The Real Divide

In an age of haves and have nots, the real dividing line starts where dreams end.


One of the first things that crossed my mind when the Affordable Care Act — a.k.a. ACA, a.k.a. Obamacare — finally passed and was signed all those years ago was how the legislation could impact artists and musicians.

In the back of my mind, I thought Obamacare would liberate the creative set, for the first time offering artists and musicians an opportunity to finally attain health insurance. Up until then, most musicians I’d met who had grown beyond the age where they could still be on their parents’ health insurance policies simply didn’t carry health insurance. Even if they could afford it, they didn’t know how or where to buy it. In the words of a certain wizened old politician, nobody knew health care could be so complicated.

Then along came Obamacare, and suddenly there was… a plan, a way, an answer. Or at least an outline of a plan. And there was a website (as shitty as it was) where (once you figured out how to navigate it) a person could actually purchase health insurance. This is it, I thought. All those artists and musicians who have been forced to take day jobs simply to qualify for company health insurance — or all those who gave up their dreams of making their living as artists who are squandering their talent behind a cubical wall — could now give it a shot and do what they were meant to do without fear of dying due to lack of affordable healthcare.

I honestly thought Obamacare could signal the rise of a massive new creative class. But in the end, it didn’t turn out that way.

Instead, many — if not most — of the musicians and artists I know still couldn’t afford even the most bare bones of catastrophic health care coverage. In fact, many decided to take on the penalty for not having insurance coverage — the so-called individual mandate penalty — rather than lay out the necessary cash to cover premiums because it was the cheapest option. So they not only didn’t have health insurance, they also were out hundred bucks per year to cover the penalty under Obamacare.

Now along comes President Donald Trump and a Republican Congress dead-set on repealing and replacing Obamacare with… what? No one’s quite sure. The only thing anyone can be certain of is that fewer people will be covered under a new plan, and very likely that individual mandate penalty will go away, for better or worse.

People again would have the right to not purchase health insurance without penalty. But let’s face it, everyone wants health insurance — everyone wants access to health care — they simply can’t afford it.

I know a lot of people will be impacted by the new Republican legislation — poor people mostly — but my heart goes out to musicians and artists, a class of people who simply will never be recognized as serious contributors to society by the rich, the entitled, the middle-of-the-road workers, that mass of people who gave up on their dreams a long time ago when they decided to do “the responsible thing” and get regular jobs.

There has always been a portion of the American conservative class who view the arts and music as little more than frivolous hobbies and those seeking careers in art or music as self-deluded nitwits wasting their time. In my experience, those same conservatives also do not buy art. They do not purchase music. They don’t even listen to music, preferring to spend their time entrenched in sports or television. And when they are exposed to music, it’s the usual bland blend of Freedom Rock or “the all-’80s weekend.” The new stuff, they say, is “kid’s stuff.”

Along those same lines, they can’t stand any art that touches on the abstract. They discard any art that isn’t “realistic” in form as merely a child’s drawing or hoodlum graffiti or pornography or “heck, even I could do that.”  

With Obamacare, there is at least a path to health care, even if artists or musicians can’t afford it. Without Obamacare, the only answer to the health care question for artists and musicians will be this: If you want health insurance, get a real job. Grow up. It’s time to let go of your silly hobbies, your infantile dreams. Buckle down and do real work.

But underneath those dictums lies a layer of unspoken jealousy and envy toward those who didn’t give up on their dreams.

You think we didn’t have dreams, too? You think we like working in cubicles, going to meetings, wearing khakis and long-sleeved button-down shirts? You think this was our first choice? Look, we did what we had to do, for our families, for our children. We did The Right Thing. And if you want health insurance — if you want health care — you’ll do The Right Thing, too.”

Or, at least get a “real job,” and do your “art” in your spare time.

That is America in 2017. Maybe that’s the way it’s always been.

They say we’re divided by our politics — liberal and conservative. I think we’re divided between those who held onto their dreams and those who did what they thought they had to do.

And the ones who made their sacrifices will be god damned if they’re going to pay more in taxes to subsidize those who are unwilling to make their own sacrifices. They have problems of their own to deal with.

Despite the inevitable death of Obamacare and the endless cuts to arts and art education programs, art and music will go on. It always has. It’ll just be harder for those who are making it.

The terms “starving artist” and “struggling musician” have been around as long as I can remember, and they’re not headed to the scrap heap of outdated words any time soon.

Over The Edge is a monthly column by Reader senior contributing writer Tim McMahan focused on culture, society, music, the media and the arts. Email Tim at tim.mcmahan@gmail.com


Category: News, Over The Edge

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