October 27, 2013

The Systemic Disrespect of the Artist

Every couple of months someone gets the gumption up to ask me if I'll illustrate their book. Assuming their book theme interests me, I always ask the same questions:
  1. Is this a paid gig? ("No...but I thought we could be partners.")
  2. Do you have an agent or interested publisher? ("No, but I know lots of people!")
  3. How many drawings are we talking about here? ("Uh...what.")
I'd love to illustrate all of them, but I've had to prioritize putting food on the table. Then about a year ago I was approached by someone I considered a social-media friend. In order to protect their identity, I've depicted them as a gender-neutral Alien.

The Alien in question is fairly well known on the Internet. Widely followed and trusted in their niche. Respected. A solid reputation earned over many years of web presence. And also quite like-able.

Collaboration's gotta be a good fit from every angle, ya know?

I weighed the offer: I'd worked with the Alien on smaller projects and it had gone well, the book project inspired me, and it was viable...so I decided to make time for it.

We made a plan: I would do three illustrations for a book proposal that we could shop around. There was already an interested publisher from my side. It was exciting!

We moved forward with mutual trust, respect, and enthusiasm. I began to draw.

The Alien gave positive feedback on the first illustration.

And on the second illustration. Two down, one to go! It was going well. 

Then I sent the third illustration...

...there were some issues with it.

The Alien scrapped it and suggested I try another.

It's crucial to be able to clearly explain to an artist why something's not working. It's equally important to be able to accept criticism constructively and apply improvements for the good of the project. You can't be precious about your ideas.

So I went back to the old drawing board.

A fourth illustration was sent.

And the Alien said...nothing.

No response. It was like they'd vanished into thin air. Either that, or I was suddenly invisible.

I waited, thinking perhaps the email had got lost, or that the Alien was away on a trip. I made allowances. After a few months, I reached out again.

And I heard...nothing.

I worried, maybe they're ill? I thought of contacting the family. But a quick check of the Alien's social media accounts revealed they were alive and well and communicating with the world as usual.

I'm a big girl. I've been working commercially for over thirty years. I'm used to making changes and adjustments in response to client comments. Big clients, like Coca-Cola and Nestlé, with big agencies. I've collaborated on TV series for international co-productions with international broadcasters. It's a point of pride for me to be able to either defend my vision or adjust it creatively to meet revisions.

I've rarely encountered a client or collaborator who's preferred to cut all communication rather than either do the work, or end the partnership. People do change their minds; it's possible that I wasn't a good fit for the Alien's book, after all.

But all I heard was nothing. Which was disappointing and shitty.

A whole year passed, during which time I put this behind me. Then a few weeks ago I was at an event where the Alien surprised me by marching right up to greet me.

The first thing that came out of the Alien's mouth was not an apology. It was BLAME.

What would you say? I found myself slipping into, "yeah, I am really busy..." But I had made the commitment to the Alien's book project and had given it my time and energy. I decided to force the issue.

And then came the apology. I couldn't interpret actual sincerity in the moment, but I've given the Alien the benefit of the doubt for this drawing....

...but not for this one. Because I don't believe it. To blame me for their cowardly behaviour was galling.

My intention here, is not to "out" the Alien. I don't wish to shame anyone, or get revenge. Rather, I want to shed light on what I consider to be at the heart of the systemic abuse of artists: a lack of fundamental respect.

Think this story is trivial? To a greater or lesser degree, it's playing out all around us. Ego, cowardice and a lazy work ethic are no excuse.

Paid or unpaid, the Innerwebs have opened a million doors to mistreat writers, musicians and visual artists. There's no shortage of seemingly "nice" people out there, trustworthy, respectful and professional people, who turn around and truly believe it's okay to treat an artist like this.

Well I say, it's NOT okay. So just don't do it.

And if you're an artist? Then you call that shit out.