Art for Nothing


W.E.B. Du Bois


May 1, 1922

There is a deep feeling among many people and particularly among colored people that Art should not be paid for. The feeling is based on an ancient and fine idea of human Freedom in the quest of Beauty and on a dream that the artist rises and should rise above paltry consideration of dollars and food.

At the same time everybody knows that artists must live if their art is to live. Everybody knows that if the people who enjoy the artist’s work do not pay for it, somebody else must or his work cannot go on. Despite this practical, obvious fact, we are united with singular unity to starve colored artists.

Mrs. Meta Warrick Fuller, the sculptor, recently did a beautiful piece of work for a great social movement. She was wretchedly and inadequately paid for it; in fact, it would not be too much to say that she was not paid at all. And the movement congratulated itself upon its economy. Mrs. May Howard Jackson, whose portrait busts are a marvelous contribution to the history of the Negro, in years of work has not received a month’s decent income. Mr. William A. Scott, whose painting is one of the finest things the Negro race has produced in America, has had a desperate struggle to make a living. Richard Brown died of privation while yet a boy.

Only in the case of our musicians have we been willing to pay anything like a return for their services, and even in their case we continually complain if they do not give their services for “charity.” We have a few men who are trying to entertain and instruct the public through the writing of books and papers and by carefully prepared lectures. Few buy their books—they borrow them. The men are severely criticized by many because they ask pay for lectures.

All this is wrong; it is miserably wrong; it is warning away exactly the type of men who would do more than any others to establish the right of the black race to universal recognition. If work is honorable, then pay is honorable, and what we should be afraid of is not overpaying the artist; it is underpaying and starving and killing him.


For attribution, please cite this work as:
Du Bois, W.E.B. 1922. “Art for Nothing.” The Crisis 24 (1): 8–9.