The Struggling Artist: Setting a Historical Baseline

A drawing on an artist.  How recursive.There's an interesting discussion going on over at Crooked Timber in response to a an article by Henry Farrell about Astra Taylor's book The People’s Platform.

But our post here is just about one great comment from that discussion.  Actually, it would be more accurate to say that our post here is one great comment from that discussion, because I can't think of any better way to say what Clay Shirky said in his comment than the way he said it.

So, since we're always yammering on about the "permission culture" and how problematic it is, I thought, what the heck, let's just take a chance and publish Clay Shirky's comment as an article without asking him first.  If he's unhappy about it, we'll take it down, of course, but my guess is that Clay would agree that his spot-on point about the economic inevitability, throughout history, of the "struggling artist" deserves wider attention:

I’ve yet to read the book (getting it now, on your rec, Henry), so I’ll confine myself to reacting to your writing here, starting with your framing of the question: “If there isn’t an economic model for producing culture in some kind of self-sustaining way, will it get produced?”

 

To which the answer is that of course it will get produced. Culture always gets produced, by definition. You can’t have a group of humans living together who don’t produce some artifacts and behaviors that constitute their culture, including cultures who not only don’t have professional artists, they don’t have the concept of money.

 

Since this answer borders on the tautological, I think that this can’t be what you meant, so I will substitute what I think the question behind that observation is (and you’ll tell me if I’m wrong): If the marketplace that forms around cultural production does not produce, on average, a living wage for the producers of that culture, shouldn’t we expect cultural impoverishment to flow outwards from the impoverishment of the individual artists?

 

Now part of that answer comes down to personal taste — in the same way Katie Roiphe argues that feminism, as practiced, has ruined the novel, as produced, it would be possible to prefer the art of the ’70s to today’s, and to link that to the ways that, say, the Talking Heads or Robert Wilson’s Byrd Hoffman folks could support themselves in a way that isn’t possible today, and that these circumstances led to art you prefer. (Dave Hickey often advances just this argument.) There’s no real counter-argument, given the lack of taste accountants.

 

But part of that question is purely economic, and from my point of view, understanding the economics of cultural production comes down to a single home truth: more people want to make things than other people want the things those first people have made.

 

Always. This is always true. The economy where an artist couldn’t make a killing but could make a living has never existed. Being a working artist is such a desirable state that people are willing to endure penury and suffering for a shot at the big time. The hazing rituals of rejection letters, pawned instruments, and shows closing out of town simply reduced the pool of creators to the point where it looked like supply and demand were more in balance than today. This illusion could only be sustained by ignoring the vast majority of people who wanted to do that work but abandoned hope early and left not public trace of their aspirations.

 

What the internet does is to decouple fame and fortune*, so that the cadre of people who make things no longer need to ask anyone for help or permission before making those self-same things public. And the resulting flood of public work has revealed that there are many more talented people around than were surfaced when highlighting the work of a young artist entailed significant financial risk on the part of the people who could reach an audience. Now, we makers can reach the audience more directly.

 

90% of what we make is crap, as has been long noted, but the increased volume and increasingly sophisticated filters mean that the good stuff can be plucked from the crap without subjecting the average viewer to the average quality work. (This is also the answer to Freddie’s question as to what will replace the old model, which is “This. You’re living in the replacement of the old model.”)

 

And the massively increased denominator of available work means the numerator of cultural spending is spread much more thinly. A handful of stars still do well — some, who produce physical objects or live performances, are doing better than ever — but the pool of people who can share our work for no money, or make a little on the side, has increased so vastly that there is no comparison between the pool of people showing their work in public in the 1970s vs. now.

 

It is a category error to assume that there has always been some moderately-sized group of creators who are talented but not destined for stardom, and in the old days those people did OK while today they are immiserated.

 

Many of the people lamenting not being able to make a living from their work today would not have been able to under the old system either, but they imagine that they would have been among that system’s rare winners, rather than being part of the far larger group who was dissuaded from their dreams of being paid to create without ever having even been able to show their work in public.

 

There has never been a normal way in the US to be a self-supporting creator. The consolation prize today is that does not mean also not getting some of the public attention creators typically crave. The economic side-effect of the widely increased scope for that attention is the economic effects you are wondering about.

 

*http://www.shirky.com/writings/fame_vs_fortune.html

 

By the way, if you liked that, check out his later comment in the same discussion.  More Shirky, please!  (Commenters bobmcmanus and Trader Joe apparently agree.)

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Copyright "restrictions": Farhad Manjoo of the NYT uses accurate language.

Books in a jail cell.At QCO we make a point of calling things by their right names, and of encouraging others to do so.  For example, we always talk about "copyright restrictions", instead of using the pro-monopoly propaganda word "copyright protection".  Try it yourself: if you consistently substitute restrict for protect, and restriction for protection, when talking about copyright, it will always work grammatically and it will be more accurate.

