Making art in late-stage capitalism.

Above I’m doing a typewriter poetry pop-up for the Queer Asian Social Club on Valentine’s Day.

Two months ago, I was standing in a gallery admiring the work of a talented trans artist who has over 60k followers on Instagram. I was shocked when I looked at their price tags that they were selling their original pieces for around $50 or $100 a pop. When I voiced my concerns out loud, I was met with an ignorant question from a non-artist acquaintance.

“What if it isn’t about making money?”

I felt my stomach churn. Of course, someone who wasn’t freelancing and flailing as a full-time artist would say that. It’s true that art isn’t always about making money. But in a world where capitalism drives us to seek means of income, doing art full-time means setting a fair price to ensure that you can survive. But not just survive but thrive to create good art.

What isn’t talked about enough is the valuation we put on art which often drives a conversation around whether something is considered low-brow or high-brow work. Class is inextricably tied to our consumption of art and how we are recognized in art spaces.

The painting, estimated to sell for $45 million, measures just 31 by 22 inches.

art net news

Jackson Pollock, Number 31 (1949). Image courtesy Christie’s.

Take for example modern-day abstract painting, which has been known to befuddle viewers with the various blots and shapes that lack conformity and recognizability to a mass audience. Yet works by Jackson Pollock are valued in the millions. These paintings that some critics deride as “childish art” splashed on a canvas. But they still sell.

It begs an important question. What values Pollock’s work higher than say the work of an unhoused street artist who is selling beautiful spray-painted pieces of the sunset on Santa Monica Boulevard for a few dollars? Is it that one carries more experience than the other? One’s pedigree? Or perhaps the connections and clout one already has in order to gain access to an elite world of fine art?

Is making art luxury for the rich?

I used to think that art making in itself is a privilege, that to even dream of creating in a world where my parents sacrificed so much is a luxury. My mom asks me all the time when I’m planning to go to law school. And hidden in that question are a dozen other silent worries. Will my child be financially secure? Why are they choosing such a hard career path? Why not choose something stable and straightforward?

It’s the idea of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. My parents have been so focused on survival as immigrants that they haven’t had a chance to self-actualize. My ancestors weren’t creating because they were too busy surviving. But that in itself is a classist (and racist) belief that poor people can’t enjoy beauty or have good taste. It doesn’t account for the fact that so many elevated art forms today, rap, hip hop, and street fashion had origins out of struggle and economic violence in communities of color. The power of this art was in how it spoke truth to power and demanded respect and visibility.

Assuming my parents haven’t made or appreciated art is taking away the agency they experience simple pleasures – like my mom’s love of playing piano, or how my father loves to sing for bible study in his endearing manner of his – in tune but strumming slightly off-beat.

But as I’ve found, it is possible to be a working-class artist. You could be that production assistant working on set long 12-hour days that border into dangerously sleepy hours of the night as you commute home, working Fraturdays for multiple weekends in a row. You could be an underpaid arts administrator who is the interlocutor between the institution and its patrons – tasked with growing an endowment while your own paycheck barely covers your rent in a metropolitan city like Los Angeles.

And all that work is immeasurable. Without the work of thousands of PAs, Hollywood wouldn’t be able to run. We are the cogs in the machine that make the industry billions of dollars globally. Yet we are oftentimes undervalued, underappreciated, and sometimes abused.

Maybe it’s time to stop “paying your dues”

I’ve asked myself, what my boundaries are. What am I willing to sacrifice to make it in filmmaking, poetry, or journalism? And there are no hard or fast rules but at some point, we have to decide what are we worth.

Everyone says we have to pay our dues, but at what point do we start allowing ourselves to be taken advantage of and devalue our work by making it so accessible people assume our labor is cheap?

This is the crisis that loomed in my head this past weekend as I was doing a poetry pop-up in a bar, competing with $10 margaritas as people avoided my table so they wouldn’t have to pay for my custom poems. At the end of the night, I made $61 after writing four poems over three hours. Not a terrible rate, but taking into consideration that I had spent $24 on paper supplies, $7 per printed booklet, gas for driving in LA… I was probably at a net loss.

It felt embarrassing considering my poetry has appeared with the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Human Rights Campaign, Hate is a Virus, and more. I didn’t feel seen in that bar. It wasn’t just that I wasn’t getting paid, but also the lack of appreciation for the value of the labor I was producing for people who were asking for custom work.

But the truth is that we sometimes operate on a continuum between exploitation and useful experience as we start out as artists. Maybe we are working on an indie project with some college classmates who don’t have a budget and we aren’t getting paid. But we know the director or the cinematographer and believe in their vision and want to support their work. There’s an understanding that the work and labor being exchanged and offered isn’t just monetary, but relationship building and networking.

But there are other ugly moments where an asymmetry of power casts a shadow of resentment around unpaid work. Companies still “hire” fellows on a stipend basis so they pay less than the legal minimum wage in the state. While the connections and status symbols might offer a boost, staying too long in one place can make you and others believe that IS your worth – nothing. For myself, I’ve decided I’m past doing internships in journalism. I’m only applying for fellowships and jobs for the rest of the year because my goal is to be financially stable by the end of 2023.

