Monday, 15 December 2014

A few quick thoughts on Lizz Hickey's crowd-funding cartoon

Tom Spurgeon linked to a comic by Lizz Hickey last week, which a lot of people had push-back to; I've included the whole thing above, as Hickey subsequently removed it from her site, but its obviously to the brief discussion that follows here.

As with James Sturm's The Sponsor comic, one of the issues here surrounds authorial intent and possible interpretations. On my part, Hickey's style is clearly an exaggerated, super-caustic tone, taking the subject she's railing against to a super-angry nth: it's not wholly literal. There's some humour and some insecurity in there. What I initially read was a general dislike and suspicion towards crowd-funding for artists, but there's also no denying the general intimation that art should be made for the sake of art, and money isn't -or shouldn't be- required: 'Who needs constant donations to draw and follow your passion? Fuck! Get a job bagging groceries! You aren't homeless!! You have electricity and pens and a computer! print your zine at your mommy and daddy's house!' This is the passage that causes contention: the concept of follow your passion is too close to follow your dream/do what you love and those notions are mired in problematic ideals. Generously, this could read as do the best you can with what you have; make art anyway, but even that is incredibly presumptuous.

There are a couple of rough things to unpack here:
  • the idea that art or 'following your passion' doesn't require money
  • the idea that crowd-funding is bad

Art (and I realise that's a very broad term) has traditionally suffered from legitimacy issues, and one of the most harmful concepts to emerge from the culture is that of the passionate, martyr-like artist. The artist is a semi-crazed caricature, unfathomable to others, driven by muses and passion and thunderbolts of inspiration, his lifestyle unique, his work special, he is set apart from social norms and understanding, and crucially: he doesn't care about money- he cares only about the art. The starving artist, if you will, who goes to great lengths in pursuit of his craft. This is an archaic, unsupportable, and harmful ideal, that plays into the way we view art and artists and what they should be: that art stems from a need: something you have to do, to get out from within yourself; its not unlocked by money, money only taints it, it's good and pure if you don't make money from it, and doing otherwise is selling out. It appears this is still something that people want to buy into (ironically): that their art is created from the love of it, and so in turn, artists promoting themselves, working to sell their work, acting in a way that might benefit them financially, is viewed as 'bad' thing, degrading and derogatory. 

With regards to crowd-funding and donations, the gist of what Hickey says resonates and I even agree with. On my part, donations are not something I'm comfortable with; I'm happy to back campaigns that are attempting to publish comics and use such platforms as pre-orders, but I have been wary, infuriated, and quite frankly flabbergast at what people will ask money for- from plane tickets for their partners, to money for new shoes, to rent and gas, and how often. Digital rewards of behind-the-scenes material- looks at rough sketches and concept designs, can feel a bit thin, intangible. But donations are made at the choice of benefactors- it's mildly insulting in the least to imply that people are not intelligent enough to be aware of what they're paying for. or mindlessly exploited, but comics seems to have so very many of these drives running. In the short time I have been involved in this community, I have seen how deeply kind and generous it is, but the increasing numbers and asking- the range of it, also makes me uncomfortable. And there are people taking advantage of that kindness, and while it's nice to think that such drives would easily be recognised for what they are, it doesn't always happen.

At the same time,online funding has been freeing for many artists, allowing them to give up the jobs they had and make art full-time, untethered; I'd guess the majority of artists are making a little bit extra from donations that eases their living costs somewhat, or pays for printing and so forth. To return to Hickey, artists are making art in the first instance- there is no petulant, throwing toys out of the pram exercises -'I'm going to stop making things if you don't support me financially!' but that is a reality that many artists are faced with- at some point making art in the spare time you find around jobs and commitments is simply no longer financially sustainable. How many artists has comics in particular lost to that road? If crowd-funding and donations is a way to temporarily supplant that, then why not? There shouldn't be any shame in that choice. Wanting to be supported and paid for what you do is perfectly valid, and it's kind of sad that we still have to justify that. Money isn't required to make art, or even for validation, but as a tool for food and shelter and time and living, it works just fine. 

Your relationship with donations and giving probably reflects your relationship with money, and how that has developed and grown- how much of it you have had, and have. I come from a working class background, and my parents drilled into me that asking for anything, especially money, was a bad thing to do. Working hard, and helping oneself out was the preferred method to achievement.  And parts of that schooling remain with me today and always will, even as I know that simply working hard, doing good work, being talented doesn't equate to a pay-off of any kind, and is possibly  up there with the fallacy of do what you love: a different mantra from and for a different demographic. On my part, I haven't taken to Patreon because a) I feel uneasy with asking 'people' or 'readers' and b) whether this is my psychology or otherwise, I don't like being beholden: the idea that I will have to produce x amount of articles within a certain amount of time as people are paying for it.

Hickey had a few responses to the criticism she received for her comic on Twitter: 'I only feel bad that I wasn't able to fully express what I meant with that comic and wasn't specific enough.' 'I work two jobs, so I couldn't care less about this conversation. My drawn dumb comic persona is exaggerated and a joke.' 'The punchline is that I use negativity to fuel my own art. It's just a joke and something I drew in like 5 minutes as reaction.'

I like Hickey's work, and please don't confuse me in thinking 'bad' or 'stupid' opinions are brave (I'm not saying Hickey's ideas are either), but even beyond Hickey, I do think we too quickly shoot down people who discuss things openly and honestly. This doesn't necessarily mean that they align with that position hardcore, 100%; the very idea of art is that it allows you to explore ideas and concepts that aren't decided upon. Art would be much more boring if intent and message was laid out clearly and cut and dried, or it espoused values and notions we all thought good and agreed upon. I'm of the opinion conversations need to be more about discussion and listening and working towards improvement rather than about 'winning' or being 'right'- more times than not, there's not always a right or wrong (certainly the model of crowd-funding and online donations is the most interesting thing- still relatively new and in flux, and may evolve- how sustainable is it in the long-run?). Sure, point out flaws and counter-arguments, but I don't know, I'm wary against quick judgements and writing off- I get the impulse (I've probably even done it), and the nature of online culture probably amplifies that reaction, but it seems counter-productive to moving forward and betterment. I'm aware I sound like somebody who stands in the middle and shouts 'Can't we all just be civilised about this?!', but the reason I don't participate with this kind of 'opinion' article regularly is that nuance and shades are so rarely allowed or acknowledged- you have to pick a side and it has to be the right one or else condemnation follows. I'm not fussed about vilification, but nor am I interested in things that can be this or that- one thing only; that's not my experience of life.