“Canceling Celebrities on Twitter” and the Commodification of Art

I have a confession to make. A few weeks ago, I became upset over a celebrity’s tweet. As a person who hates and avoids drama, since it is often an outgrowth of a lack of communication and understanding between opposing sides, I never expected to find myself in this common position. However, it was brought to my attention by another artist on Twitter that a celebrity was hosting a “contest” for animators that was the equivalent of a scam. Apparently, Mr. Shaquille O'Neal is producing a new TV show about himself and issued a call for animations. The prize if your animation is selected? $500 dollars and his personal promise to “make you famous.”


You might be thinking, “Ok, that doesn’t sound too bad. What is the issue here?” Let’s break it down. First of all, this is basically a call for free labor. Animators are expected to work for free for a slim possibility to be selected. In the fine print of the contest, it states that all work submitted is automatically the property of the contest holder. That means no compensation for the artists as their work is shown repeatedly in the show. “But wait,” you might say, “what about the cash prize?” For the amount of time, talent, and labor each contestant will have to put in, $500 is a paltry sum. If an animation company was hired instead, much more money would have to have been invested by the TV show in order to achieve the same result. In addition, that animation company would have to be compensated for each continued use of their product. Another issue is the claim to “make you famous.” Despite having over 14 million followers, Shaq’s tweet had less than 1000 likes. Let’s do that math; less than 0.01% of his audience engaged with the tweet. Yikes.


The biggest issue with this contest is how it furthers the concept that art is a commodity that people feel entitled to, instead of realizing that art is a privilege that should to be purchased as any other service would be. One commenter encapsulated the insulting nature of the contest perfectly through a comparison. Let us say that a random man called Joe asked Shaq and his other “basketball friends” to teach them to play. Jack promised $500 to the person whose tutelage would enable him to go professional. Most people would agree that Jack’s proposal is insulting to Shaq and his friends, bordering on being downright rude. So how is Shaq’s call for artists any different? He is asking professionals in their field to give him free labor because of his celebrity status.


In addition, this would be tempting for young, struggling artists. Many artists underpay and overwork themselves because it is normalized and even expected in today’s society. Gone are the days of Renaissance patrons personally funding the livelihood of artists in exchange for portraits and idealistic scenes. Instead, modern patrons expect large paintings or sculptures for no more than $20, no matter how much time, training, money, and materials the artist invested into their work. Because the common patron cannot differentiate between an original work on canvas from a cheap Target print on canvas that was produced in a batch of 1,000,000, the artist is expected to take the loss in profit.


To sum up the point of this post, I am going to quote my own tweet:

“It's sad that, no matter how old or famous you get, people still treat art as a commodity to be given instead of a privilege to be purchased.” – Me, June 2017

It’s 2019. Let’s start appreciating artists as the talented artisans they are.


What are your thoughts? Have you experienced this? Do you disagree with me? Let me know in the comments!


(I would like to finish with a positive conclusion to the story. After an overwhelming amount of backlash, Shaq tweeted the next day, saying “To all my animators out there, I heard you. I love your work and want you to feel the love. If your cartoon is selected, you’ll be awarded $10,000 and your animation will be shown on my new show, Shaq Life. Can’t wait to see what you got!” While this does not address the core issues of commodification of art in today’s society, it is a very kind gesture of good faith. Many people are simply ignorant to this issue. While I am using Shaq’s contest to exemplify the issue I am discussing, I hold nothing against Shaq and am honestly impressed that he was willing to admit his mistake once it was pointed out and to try to rectify it. Many celebrities would not. Therefore, Shaq is un-canceled.)