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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