Capitalism Starves Artists, Not Piracy: How Artists Can Thrive Under Socialism

Recently, the FBI shut down z-lib.org, a popular website for pirated books and articles. The FBI was not able to get its hands on the actual servers, so currently the 11 million books and 84 million articles are still available intermittently through Tor. But this may change soon as the two people who run the site are facing serious criminal charges.

This was a big blow to users of the site, many of whom are students who used it to get textbooks, which are commonly priced between $100 to $300 apiece. In a single semester, z-lib.org could save a single student thousands of dollars. It also helped readers access fiction and information at no cost, obviously, as well as banned books and articles locked away by expensive academic journals.

Recently, the FBI shut down z-lib.org, a popular website for pirated books and articles. / Image: Huppertz Powers, Flickr

On the other hand, many authors rejoiced at the takedown. According to them, piracy reduces their income and ruins their chances at getting more book deals. They also say piracy hurts libraries, since easily-accessible ebooks reduce their visitors, killing their funding. Strangely, the authors do not mind that libraries also provide their works for free after purchasing a single copy.

This argument can be generalized to all creative products, as books are not the only media available for free on piracy websites. We have a double bind here: artists aren’t making enough money, and workers in general can’t afford art.

Starving artists

The income of the average artist is complicated to quantify because full-time work for artists is so difficult to find. Most patch together an income from various sources, which can include “day jobs” or non-artistic work, as well as the odd gig here and there, which can appear or evaporate at any time. Many artists live in between amateurism and professionalism simply because professional opportunities are so scarce. Since salary websites typically get their numbers from people employed in full-time jobs, these numbers are not reliable for artists as a whole. Therefore, the best insight comes from surveys.

In a 2018 survey of 1016 visual artists by the Creative Independent, the median income was between $20–$30k per year. About 60% made less than $30k, and 21% made less than 10k. These numbers include income from non-artistic sources; just under half of the artists reported that 10% or less of their income came from their art. The survey did not include questions about health insurance, but in a country where Bronze ACA insurance premiums are $928 per month on average, it is safe to assume that many artists cannot afford it. In addition, in 2021, the average student debt for bachelor’s degrees in visual and performing arts was $24,859. A master’s degree will put art students $61,188 in debt, on average.

Musicians are not doing much better, financially. In the 2018 MIRA Survey of Musicians, out of 1,227 respondents, the average American musician earned $21,300 annually. The median income was about $35k. 70% said they felt financially insecure. The Creative Independent also surveyed musicians in 2019, and the majority said that under 20% of their income came from music-related work. Only 12% said 80% or more of their income came from music. Even worse, when asked whether they were “always able to pay their bills each month,” only 17% of them answered yes.

According to a 2019 survey, only 17% of musicians are always able to pay their bills each month. / Image: Christopher William Adach, Wikimedia Commons

Of course, this data was two years before the pandemic, before live performances evaporated. The best current data comes from the charity, Help Musicians, which surveyed 500 musicians in the UK. These results are even more dire. 98% said they were worried about earning enough money in general. 90% worried about being able to afford food, and 84% feared they would be unable to afford housing. But musicians’ income problems are not just about living costs. Musicians (and artists in general) need equipment like instruments, audio equipment, and computers to be able to work, not to mention practice space, and more often than not, none of these are provided by employers. 91% of the survey respondents said they were unable to afford the equipment they needed. In addition, according to the Sweet Relief Fund, another charity for musicians, 65% of all musicians do not have health insurance.

Perhaps all of these statistics could have been left out and we could have simply pointed out that the charities referenced above are just two among countless others that exist explicitly so that artists can afford to stay alive. This says pretty much everything we need to know about art under capitalism.

Starving for art

Obviously, artists are not the only ones suffering financially. Inflation is the worst it’s been in 40 years. In January 2022, 44% of Americans said they would not be able to afford a “$1,000 surprise expense.” According to a different survey, 51% of all American households do not have enough to cover three months of expenses. Almost half of those have no emergency savings at all. Concretely, this means millions of American workers are forced to work two or more jobs, and must resort to selling blood plasma to survive.

