The Death of the Artist


Pronounce the word artist, to conjure up the image of a solitary genius. A sacred aura still attaches to the word, a sense of one in contact with the numinous. “He’s an artist,” we’ll say in tones of reverence about an actor or musician or director. “A true artist,” we’ll solemnly proclaim our favorite singer or photographer, meaning someone who appears to dwell upon a higher plane. Vision, inspiration, mysterious gifts as from above: such are some of the associations that continue to adorn the word.

  Yet the notion of the artist as a solitary genius—so potent a cultural force, so determinative, still, of the way we think of creativity in general—is decades out of date. So out of date, in fact, that the model that replaced it is itself already out of date. A new paradigm is emerging, and has been since about the turn of the millennium, one that’s in the process of reshaping what artists are: how they work, train, trade, collaborate, think of themselves and are thought of—even what art is—just as the solitary-genius model did two centuries ago. The new paradigm may finally destroy the very notion of “art” as such—that sacred spiritual substance—which the older one created.
Before we thought of artists as geniuses, we thought of them as artisans. The words, by no coincidence, are virtually the same. Art itself derives from a root that means to “join” or “fit together”—that is, to make or craft, a sense that survives in phrases like the art of cooking and words like artful, in the sense of “crafty.” We may think of Bach as a genius, but he thought of himself as an artisan, a maker. Shakespeare wasn’t an artist, he was a poet, a denotation that is rooted in another word for make. He was also a playwright, a term worth pausing over. A playwright isn’t someone who writes plays; he is someone who fashions them, like a wheelwright or shipwright.
A whole constellation of ideas and practices accompanied this conception. Artists served apprenticeships, like other craftsmen, to learn the customary methods (hence the attributions one sees in museums: “workshop of Bellini” or “studio of Rembrandt”). Creativity was prized, but credibility and value derived, above all, from tradition. In a world still governed by a fairly rigid social structure, artists were grouped with the other artisans, somewhere in the middle or lower middle, below the merchants, let alone the aristocracy. Individual practitioners could come to be esteemed—think of the Dutch masters—but they were, precisely, masters, as in master craftsmen. The distinction between art and craft, in short, was weak at best. Indeed, the very concept of art as it was later understood—of Art—did not exist.
All of this began to change in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the period associated with Romanticism: the age of Rousseau, Goethe, Blake, and Beethoven, the age that taught itself to value not only individualism and originality but also rebellion and youth. Now it was desirable and even glamorous to break the rules and overthrow tradition—to reject society and blaze your own path. The age of revolution, it was also the age of secularization. As traditional belief became discredited, at least among the educated class, the arts emerged as the basis of a new creed, the place where people turned to put themselves in touch with higher truths.
Art rose to its zenith of spiritual prestige, and the artist rose along with it. The artisan became the genius: solitary, like a holy man; inspired, like a prophet; in touch with the unseen, his consciousness bulging into the future. “The priest departs,” said Whitman, “the divine literatus comes.” Art disentangled itself from craft; the term fine arts, “those which appeal to the mind and the imagination,” was first recorded in 1767.
“Art” became a unitary concept, incorporating music, theater, and literature as well as the visual arts, but also, in a sense, distinct from each, a kind of higher essence available for philosophical speculation and cultural veneration. “Art for art’s sake,” the aestheticist slogan, dates from the early 19th century. So does Gesamtkunstwerk, the dream or ideal, so precious to Wagner, of the “total work of art.” By the modernist moment, a century later, the age of Picasso, Joyce, and Stravinsky, the artist stood at the pinnacle of status, too, a cultural aristocrat with whom the old aristocrats—or at any rate the most advanced among them—wanted nothing more than to associate.

It is hardly any wonder that the image of the artist as a solitary genius—so noble, so enviable, so pleasant an object of aspiration and projection—has kept its hold on the collective imagination. Yet it was already obsolescent more than half a century ago. After World War II in particular, and in America especially, art, like all religions as they age, became institutionalized. We were the new superpower; we wanted to be a cultural superpower as well. We founded museums, opera houses, ballet companies, all in unprecedented numbers: the so-called culture boom. Arts councils, funding bodies, educational programs, residencies, magazines, awards—an entire bureaucratic apparatus.
As art was institutionalized, so, inevitably, was the artist. The genius became the professional. Now you didn’t go off to Paris and hole up in a garret to produce your masterpiece, your Les Demoiselles d’Avignon or Ulysses, and wait for the world to catch up with you. Like a doctor or lawyer, you went to graduate school—M.F.A. programs were also proliferating—and then tried to find a position. That often meant a job, typically at a college or university—writers in English departments, painters in art schools (higher ed was also booming)—but it sometimes simply meant an affiliation, as with an orchestra or theater troupe. Saul Bellow went to Paris in 1948, where he began The Adventures of Augie March, but he went on a Guggenheim grant, and he came from an assistant professorship.
 The training was professional, and so was the work it produced. Expertise—or, in the mantra of the graduate programs, “technique”—not inspiration or tradition, became the currency of aesthetic authority. The artist-as-genius could sometimes pretend that his work was tossed off in a sacred frenzy, but no self-respecting artist-as-professional could afford to do likewise. They had to be seen to be working, and working hard (the badge of professional virtue), and it helped if they could explain to laypeople—deans, donors, journalists—what it was that they were doing.
The artist’s progress, in the postwar model, was also professional. You didn’t burst from obscurity to celebrity with a single astonishing work. You slowly climbed the ranks. You accumulated credentials. You amassed a résumé. You sat on the boards and committees, collected your prizes and fellowships. It was safer than the solitary-genius thing, but it was also a lot less exciting, and it is no surprise that artists were much less apt to be regarded now as sages or priests, much more likely to be seen as just another set of knowledge workers. Spiritual aristocracy was sacrificed for solid socioeconomic upper-middle-class-ness.
Artisan, genius, professional: underlying all these models is the market. In blunter terms, they’re all about the way that you get paid. If the artisanal paradigm predates the emergence of modern capitalism—the age of the artisan was the age of the patron, with the artist as, essentially, a sort of feudal dependent—the paradigms of genius and professional were stages in the effort to adjust to it.
In the former case, the object was to avoid the market and its sullying entanglements, or at least to appear to do so. Spirit stands opposed to flesh, to filthy lucre. Selling was selling out. Artists, like their churchly forebears, were meant to be unworldly. Some, like Picasso and Rilke, had patrons, but under very different terms than did the artisans, since the privilege was weighted in the artist’s favor now, leaving many fewer strings attached. Some, like Proust and Elizabeth Bishop, had money to begin with. And some, like Joyce and van Gogh, did the most prestigious thing and starved—which also often meant sponging, extracting gifts or “loans” from family or friends that amounted to a kind of sacerdotal tax, equivalent to the tithes exacted by priests or alms relied upon by monks.

