Artist Dies of Exposure

Head of Spiral Graphics? Steve Miller? Steven M. Scotten? Tim Kreider? Anonymous?

exposure07Dear Quote Investigator: If you are a skilled musician, photographer, graphic artist, or writer you have probably received requests to perform work for free. For example, many people have written pieces for “The Huffington Post” without monetary compensation. The requesters often state that they offer a uniquely attractive venue or platform which will provide a valuable audience. You will achieve wide exposure and increase your fame; later a mysterious alchemical process will convert your fame into wealth.

The word “exposure” has another denotation; it refers to experiencing the harsh effects of weather without protection, especially facing cold. Some regions record mortality statistics for exposure. A comically bitter pun has been crafted based on this ambiguity:

You want me to work for exposure? But don’t you know that many people die from exposure every year?

A compressed version of the joke simply states:

Artist dies of exposure.

Would you please explore the provenance of this quip?

Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence located by QI appeared in a Usenet newsgroup called alt.art.marketplace in April 1996 within a message thread using the subject line “I am an ANGRY ARTIST!!!!!” Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

I was given a sage piece of advice from the owner/primary of Spiral Graphics in Albany NY (I give him a plug because his quote is so good, plus I can’t recall his name and want to give due credit) about working for exposure. He said “Go to the census bureau, and you’ll find that every year, thousands of people die of exposure.”

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In October 1996 the science fiction author Steve Miller who co-created the fictional Liaden universe, posted a message in the alt.journalism.freelance newsgroup that included a version of the joke: 2

Offering exposure by itself isn’t enough. Especially what appears to be unedited, unjuried exposure. Winter is coming on. And in Maine, people die of exposure.

In 1998 a message posted to the newsgroup alt.design.graphics from Steven M. Scotten employed the same quip: 3

If Rolling Stone called me up tomorrow and told me that I had an opportunity to make an illustration for their cover but that it would have to be for free, I’d drop everything to do it, because the wide exposure of my work would get me a lot more jobs with big price tags. OTOH, making a logo for a company that may never get the money together to print it on letterhead? Well lets just say that people die of “exposure” every year.

In 2013 cartoonist and essayist Tim Kreider wrote an opinion piece in “The New York Times” which included a concise instance of the joke: 4

A familiar figure in one’s 20s is the club owner or event promoter who explains to your band that they won’t be paying you in money, man, because you’re getting paid in the far more valuable currency of exposure. This same figure reappears over the years . . . dismissing the issue of payment as an irrelevant quibble and impressing upon you how many hits they get per day, how many eyeballs, what great exposure it’ll offer. “Artist Dies of Exposure” goes the rueful joke.

In conclusion, this article presents a snapshot of what is currently known about the quip. The expression is highly variable; hence, it has been difficult to trace. The earliest appearance in April 1996 pointed to “owner/primary of Spiral Graphics in Albany NY” as the originator. QI does not know the name of this individual. The science fiction author Steve Miller employed the joke in October 1996. Future researchers may discover more.

Image Notes: Figure shown in very bright light from DasWortgewand at Pixabay. Image has been cropped and resized.

Notes:

  1. 1996 April 22, Usenet discussion message, Newsgroups: alt.anger, alt.art.colleges, alt.art.marketplace, From: Steve at domain splicer.com, Subject: Re: I am an ANGRY ARTIST!!!!!, (Google Groups Search; Accessed May 12, 2016) link
  2. 1996 October 7, Usenet discussion message, Newsgroups: alt.journalism.freelance, From: Steve Miller @mint.net, Subject: No free rides WAS — Re: Arts & Entertainment Writers. (Google Groups Search; Accessed October 8, 2016) link
  3. 1998 July 8, Usenet discussion message, Newsgroups: alt.design.graphics, From: Steven M. Scotten splicer @ joe unix.com, Subject: Re: LOGO CONTEST RESULTS, (Google Groups Search; Accessed October 8, 2016) link
  4. 2013 October 26, The New York Times, Slaves of the Internet, Unite! by Tim Kreider, New York. (Online Archive at nytimes.com; accessed October 8, 2016) link