Devalued Work

It’d just look less compelling with a keyboard or paint brush instead of a wrench, wouldn’t it?

Given that today is May 1, I thought it would be a good day to talk about work and money. Happy Workers’ Day, and thank you to all who work in hidden backstage ways to make our lives better.

It’s interesting that the two professions I write most about, writers and college faculty members, are both winner-takes-all markets, in which a handful of practitioners are handsomely rewarded and economically secure, and most scuffle together what they can on the freelance market. My friend Aimee pointed me to a wonderful book by Hans Abbing, called Why Are Artists Poor? The Exceptional Economy of the Arts (Amsterdam University Press, 2002). Abbing wrote this book from a nearly unique standpoint: he’s an academically trained economist who is also a recognized painter and photographer. The book is an attempt for Abbing to reconcile the cognitive dissonance created by living simultaneously within those two logic systems. Lots of sections of the book contain a construction that shows him actively comparing his two mutually exclusive beliefs, such as this one:

Although I actually earn a substantial portion of my income through the market, as an artist I am convinced that aesthetic value is independent of market value. But as an economist, I disagree with this. As an economist I believe that quality in general corresponds with success in the market(54)

Must be exhausting to live inside that head. To his great credit, rather than trying to gloss or elide these contradictions, Abbing has spent much of his academic career trying to understand exactly why they diverge and how they might cohere. His conclusion frames the subtitle of this book: the arts represents an exceptional economy, which behaves in specific and knowable ways that are dissimilar to the economies of manufacture or service.

The book is full of takeaway quotes, and is totally worth your time. (You can read and download the entire book at, the European academic open-access consortium.) But given that it’s May Day, I want to focus on one particular aspect, the notion of the winner-take-all market.

There exists a number of markets where a large and often increasing part of consumer spending ends up in the pockets of a small number of producers, while the majority of the producers earn little or nothing. Those near the top secure a disproportionate share of the particular market’s income. . . For instance, professional tennis players operate in a ‘winner-takes-all’ market. There are thousands of tennis players all over the world offering high quality performances, but only a select few earns the big incomes, while the vast majority cannot even earn a basic living from playing tennis. (54)

I’ve long been interested in people who are nearly but not quite at the pinnacle of their chosen fields, and who because of that can’t practice them at all. As an example, pick any college baseball player at random: that person would be the best baseball player you’ve ever met, an elite athlete with rarified skills, truly praiseworthy. Maybe one percent of those will go on to make a living (for a brief while) playing baseball, if even for the Lowell Spinners or the El Paso Chihuahuas or the Richmond Flying Squirrels. A tiny percentage of those minor league players will make a major league roster somewhere. So much remarkable talent goes unrecognized and unutilized.

But I think Abbing leads us down a side road by using athletes as his example. Tennis players are engaged in a knowable, objective competition in which one will empirically be better than the other. A career of those empirical outcomes leads some players to be Serena Williams, and others to be Haley Giavara, the world’s #732 ranked women’s player who has made $12,724 in her career. Haley is a starter on the UC Berkeley tennis team, a brilliant player. But the current world #1, Ashleigh Barty of Australia, has already made $17,594,569 at the age of 24. It would be like if the 700th-best carpenter in the US made about thirty cents an hour.

Most professions don’t have an empirical mechanism for determining relative quality, or perhaps for defining quality at all. Those markets are externally influenced: by credentialling systems (passing the bar exam, for instance, or getting a barber’s license), or by a community of gatekeepers. Both of those serve to maximize income for those deemed to be “inside the professions,” and to eliminate the possibility of meaningful competition by those outside.

I absolutely don’t mean to suggest that those restrictions are a bad idea. In law and cosmetology, we want some certification that our practitioner knows what she’s doing, isn’t just making an unwarranted claim to competency. In the arts, in writing… well, we’ve all been to the local craft show, and the world of electronic self-publishing will tell you an awful lot about the gradients of storytelling capability. Nobody has time to winnow through all of that.

And frankly, the gatekeepers don’t, either. There are too many of us who are trying to enter the market, and we can’t all be judged on the merits of our work. So proxies and personalities come into play:

Gatekeepers have an information advantage that allows them to monopolize the discourse, which in turn enables them to easily exclude both artists and experts who do not understand the discourse well enough. (269) Gatekeepers decide on who to let in (to attain a certain reputation) and those who are to be kept out. In fact, participants in the discourse occasionally let artists in by granting them a favorable reputation, while others are rejected or are stripped of their favorable reputations. This way the favorable reputation of the insider artists can be protected. (272)

That “reputation” is generated by facts that lie outside any specific piece of work. Aspiring artists and academics alike are notorious CV polishers. Every award, every show, every mention in the media—all part of our permanent record. We present it to the gatekeepers, to edge our new work to the front of the line; we gaze at it in the mirror, to convince ourselves that our work has mattered.

And every one of those gatekeepers relies on gatekeepers before them. An MFA from Columbia weighs more than an MFA from across the river at St. Francis College in Brooklyn. A distance far greater than the nominal hundred miles separates the MFAs from the University of Michigan and Western Michigan University; the two equivalent degrees are tickets to entirely different kinds of conversations. Literary editors are loathe to read unagented work, and the agentry community itself uses the word “slush” to designate the writing (and by extension, the writers) who must be cleared from the porch before the real workday can actually start. Each of those offers a simple binary of consideration: do you have the reputation that makes you worthy of scarce attention, or are you safely ignored?

The value of reputation is what economists would refer to as a market distortion, in which some external factors prevent product A for price $A from being set directly against product B offered at price $B. Most products, from prospective faculty and prospective artists and prospective writers, have no access to a meaningful marketplace at all.

More tomorrow.