process of how artists become successful. #ArtistDevelopment One way to break the exploitation/insecurity cycle is by empowering artists to think like a business. That requires asking questions and being open to conversation, throwing out assumptions, and challenging past conclusions.

The Arts can rival Tech in the socio-economic environment. Culture does benefit equally from artistic expression as it does the next iPhone. Collectively we need to consider:

  • What is the cultural context in which art is seen?

  • Do social ills hold artists down?

  • Who is the “tortured artist” and why is he/she misunderstood?

By looking outside, we can better understand the inside. By challenging the idea of a static worldview, we can start to truly build sustainability not only for the Arts, but for our world.

Emileena is writing a book on artist development called ANOTHER WAY. If you are an artist looking for development, consider Emileena's E-Velop program.

Original Artwork by Dave Law, freelance visual artist and illustrator. For more, please visit


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