Professionalism represents a compromise formation, midway between the sacred and the secular. A profession is not a vocation, in the older sense of a “calling,” but it also isn’t just a job; something of the priestly clings to it. Against the values of the market, the artist, like other professionals, maintained a countervailing set of standards and ideals—beauty, rigor, truth—inherited from the previous paradigm. Institutions served to mediate the difference, to cushion artists, ideologically, economically, and psychologically, from the full force of the marketplace.

Some artists did enter the market, of course, especially those who worked in the “low” or “popular” forms. But even they had mediating figures—publishing companies, movie studios, record labels; agents, managers, publicists, editors, producers—who served to shield creators from the market’s logic. Corporations functioned as a screen; someone else, at least, was paid to think about the numbers. Publishers or labels also sometimes played an actively benevolent role: funding the rest of the list with a few big hits, floating promising beginners while their talent had a chance to blossom, even subsidizing the entire enterprise, as James Laughlin did for years at New Directions.
There were overlaps, of course, between the different paradigms—long transitions, mixed and marginal cases, anticipations and survivals. The professional model remains the predominant one. But we have entered, unmistakably, a new transition, and it is marked by the final triumph of the market and its values, the removal of the last vestiges of protection and mediation. In the arts, as throughout the middle class, the professional is giving way to the entrepreneur, or, more precisely, the “entrepreneur”: the “self-employed” (that sneaky oxymoron), the entrepreneurial self.
The institutions that have undergirded the existing system are contracting or disintegrating. Professors are becoming adjuncts. Employees are becoming independent contractors (or unpaid interns). Everyone is in a budget squeeze: downsizing, outsourcing, merging, or collapsing. Now we’re all supposed to be our own boss, our own business: our own agent; our own label; our own marketing, production, and accounting departments. Entrepreneurialism is being sold to us as an opportunity. It is, by and large, a necessity. Everybody understands by now that nobody can count on a job.
Still, it also is an opportunity. The push of institutional disintegration has coincided with the pull of new technology. The emerging culture of creative entrepreneurship predates the Web—its roots go back to the 1960s—but the Web has brought it an unprecedented salience. The Internet enables you to promote, sell, and deliver directly to the user, and to do so in ways that allow you to compete with corporations and institutions, which previously had a virtual monopoly on marketing and distribution. You can reach potential customers at a speed and on a scale that would have been unthinkable when pretty much the only means were word of mouth, the alternative press, and stapling handbills to telephone poles.
Everybody gets this: every writer, artist, and musician with a Web site (that is, every writer, artist, and musician). Bands hawk their CDs online. Documentarians take to Kickstarter to raise money for their projects. The comedian Louis CK, selling unprotected downloads of his stand-up show, has tested a nascent distribution model. “Just get your name out there,” creative types are told. There seems to be a lot of building going on: you’re supposed to build your brand, your network, your social-media presence. Creative entrepreneurship is spawning its own institutional structure—online marketplaces, self-publishing platforms, nonprofit incubators, collaborative spaces—but the fundamental relationship remains creator-to-customer, with creators handling or superintending every aspect of the transaction.

So what will all this mean for artists and for art? For training, for practice, for the shape of the artistic career, for the nature of the artistic community, for the way that artists see themselves and are seen by the public, for the standards by which art is judged and the terms by which it is defined? These are new questions, open questions, questions no one is equipped as yet to answer. But it’s not too early to offer a few preliminary observations.

Creative entrepreneurship, to start with what is most apparent, is far more interactive, at least in terms of how we understand the word today, than the model of the artist-as-genius, turning his back on the world, and even than the model of the artist as professional, operating within a relatively small and stable set of relationships. The operative concept today is the network, along with the verb that goes with it, networking. A GenX graphic-artist friend has told me that the young designers she meets are no longer interested in putting in their 10,000 hours. One reason may be that they recognize that 10,000 hours is less important now than 10,000 contacts.

 A network, I should note, is not the same as what used to be known as a circle—or, to use a term important to the modernists, a coterie. The truth is that the geniuses weren’t really quite as solitary as advertised. They also often came together—think of the Bloomsbury Group—in situations of intense, sustained creative ferment. With the coterie or circle as a social form, from its conversations and incitements, came the movement as an intellectual product: impressionism, imagism, futurism.

