Labor and Art

The Screen Actors Guild (SAG) negotiations have brought labor tensions to the surface again. Some members accuse their fellow star actors, who often produce as well as act, of having divided loyalties. And, of course, the stars do.


Artists create events and objects that can powerfully engage us spiritually, emotionally and intellectually. Some art gives a glimpse of the divine.

So when artists strike, it stirs up all kinds of feelings. That artists don’t do real work. That they get paid too much (although that’s only for a very few for a very short time). That they shouldn’t sully the work they do with worldly talk.

But artists are also workers. Workers who generate profits. Workers who need things like health care, retirement, decent working conditions, respect and fair wages. Workers who are also sometimes owners or producers.

So as workers, they work collectively in clans, guilds and unions. But as Marx might have predicted, there are contradictions. Many artists have by nature or by necessity entrepreneurial instincts. In the movies, this goes all the way back to United Artists.

United Artists Founders

United Artists Founders

UA was founded by Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin, D.W. Griffith and Douglas Fairbanks largely in response to block booking. And the multi-platform environment makes technology and business an integral, more prominent part of creativity.

So who’s right on the SAG talks? The basic business models for television and films seem incredibly wasteful. Many things are produced, only a few reach an audience, and fewer still make a profit. But are entertainment conglomerates starving? Slimmer profit margins, certainly but profitable nonetheless. Independent producers might be hurting but the bottom line is if they don’t own the means of production, they are labor too. Maybe actors wouldn’t have to strike if management thought of the entertainment business like the pharmaceutical business. Research & Development as a necessary expense in good times and bad. Compensating workers is part of that R&D.

Those with divided loyalties have to make their case, not just assume that because the economy is bad, nothing can be done. Those who want to authorize the strike have to give some real talk about the risks they are asking their members to run. Heck, the WGA strike was a success. But in its aftermath, the business is quietly restructuring: smaller writing staffs, fewer pilots produced.

Artist-management conflict? Labor-art tension? … Definitely to be continued


About liftingasweclimb

Mildred Lewis writes and directs for theater, television, film and the web. She's also a full time professor, Christian, activist and troublemaker with a passion to save as much of the world as she can.
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