If we look at the bigger picture, between 1985 and 2020, median rent increased four times faster than median wages. This is bad enough, but doesn’t include pandemic numbers: the average rent in America is up 17.8% since 2021. Also, in 2021, the average worker lost 2.4% of their pay to inflation. In 2022, quality of life has eroded even faster.

So, artists may ask: who can buy my art? Who can afford to come to my concert? And workers may ask: how do I afford art? Do I get to have a life that is more than just work, sleep, die?

Who is to blame?

We are in a double bind: art is kept behind paywalls that fewer and fewer people can afford, which in turn makes it harder for artists to create art in the first place. Who is to blame for this absurd contradiction? Is it the people who pirate music, movies, and books?

As we have pointed out elsewhere, to outlaw piracy means to give private corporations the ability to censor whatever they want. To blame pirates for the poverty of artists pits workers of one industry against all the others. It is also premised on an incorrect understanding of how businesses operate. As Marx explained, more profits for capitalists does not equal higher wages for workers, because profits come from unpaid labor. This applies to media businesses and artists as well. Why do artists starve when Warner Music made almost $3 billion in profits over the last 12 months, Spotify made over $3 billion, and Disney made over $22 billion? The real pirates are the capitalists.

The real pirates are the capitalists, like Disney, who make billions while artists struggle to survive. / Image: Coolcaesar, Wikimedia Commons

What is the solution? Again, we have explained in many other articles that overthrowing capitalism and replacing it with a democratically planned economy is the answer. This would mean that we workers could decide what to do with all the incredible wealth we create, instead of allowing capitalists to waste it all on luxuries and war.

But, concretely, how could we organize this new way of life?

Life for artists in the USSR

For some ideas on this, we can refer to the experience of a planned economy—albeit a bureaucratically degenerated and deformed one—which operated for nearly a century: the USSR. What was life like for Soviet artists?

With such a long history, one might expect to find plenty of information about how artists were paid, educated, and fed. However, bourgeois historical accounts of artists’ lives in the USSR focus almost exclusively on the censorship that artists faced from the Stalinist bureaucracy. When funding is mentioned, it is either a brief comment, or paired with a claim that the artists were only funded so they would be easier to control. It seems they do not want today’s artists finding out that an alternative to “independence” (starvation) is possible.

On the other hand, this censorship was real, and crossing it could— and did—mean death. Therefore, first-hand accounts from artists within the USSR are not so reliable, since their words always had to be filtered by their desire not to upset the authorities. However, we should not throw out the baby with the bathwater. These accounts can offer insights into how we might do things in the future, and show that a completely different way of life is possible.

In “The Organization of Artists’ Work in the USSR”—an article only available through JSTOR, which costs $19.50 for 10 PDF downloads per month—a Soviet art professor named M. Lazarev explained exactly how visual artists in particular made money.1 There were two major organizations for visual artists of all types: the Union of Artists, and the Art Fund, which were connected.

Artists made a living in a few different ways. They could sell their art to state and social organizations, museums, as prizes to be used in the National Lottery, or directly to private buyers. They could receive commissions from the Union of Artists or any of the other state organizations. For example, an artist could be paid in advance to make a mosaic for a public square, or to create illustrations for books or newspapers. If artists felt worried about relying on contract work for their income, they could choose to receive a consistent wage through the Art Fund.

The Art Fund did not just hire artists to work. It also provided special housing for artists, medical services, and childcare. If just one of these perks were available to modern artists, it would transform so many lives; free childcare alone would enable so many more women in particular to engage in creative work. The fund also supplied artists with the products and tools needed to create art, like studios, workshops, art supplies, and services like printing and sculpture casting. The Fund also hired workers to produce these things.