 But the network is a far more diffuse phenomenon, and the connections that it typically entails are far less robust. A few days here, a project there, a correspondence over email. A contact is not a collaborator. Coleridge, for Wordsworth, was not a contact; he was a partner, a comrade, a second self. It is hard to imagine that kind of relationship, cultivated over countless uninterrupted encounters, developing in the age of the network. What kinds of relationships will develop, and what they will give rise to, remains to be seen.

 No longer interested in putting in their 10,000 hours: under all three of the old models, an artist was someone who did one thing—who trained intensively in one discipline, one tradition, one set of tools, and who worked to develop one artistic identity. You were a writer, or a painter, or a choreographer. It is hard to think of very many figures who achieved distinction in more than one genre—fiction and poetry, say—let alone in more than one art. Few even attempted the latter (Gertrude Stein admonished Picasso for trying to write poems), and almost never with any success.

 But one of the most conspicuous things about today’s young creators is their tendency to construct a multiplicity of artistic identities. You’re a musician and a photographer and a poet; a storyteller and a dancer and a designer—a multiplatform artist, in the term one sometimes sees. Which means that you haven’t got time for your 10,000 hours in any of your chosen media. But technique or expertise is not the point. The point is versatility. Like any good business, you try to diversify.

 What we see in the new paradigm—in both the artist’s external relationships and her internal creative capacity—is what we see throughout the culture: the displacement of depth by breadth. Is that a good thing or a bad thing? No doubt some of both, in a ratio that’s yet to be revealed. What seems more clear is that the new paradigm is going to reshape the way that artists are trained. One recently established M.F.A. program in Portland, Oregon, is conducted under the rubric of “applied craft and design.” Students, drawn from a range of disciplines, study entrepreneurship as well as creative practice. Making, the program recognizes, is now intertwined with selling, and artists need to train in both—a fact reflected in the proliferation of dual M.B.A./M.F.A. programs.

 The new paradigm is also likely to alter the shape of the ensuing career. Just as everyone, we’re told, will have five or six jobs, in five or six fields, during the course of their working life, so will the career of the multiplatform, entrepreneurial artist be more vagrant and less cumulative than under the previous models. No climactic masterwork of deep maturity, no King Lear or Faust, but rather many shifting interests and directions as the winds of market forces blow you here or there.

 Works of art, more centrally and nakedly than ever before, are becoming commodities, consumer goods. Jeff Bezos, as a patron, is a very different beast than James Laughlin. Now it’s every man for himself, every tub on its own bottom. Now it’s not an audience you think of addressing; it’s a customer base. Now you’re only as good as your last sales quarter.

 It’s hard to believe that the new arrangement will not favor work that’s safer: more familiar, formulaic, user-friendly, eager to please—more like entertainment, less like art. Artists will inevitably spend a lot more time looking over their shoulder, trying to figure out what the customer wants rather than what they themselves are seeking to say. The nature of aesthetic judgment will itself be reconfigured. “No more gatekeepers,” goes the slogan of the Internet apostles. Everyone’s opinion, as expressed in Amazon reviews and suchlike, carries equal weight—the democratization of taste.

 Judgment rested with the patron, in the age of the artisan. In the age of the professional, it rested with the critic, a professionalized aesthete or intellectual. In the age of the genius, which was also the age of avant-gardes, of tremendous experimental energy across the arts, it largely rested with artists themselves. “Every great and original writer,” Wordsworth said, “must himself create the taste by which he is to be relished.”

 But now we have come to the age of the customer, who perforce is always right. Or as a certain legendary entertainer is supposed to have put it, “There’s a sucker born every minute.” Another word for gatekeepers is experts. Lord knows they have their problems, beginning with arrogance, but there is one thing you can say for them: they’re not quite so easily fooled. When the Modern Library asked its editorial board to select the 100 best novels of the 20th century, the top choice was Ulysses. In a companion poll of readers, it was Atlas Shrugged. We recognize, when it comes to food (the new summit of cultural esteem), that taste must be developed by a long exposure, aided by the guidance of practitioners and critics. About the arts we own to no such modesties. Prizes belong to the age of professionals. All we’ll need to measure merit soon is the best-seller list.

 The democratization of taste, abetted by the Web, coincides with the democratization of creativity. The makers have the means to sell, but everybody has the means to make. And everybody’s using them. Everybody seems to fancy himself a writer, a musician, a visual artist. Apple figured this out a long time ago: that the best way to sell us its expensive tools is to convince us that we all have something unique and urgent to express.

 “Producerism,” we can call this, by analogy with consumerism. What we’re now persuaded to consume, most conspicuously, are the means to create. And the democratization of taste ensures that no one has the right (or inclination) to tell us when our work is bad. A universal grade inflation now obtains: we’re all swapping A-minuses all the time, or, in the language of Facebook, “likes.”

 It is often said today that the most-successful businesses are those that create experiences rather than products, or create experiences (environments, relationships) around their products. So we might also say that under producerism, in the age of creative entrepreneurship, producing becomes an experience, even the experience. It becomes a lifestyle, something that is packaged as an experience—and an experience, what’s more, after the contemporary fashion: networked, curated, publicized, fetishized, tweeted, catered, and anything but solitary, anything but private.

 Among the most notable things about those Web sites that creators now all feel compelled to have is that they tend to present not only the work, not only the creator (which is interesting enough as a cultural fact), but also the creator’s life or lifestyle or process. The customer is being sold, or at least sold on or sold through, a vicarious experience of production.

