What’s wrong with this picture?

It’s opening night at New York’s Metropolitan Opera House in Lincoln Center. The largest repertory theater in the world. Eleven crystal chandeliers greet the audience in the lobby.

On stage

The auditorium is festooned in gold, and the curtain is gold, too, as it rises on Puccini’s “La bohème” – the story of a starving artist living in a tiny attic.

The incongruity between the big, richly decorated theater and the impoverished artist’s little living space came to mind when the arts magazine Hyperallergic ran a story headlined, “Why Is New York Asking Artists to Decorate City Garbage Trucks for Free?”

Why, indeed.

The 2022 budget for New York’s Department of Sanitation sits at a comfortable $1.9 billion. The average sanitation worker’s pay is $77,000 a year. One wonder, then, why the city couldn’t spare artists a token fee, carfare, or lunch money.

Mind you, adorning the fleet of 2,500 heavy-duty garbage trucks is no small task. Artists are being asked to paint pictures on all three sides of the larger truck and – get this – have just three days to get it all done! So, the painters not only get nothing for the job, but it’s also a rush job!

To hear Sanitation Commissioner Kathryn Garcia tell it, the job is to create “works of art.” Does she listen to herself? She’s asking for not one but three large paintings on a short deadline without even bottled water in the offing.

Art history

Even so, nearly 100 artists answered the call. Granted, disregarding the value of artmaking is an old story. But art history shows that painters and sculptors of old pushed back hard against the disregard.

Consider the story of 17th-century painter Alonso Cano, the first royal painter to Phillip IV. Richard Cumberland’s “Anecdotes of Eminent Painters in Spain” recounts how Cano destroyed a picture he painted for the Counselor of Grenada when the Counselor claimed he was overcharging and refused to pay him.

In the Counselor’s words: “You have rated your labor at the exorbitant price of four pistoles per day, while I, who am your superior, do not make half your profits by my talents.” Cano replied that it took him fifty years of learning to achieve the result. He got paid full price.

Then there’s the case of Renaissance painter Piero di Cosimo, who was big on allegorical subjects and didn’t like his patrons watch him work.

Art historian Giorgio Vasari recounts in “Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects” that when patrons asked to see the progress of a painting and were turned down, they threatened to without payment.

Unfazed, Piero countered with his threats to destroy what had already been done. He got paid.

One of my favorite tales of an artist fighting back against disrespect for artmaking is about Renaissance sculptor Donatello, who was more popular than Da Vinci in his time and was also given to destroying his work when he felt underpaid or harried.

Vasari told of an incident when a Genoese merchant who commissioned Donatello to make a life-size head of him in bronze balked at the agreed-upon price.

When it was time to pay, the merchant complained that Donatello was asking too much.

Cosimo Medici, who arranged for Donatello to get the commission, was called to mediate the dispute. But he found the merchant’s offer far below Donatello’s asking price and said so.

The merchant argued that the sculpture was finished in a little over a month, making more than half a florin a day.

Donatello, insulted, threw the statue over, breaking it, and told the merchant that he was more accustomed to bargaining for beans than for statues. The merchant regretted his words and offered double the sum for another work. But Donatello refused him.

While I fault New York’s Department of Sanitation for the unfair treatment of artists, I also fault the artists who agreed to work for nothing. They are serving as accomplices in their own devaluation.