On top of all these basic expenses, the Fund paid for artists to go on retreats to focus on their art. Their children could either accompany them or attend camps designed for children. Young artists could join “wandering groups” to learn and work on art throughout the whole country. This type of travel is wonderful for inspiration and learning, but in the “developed” world, it is only available to young people who were born into wealth.

But one may ask: which artists were funded? Could anybody call themselves an artist? And who decided which art was funded—would the state pay someone to throw pasta sauce at a canvas?

Lazarev explained that these questions were decided by the democratic structures of The Union of Artists. Of course, we must take the claim that the union was democratic with a grain of salt, but there is much to learn from its structures. The Union was divided into departments, by discipline. Each city, or group of small towns, had a branch, which would elect local leadership. To become a member of a branch, an artist would need to complete a certain level of artistic education and publicly show their art in a Union exhibition. These exhibitions were open to all artists. Then, after making a name for themselves, artists could apply to join. The branch would then vote by secret ballot.

The USSR was divided into 16 Republics, and every five years, branches would elect delegates to send to a Republic congress. These congresses decided how to direct art in their respective Republic, and elected delegates to the All-Union Congress. This congress would elect a new artistic administration, decide the direction of art for the entire USSR, and elect special commissions to accomplish tasks. The Union as a whole had a constitution with “ethical, aesthetic, and ideological objectives”2 that every Union member committed to in order to receive funding (and, unfortunately, to survive political purges).

Information about musicians’ lives is difficult to find, but we do have a lot of information about the USSR’s most famous, and arguably best composer, Dmitriy Shostakovich. As countless bourgeois historical sources love to point out, Shostakovich’s life was not exactly worry-free.

Under Stalin, and later Brezhnev, all art was required to conform to the ideals of “socialist realism.” This is a bit hard to define, since keeping it wishy-washy on purpose served the vacillating interests of the bureaucracy. But generally, socialist-realist art needed to be “accessible” enough for the average worker and depict Soviet life and political leaders extremely positively. If an artist indulged in criticism or modernism, or the state decided that they did, they risked arrest, exile, or even execution. Applying these rules to visual art and literature was easy, but much murkier for musicians and composers, whose art can be totally wordless and abstract. Symphonies, in particular, were very difficult for censors to control, which is one possible explanation for why they were so popular with Soviet audiences.

Shostakovich held onto for his socialist convictions, despite his persecution from the Soviet bureaucracy. / Image: Deutsche Fotothek, Wikimedia Commons

Unfortunately, Shostakovich bore much of the brunt of bureaucratic repression, and was frequently made an example to other artists. He purposefully wrote his 1934 opera, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, to show how changing material conditions can liberate women, an idea totally in harmony with his own socialist beliefs—which he held onto for his entire life, despite his persecution from the Soviet bureaucracy. At the premiere, the bureaucracy reviewed it glowingly. However, just two years later, Stalin attended a performance and walked out before it ended. Shortly after, an article appeared in Pravda, entitled “Muddle Instead of Music.” It smeared Shostakovich as a “petty-bourgeois leftist” and “formalist” and claimed the opera is too dissonant, impossible to understand, and nonsensical. No artist likes to hear harsh criticism, but the article included a threat: the author warned that Shostakovich was playing a “game of clever ingenuity that may end very badly.” Shostakovich took this very seriously, and began taking a packed suitcase with him everywhere he went, expecting to be arrested at any moment. After all, this was the year 1936, the height of the Moscow Trials, where bureaucracy-critical Bolsheviks and artists were publicly tried and executed en masse.

There is much more to be said about the repression of Shostakovich, and the creative ways he worked around censorship to authentically portray Soviet life. For the former, we can leave this to bourgeois historians like Richard Taruskin, the widely-assigned and -read musicologist who claims the October Revolution was a totalitarian coup d’état, and whose five-volume textbook fetches a pretty penny. However, even Taruskin admits that Soviet composers were “extremely well trained.”3 Translation: advanced-level music instruction in the USSR was free. He also states that artists were financially supported by the state, but of course, claims that this was only used to control them.