 Creator: I’m not sure that artist even makes sense as a term anymore, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see it giving way before the former, with its more generic meaning and its connection to that contemporary holy word, creative. Joshua Wolf Shenk’s Powers of Two, last summer’s modish book on creativity, puts Lennon and McCartney with Jobs and Wozniak. A recent cover of this very magazine touted “Case Studies in Eureka Moments,” a list that started with Hemingway and ended with Taco Bell.

 When works of art become commodities and nothing else, when every endeavor becomes “creative” and everybody “a creative,” then art sinks back to craft and artists back to artisans—a word that, in its adjectival form, at least, is newly popular again. Artisanal pickles, artisanal poems: what’s the difference, after all? So “art” itself may disappear: art as Art, that old high thing. Which—unless, like me, you think we need a vessel for our inner life—is nothing much to mourn.

 The Death of the Artist—and the Birth of the Creative Entrepreneur. By William Deresiewicz.  The Atlantic, January/February 2015. 

William Deresiewicz is an award-winning essayist and critic who has written a new book : The Death of the Artist: How Creators Are Struggling to Survive in the Age of Billionaires.  The book warns that the art we all love – music, books, films and much more – is in jeopardy. Based on deep research and interviews with artists and content creators, Bill is worried that the digital economy isn’t supporting that art that sustains our souls, and that we are in the middle of a big transformation.
In this conversation with Bart Campolo, Bill talks about art as a secular religion, “humanities-based spirituality”, the “Darwinian attention derby”, the mythology of the artist as lazy or entitled, the discouragement many creators face against pursuing their art, the small percentage of artists who are making a true living at it, the death of the arts as a harbinger of a larger death, of dignified work and the middle class, how the big tech platforms make money from artists’ creations, how fixing this problem could help address some of our other problems like a lack of diversity and representation, and the idea that we should feel a responsibility to content creators.

Bart Campolo , September 10, 2020. 

Early in his  new book, The Death of the Artist: How Creators Are Struggling to Survive in the Age of Billionaires and Big Tech, William Deresiewicz relates two stories often told about the arts today. From Silicon Valley and its boosters, we hear: “There’s never been a better time to be an artist.” Anyone can easily market their own music, books, or films online, drum up a thousand true fans, and enjoy a decent living. We see proof of this, time and again, in profiles of bold creators who got tired of waiting to be chosen, took to the web, and saw their work go viral.

The artists tell another tale. Yes, you can produce and post your work more easily, but so can everyone else. Every year, every major venue — SoundCloud, Kindle Store, Sundance — is inundated with thousands if not millions of songs, books, and films, but most sink like a stone. Of the 6,000,000 books in the US Kindle Store, the “overwhelming majority” of which are self-published, “68 percent sell fewer than two copies a month.” Only about 2,000 US Kindle Store authors earn more than $25,000 per year. Spotify features roughly 2,000,000 artists worldwide, but less than four percent of them garner 95 percent of the streams. The pie has been “pulverized into a million tiny crumbs.” We may now have “universal access” to the audience, but “at the price of universal impoverishment.”
Deresiewicz is a literary critic and author of a provocative earlier book on higher education in the United States, Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life. He made his first foray into the debate about the plight of artists in The Atlantic in 2015, but declined at the time to endorse either of the two narratives set out above. In that essay, he framed the debate itself as symptomatic of a deeper shift on the artistic horizon. Creators are becoming unmoored from the institutions that have long made their careers possible, he argued, as publishers, labels, studios, and colleges are now “contracting or disintegrating.” Left to fend for themselves in the marketplace, artists have been forced to practice “creative entrepreneurship,” with less time to spend building an oeuvre or perfecting their technique, and more time to be spent on networking and self-promoting. User reviews and recommendation engines matter more to them than critical opinion. Their work tends to be tamer, safer, more “formulaic” — “more like entertainment, less like art.” More broadly, this new breed of artist is compelled to feel good about all the internet makes possible, and to ignore the fact that few have managed to capitalize on it. In 2015, the future under the new paradigm was not encouraging. But it seemed too soon to pass judgment.
