Undervalued and underappreciated: The harsh realities of being an artist

Art can be and do many things; it can be an expression of emotions, it can represent a feeling or idea. Art can make statements or simply be aesthetically pleasing to the eye. However, despite being in the 21st century, art still remains undervalued. This is largely due to the fact that society perceives art as a mere drawing. What most people don’t realise is that art is created through numerous experiences, trials, and errors undergone by artists.

Unlocking the meaning behind an artwork

The value of art is in how much it is appreciated. It may only take less than five minutes for one to admire a painting, but behind the colours is a story about the artist: when did they start doing art, why, and what is the purpose behind each masterpiece. However, the real question is why is art still being undervalued?

Many opined that art was merely drawing on a piece of paper or canvas. Or if it’s done using a computer software, it is just a graphic at an artist’s convenience. However, the true beauty of art actually lies in the journey of the artist.

The harsh reality of being an artist

Jian Goh

Understanding the perception of society against artists, content creator Jian Goh learned through experience that there are chances in other places. “What I learned is that if a place doesn’t appreciate you, sometimes it’s a sign that we need to seek opportunity elsewhere. The same goes in any aspect of life,” he said.

Jian, who is also the artist behind “Meow and Wafu Pafu” laments that the definition of an artist is broad, yet the general understanding of the public mostly associates artists with just drawing.

The devaluation of art mindset also did not come overnight. He said that as Malaysians, we were often taught by our elders that art does not equal success. However, to Jian, creating a piece of art is not light work.

“It takes years to develop a technique and to practise it, not to mention the amount of research needed to be able to transfer those thoughts into reality,” added the 36-year-old.

Sharing the same sentiment, illustrator Niko Poh, who grew up in a similar background, said she does not blame the older generations for having a negative perception towards art. “The reason for this is that two to three decades ago, lawyers and doctors were professions that had a high probability of success and income.”

However, Niko opined that the entertainment and art fields had broadened over the years and were slowly becoming more well known. However, due to a long-held misconception, artists today are poorly compensated.

“We should stand our ground on the price we are comfortable with and be confident with it. The first step to breaking this stigma is that we, as artists, should learn how to appreciate ourselves.”

Jian Goh is a graphic novel author, designer, content creator, and conceptualist.

Creating awareness since a young age

Art can be seen in every nook and cranny. A simple drawing may take days to design. After almost a decade in the industry, Jian, who started as a comic artist, said that art is more than just drawing. “Did you know that to draw a human character, the artist has to study the muscle structure of a human being, how the biceps, triceps, and legs stretch and move?

“You also need to learn how lighting works in shading, how eye movement works in storyboarding, and colour psychology in delivering the mood and message of a scene. Now imagine trying to draw all of them in one piece. You need to understand all the aspects!” he added.

 Through proper education and exposure, Jian believes that the upbringing of an individual is important. “Since we were young, we were taught that art is not a serious subject by treating it as an elective. That leads people to view art as a technique or skill that does not hold any value or make for a good career. But, in reality, art is a big industry that makes billions annually, especially in entertainment.”

As a former engineer, Jian urged art to be given an equal opportunity and spotlight in the education system. “When we are exposed to art regularly, our sensitivity towards the field improves. The value and quality of one for art will increase too. An art installation is a great exposure to the public.”

A muralist point of view

Leonard shows a portrait of ‘The Last Ring Ladies’ in his phone, which will be translated into a mural.

Local muralist Leonard Siaw opined that having murals in cities does create awareness. “However, people generally see it as a decoration or a straightforward painting that portrays culture and activities. Which is not a bad thing, as at least artists can make a living out of it.”

As a creative person, Leonard often tries to educate and influence the locals with everything he knows about art. “To raise interest and appreciation in art, there should be more sharing and exposure.”

Up until recently, white-collar jobs were frequently praised and celebrated as a measure of how hard a person studied. But having met successful artists across the globe, Leonard said that education and learning do not stop after school. “Being in the art scene, artists often travel, meet mentors, cross paths with fellow artists and art communities, learn from and exchange knowledge and techniques. It’s a never-ending journey, “

Leonard also added that professional artists take their journey in art and work seriously. Hence, to think they should be paid less, or through merely through so-called ‘exposure’, discredits the artists. “We all judge what we don’t understand. Try to open yourself up and meet more artists, attend more art exhibitions or activities. It’ll help.”

Advice to young artists

After numerous experiences, Jian learned that if an artist tries to lower their pricing to match a client’s budget, the latter will not appreciate the artist’s value. “The client will no longer look for you in the future because your value is no longer there.”

Nevertheless, there are different ways to overcome the struggles — Jian advises young artists to adjust the way they work according to the price offered. “For example, if your price is at RM2,000 per piece, but the local market price is at RM500, you can put up a pick-and-go service where you randomly create a library of art in your free time and the client can pick the artwork of choice from that list.”

Another way for an artist to maintain their market value is to provide add-on services from the original cost.” An artist will be happier to spend the same amount of effort for the same amount of profit.”

Adding to Jian’s opinions, Leonard said he appreciates those who do not ask for discounts. “There are people who are willing to pay, but only when you are genuine in your art and skill. People can see how trustworthy, capable, and responsible you are, and what your contribution to society is.”

Plagiarism in art

The world of art is at your fingertips with a simple Google search — ready-made art is abundant on the internet. Taking the art and claiming it as their own is a common form of plagiarism or discrediting the artists. As this is a rampant act of thievery, artists around the world are making a stand of their own to ensure credit is given where it’s due.

Niko Poh

Having had his artwork stolen many times, Jian reiterated the situation, as he had to “spend energy and effort building a car from scratch, only to have someone come in and drive it away.”

As art is an intellectual property, Jian feels that people who steal art are no less than thiefs or robbers.

Meanwhile, graphic designer Niko stated that it can be disheartening to spend countless hours fixing and improving an artwork to perfection only to have someone else claim it within seconds.

The 25-year-old said: “We are happy that people love our work and want to share it with the people they love, but what makes us happier is that you take the time to find the source of the beautiful art you enjoy.”

Meanwhile, 34-year-old Leonard, as a muralist, lamented his experiences with plagiarism. “From preparing photo shoots, to countless hours of drafting, rejections, and amendments, to painting under the hot sun and rain in the streets, I invest a lot in my art. So when other people claimed that it’s theirs, that’s very disrespectful to me as an artist.” 

“I know that deep down, they appreciate the artwork because it is good. But an artwork is good because the skills needed to make it are the result of years and years of practice. Therefore, I hope that people take it seriously and credit the artist for their effort and the time they sacrificed. It’s the polite thing to do. “

Niko Poh enjoys sharing her artwork. But what makes her happier is when people take the time to credit the artists.