Recognizing the life you want to build for yourself

At some point, I realized I don’t want to struggle. Maybe in college, we hold the ideal thinking that we’re going to go work in an underpaid industry and do meaningful work. Then the bills hit.

We realize how expensive housing is. We go out and want to treat ourselves and our family to eat. And while money isn’t everything, it can offer us freedom and relief. Because I’ve been there, stressed out about the groceries I’m purchasing and trying to budget out for the month because I don’t know when my paycheck from a project three weeks ago is finally going to deposit. Being poor in this country fucking sucks.

I want to be assured that if I treat my sister to a birthday meal, I can handle the paycheck and not look at the price with fear and anxiety. Maybe I want to take a once-a-year vacation out of the country or out of state simply to go sightseeing or to visit our elderly family members in Taiwan or Hong Kong.

And while we are weighing these things, we have to acknowledge that these priorities determine the type of profession we will have and how we might handle our careers. It doesn’t mean that you have to give up your ideal dream of being an A24 filmmaker, but it means that in the meantime as you struggle to make your short indie films, you might have to wait tables at a dim sum restaurant.

If you’re like me, who had parents who didn’t have industry connections or didn’t grow up seeing successful artists in your community, having a realistic view means being honest about the economic barriers.

And I’m in my early 20s now, living at home and saving up to move out, but in 10 years I might want to be farther down certain goals of financial independence and living on my own. So maybe in the future, my priorities around filmmaking might change. I might become disillusioned with my work that isn’t receiving the attention that I think it deserves and I might just quit. It’s happened to other people before when they’ve realized that maybe, the lifestyle they want outweighs the costs of the profession they’ve dreamed of.

a poem I wrote at a gay bar in DTLA this past weekend

Building a sustainable art practice

What helps is building a support system of people who believe in you. Whether that’s your friends, your colleagues, or a trusted mentor. You need to have a group of people who will have your back. Your ride or dies. They will be the ones cheerleading for you, championing your work, and helping you get opportunities. You have to find ways to center yourself in this work and feel seen and cared for because often times this world will make you feel like you’re not.

Recognize your limits and set healthy boundaries. Say no to that gig! Ask people of your skill level what they charge for day rates and hourly rates. Value yourself first because nobody else will for you. Don’t underpay yourself. You bring the enormous talent. And as I’ve said to many queer, trans, and BIPOC artists, play your cards every time. White men have had affirmative action in this country for 200 years.

If it means tokenizing yourself for the sake of the paycheck, sometimes that is the reality. A corporate check will feed mouths so that you can go and work on a separate project that will feed the soul. In surviving late-stage capitalism we are all exploited labor. “Selling out” is sometimes the way we keep ourselves in our industries and what we view as “selling out” varies for everyone.

Maybe that panel on journalism and socioeconomic inequality is being sponsored by Chase Bank (yikes! I’ve actually seen this before and guffawed in public) but you decide the platform and the paycheck will allow you to speak to an issue that isn’t heard of enough. Who am I to judge if you’re struggling to pay rent or have to cover an unexpected hospital bill for your family? We are all surviving late-stage capitalism.

I’m not saying you should go work for a weapons defense company. But I’m saying you might need to do work that you don’t find particularly inspiring or interesting.

Persistence, determination and patience.

The truth of the matter is that I’m struggling just like everyone else at the start of my own career. I consider journalism to be writing and writing to be an art profession. The labor I do is often personal and long-form in nature. I’m always striving for intentional character-centered and narrative-driven pieces of good writing. Although my friends love to hype up my bylines in the Los Angeles Times, The Guardian, NPR, Teen Vogue, the Washington Post and more, the truth of the matter is that these bylines aren’t always consistent. I’m pitching and often receiving radio silence on the other end. Sometimes I write a piece and I’m not paid until two months later when a story finally goes live online.

I’ve been persistently applying for jobs everywhere and have been ghosted or straight-up disrespected in several instances. In the past I had a white man tell me he didn’t read my resume or application and pigeonhole me into diversity, equity, and inclusion work in the newsroom simply because the hiring manager saw that I had managed NPR’s diverse sources database. It straight up is discouraging and depressing.

And as someone who didn’t grow up knowing any artist, I didn’t know it would be this hard. I thought if I was qualified, I’d be hired. I truly believed that hard work would directly equal results. But often times that’s not always the case. Talent also requires determination and patience. Waiting for the right moment and the right people to recognize and see your work for its value and bring you on.

And don’t you forget that I’m also here, rooting you on.

Sending you luck and lots of money for your livelihood,
💸 Jireh

P.S. In theme with this post, these free resources require time, energy, and expertise. If you like the advice and words I’m sharing here, please feel free to tip me at my Venmo @jireh-deng.

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