Having gathered copious evidence for the book, Deresiewicz now stands firmly against the model of the creative entrepreneur. Based on some 140 phone interviews with creators across a number of fields, and ample studies and reports, the book urges us to dismiss the Silicon Valley narrative as pure “propaganda.” It is a persuasive and thoroughly engaging read. Deresiewicz is not a pioneer in this terrain — Scott Timberg’s Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class and Jonathan Taplin’s Move Fast and Break Things: How Facebook, Google, and Amazon Cornered Culture and Undermined Democracy cover much of the same ground. But Deresiewicz takes a closer look at artists’ lives and careers, presenting a bleak composite picture that anyone with creative aspirations must confront. All but the most popular creators, he makes clear, face new and daunting obstacles, pointing to a future in which more artists will do more of their work as part-time amateurs. Final chapters try to brighten the picture somewhat with encouraging words about organizing and advocating for IP reform. But the book leaves unclear the answer to a larger question: is the aspiration to become a full-time writer, filmmaker, or musician — no matter how earnestly held — now essentially obsolete?
It has always been hard to make a living in the arts; what is new, Deresiewicz contends, is that even moderately successful artists — who publish, show, or perform frequently — often struggle to lead a middle-class life. Revenue for most creators is falling: the Authors Guild, for example, reported a drop in the writing income of American authors from 2009 to 2015 by an average of 30 percent. When distribution moved online, the middle of the artistic earning spectrum collapsed. This runs contrary to the early optimism of figures like former Wired editor Chris Anderson, who saw a bright future for less popular artists. Free of the spatial constraints of brick and mortar retail, selling books and music online would lead to a flatter distribution curve. Rather than a graph showing a sharp curve with most sales going to the top 100 or so artists, the net would lead to a graph with sales dispersed more gradually over millions of artists — leading to a long tail. But as Deresiewicz makes clear, this hasn’t happened. The net didn’t feed a long tail of content consumption; it just made the head of the curve a lot taller. In the 1980s, 80 percent of music album revenue went to the top 20 percent of content. Now it goes to the top one percent. Deresiewicz reveals a similar pattern across the arts: many of the people he interviewed earned from $20,000 to $30,000 a year, “if not less.” The more successful earned from $40,000 to $70,000, “but not more.”
Artists have lost income because content has been “demonetized.” Putting so much music, text, and video online has rendered much of it worthless, due to piracy or sheer, superfluous abundance. Publishers, labels, and studios all face falling revenues, resulting in ever smaller advances and marketing budgets. Television, having resisted demonetization, is the one bright exception to the trend. Netflix, HBO, and other platforms support a thriving culture of middle-class creators — standing out, for Deresiewicz, as the exception that proves the rule.
Chapters on rent, space, and time show how much harder it is to sustain a full-time living as an artist, alone or in close proximity to others. Median rent in the United States is up about 42 percent, adjusted for inflation, since 2000. Not a single person Deresiewicz spoke with was “living decently in a market-rate apartment in a major city on their earnings as an artist.” Artists can no longer afford “to live where artists live.” Nor can many get by without support from parents or partners. “The only way the current model works,” the author was often told, “is if you are young, healthy and childless.” Many of the profiles in the book portray artists living in extreme frugality, often in cramped quarters, in smaller cities or towns, compelled to spend much of their time on menial day jobs and side hustles. Not surprisingly, as one observed, “most people burn out after ten years.”
Deresiewicz devotes chapters to the situation in each of the arts, with the common theme being the takeover of winner-take-all economics. Musicians, for their part, never recovered from digitization. With file sharing having taught a generation to expect music for free, first musicians and then labels surrendered to streaming services — fearing no revenue at all. Yet streaming fees, now the main source of income in music, are tiny — on Spotify, fractions of a penny per stream; on YouTube, between $700 and $6,000 per million views, a number that few artists reach. “Nowhere is the long tail thinner or the fat head fatter than in music.” Ninety percent of subscription fees go to the “megastars in the head.” The top 0.1 percent of artists take 50 percent of album sales, with “similar numbers for downloads and streaming.” Musicians are left “scrambling” to find other means to make a living. Live performances support some, but in 2017, 60 percent of that income went to the top one percent.