Soviet musicians and composers like Shostakovich often made their money through state-appointed and -funded teaching positions. Shostakovich, in particular, was a professor at the Moscow Conservatory. Many modern American musicians make money the same way, but under much harsher conditions. According to the American Federation of Teachers, almost half of all professors are adjuncts, or part-time instructors, as opposed to full-time professors with a reliable salary. This is up from 1975, where less than one out of four American professors were adjuncts.

Only one out of five adjunct faculty say that they can “comfortably cover basic monthly expenses.” Additionally, college courses are often canceled last-minute if enrollment is not high enough. This is a major threat to adjunct professors, who are paid per course. To make matters worse, 75% of college and university teaching faculty (adjunct or full-time) are ineligible for tenure, meaning that they can be fired at any moment. Although Shostakovich was at one point fired from his professorship in 1948 because his Ninth Symphony didn’t glorify Stalin, American professors under capitalism today are even more insecure in general.

Food or freedom?

The job of the bourgeois historian is to scare artists and workers away from socialism by claiming that the USSR was an experiment that showed socialism could only fail. When they admit that the USSR provided workers with material necessities like housing, healthcare, and employment, they make sure to remind the reader that these things always come at the cost of giving up individual freedoms.

My first question to these historians: please name one Soviet artists’ charity.

Secondly, I ask these historians to explain how artists can have artistic freedom if they do not make enough money to buy basic necessities, much less training and supplies to reach their full creative potential. Could Shostakovich have composed over a dozen complex, awe-inspiring symphonies, or any of his hours-long operas, in between multiple jobs and plasma donations?

Thirdly, and most importantly, socialism can, and must, be democratic. The 1917 October Revolution was a truly democratic mass uprising that proved to the workers of the world that taking control over their lives and society as a whole is possible. To write it off as just a coup or a “failed experiment” is a crime. The revolutionary government degenerated into a Stalinist caricature of socialism, not because the Bolsheviks had the seed of totalitarianism within them, but because the many revolutions they inspired in Europe and elsewhere failed due to a lack of revolutionary leadership. This left the workers of Russia alone in their fight against international capitalism.

Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Trotsky said repeatedly in their works that proletarian revolution must be international if it is to succeed and last. The degeneration and eventual downfall of the USSR prove this: socialism in one country is impossible. But worldwide socialism is possible, and it is achievable in our lifetime. It is the only hope for art, and artists, to not only survive, but thrive.

As Trotsky explained in “If America Should Go Communist,” Russia’s production was so backwards they had to start their industrial development practically from scratch. And since they were isolated, they had to fight a very long, desperate war with the capitalist countries. But America, the wealthiest country in the world, would not have these problems; the building of socialism once the workers took power would go much more smoothly and invasions from other capitalist governments would be virtually impossible, given the size of the military.

On the basis of a healthy, democratically planned economy cemented by world proletarian revolution, we could generously fund plenty of art, film, books, music, and architecture and make it free for everyone to enjoy. At the same time, we could ensure that those who create it receive living wages, education, quality housing, and healthcare. As a bonus, the line between artists and non-artists would evaporate over time, since the working week would decrease as production becomes more and more efficient. Then all workers would have the time and resources we need to make all the art we desire.


Notes

[1] M. Lazarev, “The Organization of Artists’ Work in the U.S.S.R.,” Leonardo 12, no. 2 (1979): pp. 107-109, https://doi.org/10.2307/1573832.

[2] Lazarev, “The Organization of Artists’ Work in the U.S.S.R.,” 107.

[3] Richard Taruskin, The Oxford History of Western Music (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005).

Bibliography

Lazarev, M. “The Organization of Artists’ Work in the U.S.S.R.” Leonardo 12, no. 2 (1979): 107–9. https://doi.org/10.2307/1573832.

Taruskin, Richard. The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.


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