Sunday, November 6, 2011

How valuable is free?

How valuable is free art?

If the recent trend of asking for open source spec art is anything to go off, apparently free art is not only worthless it is totally disposable.

"Spec work" is an accepted term within art circles meaning "speculative work". This is art done for free by an artist hoping it will "pay" off for them after its creation. That payment can be direct in the form of royalties on this piece after it gets noticed and/OR indirect payment where the piece gains the artist enough attention that they get other commissions.

This use of the term "open sourcing" is an almost misleading slant of the term used by design firms and art departments. In this singular definition, open sourcing means something akin to an open audition. There are a limited number of vacancies that need to be filled and anyone is free to try out to fill them. It there are more applicants than vacancies the excess will be turned away.

So my question amounts to how valuable is free art if it is subjected to a mass audition where most of it is not going to be used?

The reason I ask is that palaeontologists and museums are starting to try out open source spec work as a solution to cutbacks and finances being tight. The open sourcing tends to take the form of an art contest or competition, with the goal of generating lots of free palaeo-art from which the contest holder can select a piece for their uses.

I sympathize with their financial restraints. I really do (speaking as a former museum science educator). So don't get me wrong. I am not arguing against spec palaeo-art. In fact I have recommended doing palaeo-art for free in the past as a means of getting your foot in the palaeo-art door.

The issue I have is the open sourcing. Making volunteer work expendable devalues the effort, energy, and art created by the artists. Which when you consider that asking artistic work to be done for free already devalues the work, additionally making spec work disposable can be seen by some artists as rubbing salt in an already existing wound.

There is an implication with open soucring that art is easy to make. Why else would you so casually ask lots of people to make it and feel that only picking the cream of the crop is okay? Its not like the losers are going to notice their fruitless efforts, is what this says to me.

Sorry but art is not easy to make. It takes hours and hours Especially if we're talking scientific illustrations, which is what we've seen contests asking for now. The research, drafts, and final versions take hours and hours to complete. If a contest attracts any attention, and only picks a single winner, we're seeing hundreds of artist hours tossed out the window... for no gain to the artists, the science, or the world of palaeo-art in general...

To me this is like holding a contest to describe a new fossil, for scientists. Everyone has to submit a final paper, but only one will "win". All the other papers, research, and work will just be thrown out metaphorically and in spirit. Only that which is published exists in science, and funny enough art as well. No scientists would participate in this. So why do they think it is okay to do it to us artists?

I suspect they sense it is wrong, even if they can't actually articulate it. There are an awful lot of rationals that are used to try and pass off these contests as "fun" and "worthwhile" to artists. These include the chance to win glory and notoriety, a chance to finally break into the competitive world of palaeo-art, and you're helping out the science.

Superficially these are all true, but they are not really honest to the artist as to what they are going to get. To me these are just rationalizing a form of exploitation (whether it be intentional or not). Let me break it down for you

The "Glory" of Acknowledgement

If the gig was so important to truly gain real "glory" and "notoriety" every professional and their dog would be lining up for the job. Glory and notoriety imply something huge in impact and coverage. I've been noticing these palaeo-art gigs still attract professionals (though I don't know if they are paid or not).

So lets restate these words for what they really amount to in your average open source spec contest's project, recognition and attention. If your not going to pay your artist(s), the least you can do for them is give them the attention and acknowledgement their work deserves. This is not a prize, and please don't try to pass it off as one! Scientists expect their research and work to be acknowledged, why not the work of their artists too?!? You're not giving the art winner a "prize" with acknowledgement, you're just punishing the losers by withholding it from them, frankly...

Chance to break into Palaeo-art

If your piece is chosen out of the pile you'll finally get your work used in a legitimate capacity. I won't lie this is a prize, and a good one. So I'm not going to harp on it directly. There is a definite appeal for artists here (speaking myself as an aspiring amateur).

The problem I have is do we artists truly need to submit brand new work to get this chance?