The writing scene is equally grim. With 39 percent fewer books sold in US stores between 2007 and 2017, and fewer books reviewed in prominent venues, publishers have lost control over marketing. Mid-list and early career authors receive far less support. Now that 67 percent of books in the United States are sold online — with Amazon alone scooping up 40 percent of print books and 80 percent of ebooks — authors are at the mercy of mysterious algorithms for discovery and promotion. Flying solo, once the great authorial hope, has turned out to be a dead end. Since 2008, Deresiewicz notes, 7,000,000 books have been self-published in the United States. “All but a tiny fraction reach essentially no readers and earn essentially no money.” Economic inequality in the visual arts is even more extreme. Only 10 percent of BFA, MFA, or PhD arts grads in the United States earn a “primary living” in the field. In 2018, “just twenty individuals accounted for 64 percent of total sales by living artists.”

Where, then, are we headed? In one of the book’s most illuminating chapters, Deresiewicz draws on the work of cultural historians Larry Shiner (The Invention of Art: A Cultural History) and Howard Singerman (Art Subjects: Making Artists in the American University), among others, to place the current upheavals in artistic creation within a longer history — one showing how models of production tend to have short shelf lives, and why creators of the near future may have more in common with their more commercially driven, artisanal ancestors of the past.
In the early modern age, da Vinci, Shakespeare, and Bach were just that: artisans or craftspeople who apprenticed to learn traditional methods and strove, with the support of a patron, to become masters. They worked primarily for a commercial purpose and didn’t quibble over the distinction between art and craft.
Citing Raymond Williams, Deresiewicz pinpoints the birth of our present conception of art in the second half of the 18th century, the age of Romanticism and Revolution, when the phrase “fine arts” emerged. Rather than imitating tradition, artists now sought to express an inner truth, reflecting a wider embrace of individuality, rebellion, and youth — a trend that Deresiewicz connects to the rise of democracy and self-government. In the 19th century, the cultured bourgeois would come to revere the artist as a solitary, expressive genius, a bohemian prophet and visionary, culminating in the esoteric modernism of Picasso, Joyce, and Stravinsky. By this point, works of art gained in monetary value, but artists often sought to cultivate an air of independence from the market.
The artist as genius was displaced not by the emerging entrepreneurial model, but by the artist as professional, a model born in the culture boom that followed World War II. A host of new institutions — museums, theaters, orchestras, and universities — gave the creator a safe and steady perch. No longer a wandering bohemian seeking inspiration, the artist was now a credentialed professional striving, over many years, books, films, and albums, to perfect their technique. Typically, a tenured professor, a staff writer, or a musician attached to a record label, the creator enjoyed commercial success, but strove for critical acclaim.
Deresiewicz paints each of these paradigms with a broad brush — conceding that there are exceptional or overlapping figures and works in each period. But the sketch supports his larger point that in all three paradigms, artists were sheltered from the market by an external source. Now, he argues, we’re moving “unmistakably” into a new dispensation “marked by the final triumph of the market” and “the removal of the last vestiges of protection and mediation.” As the institutions supporting the professional model “disintegrate” — as professors become adjuncts, and publishers, galleries, and studios downsize or die off — a further aspect of all three models is also being left behind: the ability to devote the bulk of one’s time to art. For Deresiewicz, “[g]reat art, even good art, relies on the existence of individuals who are able to devote the lion’s share of their energy to producing it — in other words professionals.”
But conditions today favor the amateur. They favor “speed, brevity, and repetition; novelty but also recognizability.” Artists no longer have the time nor the space to “cultivate an inner stillness or focus”; no time for the “slow build.” Creators need to cater to the market’s demand for constant and immediate engagement, for “flexibility, versatility, and extroversion.” As a result, “irony, complexity, and subtlety are out; the game is won by the brief, the bright, the loud, and the easily grasped.”
The change underway is clearly part of a larger cultural transition, involving more than just the arts. But Deresiewicz singles out Silicon Valley as a main culprit: he cites Taplin’s estimate that between 2004 and 2015, creators lost roughly $50 billion in annual revenue to the major tech platforms. They did so largely, Deresiewicz contends, by abetting piracy. Lawmakers could curtail this to some degree, by forcing Google, YouTube, and Facebook to allow creators to remove infringing content. But the big players continually resist because “[p]iracy is just too lucrative for them.” Ultimately, Deresiewicz argues that government should break up these monopolies; it should hinder their tendency to “flout the law, to dictate terms, to smother competition, to control debate, to shape legislation, to determine price.”
As with so many works of nonfiction that deliver bad news, the obligatory “what is to be done” segment at the end of the book fails to stir much enthusiasm. Deresiewicz asserts, correctly, “we’re not ‘going back’ to anything” — then urges creators to join advocacy groups like CreativeFuture or the Authors Guild, and to lobby for copyright and IP reform. Yet it’s hard to tell how the goal here is different from trying to turn back the clock. As Deresiewicz concedes, his proposals are “plainly incommensurate with the scale of the overall problem.”
They are indeed. The digital genie won’t be put back in the bottle. Big tech might be reined in on certain fronts, but it won’t be abolished or broken up. Nor can we expect labels, studios, publishers, or colleges to play the same supportive role they once did. Some see signs of hope, for some forms of creative endeavor, in the rise of paid subscriptions. But the evidence in The Death of the Artist is copious and inescapable on the most crucial fact about art in the present age that won’t change: when creative work is sold online, sales are radically unequal, following drastic power-law distributions. No matter how many people subscribe, no matter how aggressively Big Tech comes to be governed, selling art, music, or books in a digital world will always entail a lion’s share of the proceeds flowing into the pockets of a small few.
Deresiewicz shies away from putting it starkly, but the lesson is clear: a career on the older professional model — a gradual build to a moderate critical success — is only viable at this point for those who can support themselves for the long haul. A dwindling few will manage to do this by landing a perch at a magazine, a studio, a university. And so the model may not be entirely obsolete at present. But, aside from television, the book points to a future of creative production involving more work being done by amateurs, more done as a hobby, a passion project, a side gig — whatever that might mean for “great or even just good art.” Beyond that, who can say?

The Great Unread: On William Deresiewicz’s “The Death of the Artist”. By Robert Diab. Los Angeles Review of Books , October  13. 

Not a month goes by when I do not have a conversation with a young artist about how a career in the arts seems unsustainable. As the executive director of an arts service organization, Boston Dance Allliance, which provides information and resources for dancers across genres, I recognize their precarity: the hustle of piecing together a portfolio of gigs, writing replicative grant and residency applications, the time spent wondering wistfully whether they would be more successful if they pulled up stakes and moved somewhere else. As one choreographer recently told me, living from grant to grant and gig to gig turns into a cycle of “produce, rinse, and repeat.” The shiny, celebrity-heavy top of the arts pyramid reveals itself as the place where First Ladies pen bestsellers, where pop stars have their grocery shopping reported on in the years between hits, and where Oscar winners tell billions of people watching a telecast not to give up on their dreams. Yet even as artists throw in the towel or, in this pandemic time, are laid off from even endowment-rich, stable institutions such as museums and orchestras, there is no scarcity of aspiring, well-trained, and gifted artists to line up behind them. A livelihood in the arts resembles a lottery with particularly dismal odds.

 William Deresiewicz has been listening to those conversations, aware that this is more than a crisis about building and sustaining the pipeline for young people entering the field. Current economic structures in the American cultural sector manifest an ever-receding horizon for artists of every age and in every discipline. Late 20th- and early 21st-century corporate consolidation and the ideology that “information must be free” on the internet – an argument made primarily by software developers who were cushioned by comfortable “knowledge work” salaries – has dislodged any expectation of security, even for people who were previously able to make a living in the cultural sector. Changing expectation fuels Deresiewicz’s alternating fury and discouragement, and a certain amount of snark. He wrote this book to understand what happened.

