The question of proper monetary compensation for artists should have precisely nothing to do with Lena Dunham, whom is neither an artist nor a person raised by artists, but her momentary association has–albeit inadvertently–injected a semblance of life into what has become a confirmedly dead debate, so it’s probably best to talk about paying artists now before the topic again fades into unspoken consensus. I should say first that I firmly believe “artists” shouldn’t be paid or expect to be paid for their “art.” That Lena Dunham makes tens of millions of dollars a year while Sam Pink toils in Amazon obscurity should tell you something about the inverse relationship between artistic value and profitability. In a society that brainwashes its citizens into thinking their self-worth is inextricably tied to their creativity, where Tumbling and Pinning and Instagramming and blogging are sort of ontological prerequisites, forwarding the delusional notion of art as career is a scary dangerous proposition. The “art world” is a craven lottery, not a meritocracy. If you intend to earn a living as an artist in 2014, either be prepared to stop making art or be prepared to starve.
At the same time, while The United States is a country in almost uniform decline, one of the handful of fields in which it maintains primacy is the arts. Despite the (arguable) erosion of their native country’s culture, American artists continue to represent the vanguard. Jonathan Franzen wasn’t born in Belgium. Paul Thomas Anderson didn’t grow up in Pakistan. Kanye West isn’t Canadian. Be it a product of a higher living standard or arbitrary genius allocation or divine decree, American artists continue to dictate culture beyond geographic borders at a degree that other countries simply don’t. Why, then, shouldn’t an aspiring artist buy his or her ticket in the artistic lottery? In a country saturated in and dictated by popular culture, don’t the enormous potential returns of the “creative” life outweigh its punishing cost of entry? Shouldn’t everyone be paid “to do” what they “love”?
The answers to these questions start to vibrate at the ironic frequency when you consider them in relation to this business with Lena Dunham not paying the opening acts on her book tour, since Lena Dunham is the apotheosis of the art world’s failure to reward actual art. By the most generous estimation, Lena Dunham is a middling to uneven writer, a passable filmmaker, and a problematic to hypocritical feminist. Her trifling essays are published in The New Yorker and her deeply flawed show airs on HBO, but those facts indicate nothing about her as an “artist,” everything about the commercial viability of the particular strain of culturally myopic “art” she is peddling to culturally myopic people. The ubiquity of her palatable mediocrity depends on the marginalization of artistic exceptionality. Why would any thinking person expect her to be alive to the financial concerns of artists? She’s never struggled financially or been an artist. Her problem has always been–and continues to be–one of empathy.
Take, for example, the fictionalized Brooklyn of GIRLS, where paid internships at GQ fall magically into laps and writers gain acceptance to the Iowa Writer’s Workshop on a lark. Despite her best efforts, Dunham’s characters–male or female, white or white–never overcome her inability to inhabit any consciousness outside of her own. Though her work is set in a city whose lifeblood may be the necessary exposure to different and contradictory ways of life, Dunham relentlessly constructs a hermetic vision of New York, a type of echo chamber for her superficially preconceived notions of urbanity, art, and young adulthood. Taking this all into consideration, no one should condemn her for failing to realize that other people’s time was worth anything: there are scores of better things to hate Lena Dunham for. Hate her self-subverting fetishization of the female body, or her incessant elevation of bourgeois inconvenience to life-or-death struggle, or her asinine, backpedalling tweets. Try hating her for that stuff. You’ll be less offended when she acts like the oblivious, narcissistic millionaire she is.
The most sage advice I’ve ever encountered on how to support yourself as an artist comes from John Gardner’s On Becoming A Novelist. “The best way [an artist] can find to keep himself going,” he writes, “is to live off his (or her) spouse.” While that may seem like one tall, cynical order, Lena Dunham is living proof of its veracity. There are literally millions of stupid people out there who are desperate to give you money in the name of art. All you have to do is put yourself in a situation that exposes you to these idiotic dilettantes. Appropriately, there may not be a better place to do this than Lena Dunham’s book tour. History is offering you an opportunity to find a fraud to support your art financially. Now is your chance. Just don’t expect it to be Lena Dunham.