Sunday, March 30, 2008

Union Artists

I'm not opposed to the concept of labor unions. It's true that, in a lot of ways, they've outlived their usefulness; some of the bigger, more powerful unions have essentially crashed their industries as a result of years of making some rather unreasonable demands, and other heavily unionized industries are starting to feel the bite. On the other hand, unions provide the important function of keeping a bit of power out of the hands of the upper 1%. You really can't overestimate the importance of organizations that provide a bit of balance to the otherwise unrestrained power of the people who write the checks. Reference the recent Writer's Guild strike.

But I've recently heard of some trauma involving union artists. A dancer friend was recently performing in Ohio with a major symphony. Because of weather and traffic, the show ended up starting late. And, at 10pm, seven minutes from the end of the show, the musicians all stopped playing, packed up their instruments, and left. The dancers finished the last seven minutes of the show to canned music, once the live musicians left the building. The symphony musicians were union, see -- the hall didn't pay overtime, so they stopped when their three hours were up. They're just like bricklayers. They're not paid to build a house/perform a work, they're paid to put one brick/note on top of another until the clock runs out. They apparently respect their union contract more than they respect their audience and their fellow performers doing the dancing, and certainly more than they respect the composer or their art in general. An artist should be appalled at the idea of leaving a performance unfinished, with an audience watching. They weren't. They're wage slaves, not artists.

I've recently had some experience with this myself. The play we've got in the Artsgarden for the next few weeks is an Actor's Equity production, the union for stage performers and stage managers. And we stopped rehearsal five minutes from the end of the show on Wednesday because the union workday was over. It would've been nice to have a full rehearsal before dress rehearsal, but the union's rules are apparently more important than the show itself. Stopping five minutes short of a full rehearsal because of union rules didn't go over well with me, in the middle of a 90-hour week, with 50 of those hours being volunteer time for the show. The message is that my time isn't important, the show isn't important. But Equity rules ├╝ber alles!

I think my biggest problem with union artists is that it messes with my concept of what art is. I still hold to the romantic ideal that art is a sort of calling, a passion. That artists do art because it's meaningful, that they have a message they need to communicate to the world through their art. As soon as artists unionize, this is no longer true. You can't simultaneously claim that you believe in your art as a sort of pure force or energy, and stop playing your instrument because it's ten and the hall doesn't pay overtime. As soon as you've got the ability or obligation to go on strike, you're no longer doing art -- you're doing a job. And I'm fine with doing a job and getting paid for it.

Just stop pretending it's art.

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