 Early on in his volume, Deresiewicz tells a rhetorical lie. “Art is work. The fact that people do it out of love, or self-expression, or political commitment doesn’t make it any less so. Nor does the fact that it isn’t a job, a matter of formal employment. Chefs often do what they do out of love, but no one expects to eat for free.… Even if you do not have a boss, it’s work. If art is work, then artists are workers. No one likes to hear this.”

 This statement is a rhetorical lie – or maybe a plea to “please read my book, I have another 300+ pages to go” — because Deresiewicz will spend much of The Death of the Artist describing how many artists have been clear for decades that they are cultural workers. (The phrase, with its proletarian perfume, is coming back into vogue.)

 Artists are workers and want to be paid for their work. They are tired of being told that artists will find a way to do what they love no matter what conditions they find themselves in, and that they should be grateful for “exposure.” Exposure doesn’t pay the bills and frankly, it rarely translates into paid work, despite what you may have read about YouTube sensations being scooped up for HBO specials or to join sit-com writers’ rooms. (Ok, I love Randy Rainbow’s fabulous anti-Trump musical theater parodies too, but getting that famous and being able to parlay it into a living is the exception that proves the rule.)

 Many artists are burdened with loans for art school or conservatory educations that did not adequately equip them to be self-employed businesspeople, although this is changing. A number of outside foundations and arts service organizations like mine have tried to fill the breach with technical assistance and encouragement. While some young artists have their sights set on becoming Oscar winners or Patti Smith, I’ll wager that most of them want to be able to do their work and live in coastal cities on middle-class incomes and even support a child or two. That version of the American dream increasingly looks delusional.

 No one “deserves” to be paid to make art. Working for oneself, on projects one determines, is a luxury and a privilege. But Deresiewicz makes the salient point that in a market economy, artists should be able to get paid for doing things other people love. (That’s the way it worked when Michaelangelo labored for Pope Julius II.)

The money being made in the cultural sector isn’t being made by artists. It is being made by digital platforms and corporate conglomerates. These are deliberate transfers of wealth, not unintended consequences. Deresiewicz describes these extractive structural realignments in a series of case studies of musicians, writers, visual artists, and filmmakers. (He leaves out theater and dance professionals, perhaps because the impact of corporate consolidation and the impact of the internet are harder to ascertain in these resolutely ephemeral – and outside commercial theater and Broadway, not particularly remunerative — activities.)

 Music in the 20th century, especially the world of pop music, was dominated by exploitative and often racist studios where artists traded contracts with labels for marketing and distribution clout. Now, Deresiewicz argues, “streaming is a protection racket: if the labels didn’t make their music available for free, people would steal it anyway.” Spotify and YouTube streams don’t add up to much income, with streams paying the artists from pennies to fractions of pennies. “A paltry million streams will only get you between $300 and $6,000,” he writes. To make matters even more unbalanced, the top 0.1 percent of artists were responsible for more than 50 percent of analog and digital sales. Touring might have made up for some of the losses, even in a more crowded field, but during the pandemic that is impossible. Almost no one has figured out how to monetize virtual shows in a way that makes up for ticket and merch revenues that a musician would earn in a club, theater, or stadium. He doesn’t say so, but Gofundme and other crowdsourcing strategies are just the current virtual incarnation of rent parties and getting by with help from your friends.

 Amazon is the publishing sector villain. If you didn’t know the word monopsony before reading this book, you will by the time you close its covers. Because Amazon had investors willing to let the company run at a loss for 20 years, Jeff Bezos was able to undercut prices, first to publishers and then to suppliers in every other retail category. Then Amazon delivered the Kindle and cut the royalties even deeper for ebooks. What authors and publishers realized too late was that creating the “infinite bookshelf” was never the point: collecting data on “a customer base of affluent, well-educated customers (the Whole Foods demographic, we might call them),” was.

 The impact on publishing has been immense. Where in an earlier era blockbusters might pay for mid-list literary fiction, the ability for publishers to take chances is curtailed. Add to that outright piracy (read: Google books). In a painful bit of irony, authors routinely discover that their in-copyright books and articles are being offered online for free without their permission when they receive a Google alert. The Authors’ Guild, of which I am a member, surveyed its members – by definition, all published writers – and between 2009 and 2015 saw writing-related income decline by an average of 30 percent.

 In the world of galleries and museums, visual artists can make a killing, but it’s winner-take-all. In 2018 just 20 individuals accounted for 64 percent of total sales by living artists. The activist group BFAMFAPhD noted that art school graduates in New York who work full time at their craft have median incomes of $25,000. The art world may have “climbed aboard the roller coaster of finance capitalism” with canvases and sculptures being bought as tangible investments and put aside in storage for the time when a promising talent is recognized as a master and generates a return, but galleries, and the curation they represent, have consolidated. No wonder you can go to any contemporary art museum in this country and see the same “hot” talents on rotation.

 Film and television, the most systematically “commercial” of the cultural forms The Death of the Artist considers, encompasses a number of business models and opportunities for artists – actors, directors, writers and the allied technical staff that support this industry – and so is harder for Deresiewicz to pin down. Still, the numbers of people who want to participate in the field and those who make it, even to film festivals or niche distribution is incredibly small. SXSW receives 3,000 feature films annually, of which the festival takes 130. While the explosion of channels and platforms create demands for more and more content – which is why A List actors now find themselves competing for Emmys – visibility through companies such as Netflix, Amazon, or HBO becomes more important than ever.

 So making a living in the arts is hard. The squeeze is not just bad for the artists and for their publics; it reinforces social inequity. The dirty secret of the arts sector is that we are moving toward – or already in — a situation where the only people who have the time and space to commit themselves to making art are the young, who tend to be willing to live with roommates and forgo any number of material comforts, and people of independent means, who are supported by trust funds or family members.