I get that the contest is the scientist's way of buffering against the lack of a reliable and tested palaeo-artist. They can't be sure what a new name is going to bring to the table. The contest is a way of insuring quality control and an adequate pool of potential artwork. However the asking for brand new art frankly strikes me as laziness.

The scientist couldn't be bothered to do a little bit of homework in finding an artist, and so lots of artists have to make up for their lack of effort

Why couldn't the artists just submit portfolios of already completed work? Or why doesn't the scientist get involved in the large diverse palaeo-art communities on the web, such as here on ART Evolved or those on Flickr or DeviantArt, and find someone she/he can work with from those interactions? Only a tiny amount of energy would have to be expeded looking into potential amateur artists these days. There are more and more of us heavily promoting our selves on the web. You seriously couldn't just approach your favourites from the online portfolios?

The other problem I have is that this offer implies we can't make it on our own. While it might be true that this one scientist's offer could be our big break, it is by no means our only chance!

Instead of using (dare I say wasting?) your time on a piece that is specific to the spec art contest why not just create a unique portfolio piece? Creating work for this spec contest might fit in your portfolio too, but anyone paying attention will know about the contest and realize immediately you were one of the "losers". I can see this hurting you on occasion rather than helping it.

More to the point strengthening your portfolio to attract a more committed "client" is a safer bet than open source spec work. If a client approaches just you due to your portfolio your work is far more likely to be used than the crapshoot of entering into a contest. Why not invest your efforts into this model. Even if you generate just more spec work, at least you'll be actually guranteed a return on your artistic investment...

It is good for the science

This is just a lame thing to say! Manipulating our emotional and moral responsibility, just for your own personal gain!

Yes palaeo is in trouble these days, and yes we'd all love to help it out. Preying on our desire to help by guilting us into action though, that is just plain slimy.

How does a bunch of artists wasting time on art that will never see (the proper) light of day help anyone but that one lazy scientist exactly?

Just selecting one artist to do your project, and allow all those other artists to do their own thing and cover more of the science, rather than waste their art time on just you. More varied and diverse palaeo-art, that would be helping the science

Instead of a contest or any other open source spec art...

We need to stop this model of mass artist participation for little gain to anyone (other than the one receiving the art).

Right away scientists, museums, and other empowered parties in palaeontology please respect your artists work.

There are those who say not paying them is disrespectful enough. I'm not quite one of those. However simply acknowledging the fact the artist could have done any number of other things than helping you specifically out is the least you can do.

Engage only one artist on a final piece unless your willing to properly compensate them for their time.

If you still want the open audition format, which is fair when dealing with new unknown talent, please just ask for portfolios of existing work, rather than submissions of new art. It is way more respectful to the artist, nearly as informative about their abilities, and frankly doesn't waste participants efforts or art time!

Another fantastic model is David Hone's recent call for artists. While being open source and spec work, Dr. Hone is compensating participants with direct scientific feedback and critiques on their scientific reconstructions. This is Dr. Hone compensating ALL the interested artists with his own time on feedback that will help them in their quest for palaeo-art fame and glory in the future. This is a perfect model. Even the "losers" win something, and thus there are no losers. Only winners of varying degrees!

To artists, they'll stop asking for mass submissions of new non-paid art if we stop giving it to them. While there is some wiggle room in the paid vs. non-paid debate of art, simply respect for the art you produce should not be negotiable or given up. Participating in open source spec calls not only devalues your art and the work you put into it, but it encourages such tactics to spread.

Soon we could find ourselves doing pieces for free, and arriving at the end of the creative process expectations of mere publication and acknowledgement only to find suddenly our piece has been replaced because the "client" found another piece they liked better... (Don't say it couldn't happen... it has to me now twice. Thus this angry rant post!)

Artist's work should be respected and seen for what it is. Especially when it is done for free. It is a gift. Treat like such palaeontologic community!