The information monopoly industries would much prefer us to talk about "protection", of course, by which they mean protection of their business model.  But most of us don't say "pre-owned car" just because used car dealers would rather we said that instead of "used car", and we can use the same principle of calling things what they are when it comes to copyright.

However, most media outlets (not to mention even other copyright reformers and abolitionists, sadly) still usually take the path of least resistance and continue using the term "protection".  This may be partly because it lends an air of legalistic authority: lawyers almost always call it "protection", not just for copyrights but also in the unfortunately consonant phrase "patent protection" and in the conceptually incoherent "intellectual property protection".

That's why I nearly jumped out of my airplane seat when I opened the New York Times this Friday, April 25th, and saw Farhad Manjoo's article "The Cloud Roots for Aereo, but People Need Better".  It was the first time I'd seen anyone in a major mainstream media publication use the term "copyright restrictions" where most journalists would have said "copyright protections".  Here's the exact excerpt, starting from the beginning of the article:

"The best way to think about Aereo, the company at the center of this week's Supreme Court battle over the future of computing, is as as an example of legal performance art.  Aero is based entirely on a legalistic leap of faith: If it's legal to set up an antenna and record a TV show at your own house, which it is, shouldn't it also be legal to rent an antenna and server space at a big data center, and then stream the show over the Internet to your computer, tablet or set-top box?

 

It's a clever argument, one that highlights the extreme lengths that tech companies go to to avoid copyright restrictions. ..."

Not only that, he never refers to restrictions as "protection" anywhere in the article.  Later he even repeats "restrict", again accurately, and with a directness that has been too often missing from many others' writings on this topic:

"Aereo is based on a loophole. To offer TV shows over the Internet, most streaming services like Netflix or Hulu pay licensing fees to studios. But licensing is expensive and restrictive; ..."

Why, it's almost as if he's determined to report what's actually going on!

I've been a fan of Farhad Manjoo for a while, so it's gratifying to see him taking such care with language here.  But just to be clear, there's no behind-the-scenes nudging going on, at least not by me: I've never met nor communicated with Manjoo.  Also, we have no reason to count him (or for that matter not count him) among those for radical reform or abolition of the current copyright system.  I don't know anything about his political beliefs in this area, and his insistence on using accurate language doesn't say anything about those beliefs.  It just tells us he's trying to be a good writer, one who uses the most appropriate word despite environmental pressure to do otherwise.  Let's hope he influences some of his colleagues to be equally accurate.

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Fourth RE/Mixed Media Festival in NYC -- April 26-27 at the New School.

RE/Mixed Media Festival logo.

We've been fans of what the RE/Mixed Media Festival is up to ever since we first heard about it in 2010.  Now they're in their fourth year!  The next one will take place at the New School in New York City, the weekend of April 26-27.  They've kindly offered our readers a registration discount, too -- use the promotional code "QUESTION" to get 50% off.

In their own words:

RE/Mixed Media Festival, taking place on April 26-27 at The New School and CultureHub, is an annual celebration of collaborative art-making and creative appropriation. It's the artists' contribution to the ongoing conversation about remixing, mashups, copyright law, fair use, and the freedom of artists to access their culture in order to build upon it. Each year, the festival features performances, panel discussions, workshops, electronic remixing/hacking, sampling, film & video, fashion, DJs, technology, interactive installations, painting, sculpture, software, and much more.

Now in it's fourth year, RE/Mixed Media Festival is a hybrid event - a marriage of art exhibition and critical academic conference, a forum where artists, activists, scholars, musicians, writers, entertainment professionals, and policymakers come together to collectively re-examine the role of creative appropriation in the arts, and the roles of artists, government and industry in creating and maintaining a free and open culture.

RE/Mixed Media Festival IV is pleased to welcome media theorist Lev Manovich and author David Shields as keynote speakers, as well as the NY opening of DJ Spooky's international art and design exhibit, The Imaginary App. Other 2014 artists hail from 13 countries, and include 15 students, alumni, and faculty from The New School of Public Engagement's School of Media Studies and Parsons The New School for Design. Past artists and scholars have included Moby, Steinski, Ricky Powell, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Jesper Juul, Nitin Sawhney and over 150 other artists, performers, educators, activists, musicians and DJs.

Details:

   Saturday, April 26
      10 AM – 5 PM: The New School
         Theresa Lang Center and Dorothy Hirshon Suite: 55 W 13 St.
         The Auditorium at 66 W 12 St.
         Anna Maria and Stephen Kellen Auditorium, 66 5th Avenue.
      6 PM – 10 PM: CultureHub, 47 Great Jones Street

   Sunday, April 27
      10 AM – 6 PM: The New School
         Theresa Lang Center and Dorothy Hirshon Suite: 55 W 13 St.

NOTE: Registration and check-in will take place at Theresa Lang Center on both Saturday and Sunday.  See remixnyc.com.

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