 Arts endeavors can – and typically are — supplemented by separate income-producing work. Despite what Deresiewicz writes, most artists in the US know this will be necessary, and that there is nothing shameful about it. The nature of that other work ranges widely. It can be related employment, such as working in a gallery, doing literacy training, teaching private piano lessons, or chasing the brass ring of a position at a university. (Don’t get me started on the adjunctification of the academy.) An artist’s day job could be working as a restaurant server (famously flexible for those who want to take time off to go to dance classes or auditions), walking dogs, or holding down a second, simultaneous career in an unrelated sector. That’s what I did before I went all in for nonprofit arts administration almost six years ago.  But that does take time away from art-making, and for some artists, that is a bridge too far.

 The good news is that artists, and people who care about them, are not sitting back wringing their ink-and-paint stained hands. The Death of the Artist was readied for publication before the Covid-19 pandemic hit. Just as the pandemic pulled back the curtain on endemic injustices against people of color, the fragility of both full-time and gig employment, and the cruelty of linking human needs such as access to health care to employment status, the fact that the cultural sector was the first to close and, for the performing arts at least, will be the last to reopen has occasioned soul searching, cross-disciplinary conversations, and creative reimaginings. It has to.

 As a Brookings Institute study reported, “we estimate [covid-related] losses of 2.7 million [jobs in the creative industry, which here includes fashion and design] and more than $150 billion in sales of goods and services for creative industries nationwide, representing nearly a third of all jobs in those industries and 9% of annual sales. The fine and performing arts industries will be hit hardest, suffering estimated losses of almost 1.4 million jobs and $42.5 billion in sales. These estimated losses represent 50% of all jobs in those industries and more than a quarter of all lost sales nationwide.”

 And this is just the people who were being paid enough for their work in 2019 to report the numbers.

 Does this matter? It sure does.

 As Brookings notes, “arts, culture, and creativity are one of three key sectors (along with science and technology as well as business and management) that drive regional economies. Any lasting damage to the creative sector will drastically undercut our culture, well-being, and quality of life.”

 Yu don’t have to believe in Richard Florida’s urban planning exhortations –  which many believe supplied the popular arguments for hipster gentrification and the displacement of low-income communities of color in many big cities – to understand that the arts and culture act as an economic multiplier. In the hard-to-remember, maskless world of 2019, Arts/Boston’s The Arts Factor noted that Greater Boston’s arts and culture sector directly and indirectly generated $2 billion in annual revenues, and provided as many paying jobs as the retail industry.

 Artists, arts administrators, philanthropic foundations, trade unions, and even progressive legislators are all stepping into the breach, suggesting ways forward. Collectively, these represent a radical reimagining of the infrastructure and priorities of the sector. A significant amount of today’s conversations center on issues of racial equity and support for art-making and the visibility of underrepresented artists and organizations that serve BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) communities. But it all comes down to how the sector is structured, and how money flows among its component parts.

 W.A.G.E. (Working Artists and the Greater Economy),  an organization Deresiewicz mentions, updated their Recommended Best Practice Protocols for Institutions and Funders in April to deal with the issue of how artists and cultural workers, such as museum staff, would be compensated fairly for the move to virtual platforms and to establish transparency around furloughs. (80 nonprofit organizations have been certified by W.A.G.E. as paying artist fees that meet minimum payment standards.) Creative Time in New York is establishing a 10-month virtual “artist think tank” for “reflection, dismantling, and action…to create the critical shifts required to build equitable and sustainable approaches to cultural production,” with the artists participating earning $10,000 for their efforts.

 Groups of artists have organized and fought for new ways to divide royalties for work among an ensemble, so that the original cast of Hamilton is slated to earn 1 percent of the Broadway show’s net profits, and 0.33 percent of profits from future US productions. During the pandemic, this model looks more appealing than ever. Musicians have opted for the “radical payment transparency” of Bandcamp, which some people are calling the “anti-Spotify.” American visual artists continue to argue for droit de suite, residuals when a work is resold. The Ford Foundation asked 40 well-known cultural figures to offer “provocations” to reimagine the arts, documentary film, and journalism, introducing their effort by quoting abolitionist scholar Ruth Wilson Gilmore, “What the world will become already exists in fragments and pieces, experiments and possibilities.” The first installment explores “new cooperative models of resource-sharing and community ownership,” with other issues slated for later reveal.

 Most ambitious is the call for what some have called a “21st Century WPA,” a 25-point plan put forth by the cultural advocates at Americans for the Arts and endorsed by close to 800 other creative workers and cultural organizations. Some of the plan’s demands directly address Deresiewicz’s laments, such as the call to “Adjust Existing Policies to Recognize Creative Workers as Workers,” so that, for instance, artists and other gig workers can collect unemployment not only under the pandemic relief CARES Act but long after we have a vaccine. Other demands, such as “prioritize and incentivize public and private sector support, access to capital, and equitable funding of arts producing organizations, small creative businesses, community cultural centers, and collectives” don’t say much about how that might be implemented, but would surely be a welcome change.

 The shared baseline of these conversations is that there are no good old days to go back to. If the cultural sector in the United States returns to the ways things were organized in February 2020, with all the inequity and unsustainability that implies, we will have failed.

 Arts Commentary: “The Death of the Artist” — Culture Workers Unite! By Debra Cash.  The  Arts Fuse , September 24, 2020.