opinion

Opinion editorial.

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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Danny Colligan on public funding for artists.

A while ago, Danny Colligan (author of the wonderfully rigorous & thorough "What We Lose When We Embrace Copyright") sent us a link to a new short piece he'd written, about public subsidies for artists and how to set them up so they result in more freedom, not more restriction.  It's here:

thegreatkladderadatsch.blogspot.com/2013/07/addendum-to-what-we-lose-when-we.html

Quoting:

There are many schemes one could create to subsidize artists.  Economist Dean Baker made one such proposal, which relies on a voucher system.  Basically, taxpayers get vouchers that they can use to allocate to whatever artist(s) they want, and artists, as a requirement for receiving money through the system, are forbidden from copyrighting their work. Such a system leverages the already existing tax infrastructure, would be more than sufficient to cover artists’ costs, and does not even require any sweeping changes like elimination of all copyright (besides, of course, passage of law that would bring the program itself into existence).  In short, the proposed voucher system is a relatively unobtrusive reform that could easily be implemented within the context of the current legal and economic system.  The political effort required to enact it, however, is another story, of course.

Yes.  This shouldn't even be a hard call.  Public money should result in public goods.

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Make Art, Not Law

(Editor's note: We're cross-posting this beautiful essay from ninapaley.com; see also Nina Paley's similarly-titled interview with Baixa Cultura from April.)


Below are the images and text of a Pecha Kucha talk I gave in Champaign, IL. The Pecha Kucha format is 20 slides x 20 seconds per slide. Hopefully the video will be online within a few months.

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You are an information portal. Information enters through your senses, like your ears and eyes, and exits through your expressions, like your voice, your drawing, your writing, and your movements.

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In order for culture to stay alive, we have to be open, or permeable. According to Wikipedia, Permeance is “the degree to which a material admits a flow of matter or energy.” We are the material through which information flows.

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It's through this flow that culture stays alive and we stay connected to each other. Ideas flow in, and they flow out, of each of us. Ideas change a little as they go along; this is known as evolution, progress, or innovation.

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But thanks to Copyright, we live in a world where some information goes in, but cannot legally come out.
Often I hear people engaged in creative pursuits ask, “Am I allowed to use this? I don't want to get in trouble.”

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In our Copyright regime, “trouble” may include lawsuits, huge fines, and even jail. ”Trouble” means violence. ”Trouble” has shut down many a creative enterprise. So the threat of “trouble” dictates our choices about what we express.

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Copyright activates our internal censors. Internal censorship is the enemy of creativity; it halts expression before it can begin. The question, “am I allowed to use this?” indicates the asker has surrendered internal authority to lawyers, legislators, and corporations.

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This phenomenon is called Permission Culture. Whenever we censor our expression, we close a little more and information flows a little less. The less information flows, the more it stagnates. This is known as chilling effects.

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I have asked myself: did I ever consent to letting “Permission Culture” into my brain? Why am I complying with censorship? How much choice do I really have about what information goes in and comes out of me?

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The answer is: I have some choice regarding what I expose myself to, and what I express, but not total control. I can choose whether to watch mainstream media, for example. And I can choose what information to pass along.

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But to be in the world, and to be open, means all kinds of things can and do get in that are beyond my control. I don’t get to choose what goes in based on its copyright status. In fact proprietary images and sounds are the most aggressively rammed into our heads. For example:

“Have a holly jolly Christmas, It’s the best time of the year
“I don’t know if there’ll be snow, but have a cup of cheer
“Have a holly jolly Christmas, And when you walk down the street
“Say hello to friends you know and everyone you meet!”

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I hate Christmas music. But because I live in the U.S., and need to leave the house even in the months of November and December, I can't NOT hear it. It goes right through my earholes and into my brain, where it plays over and over ad nauseum.

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Here are some of the corporations I could “get in trouble with” for sharing that song and clip in public. I wasn’t consulted by them before having their so-called “intellectual property” blasted into my head as a child, so I didn’t ask their permission to put it in my slide show.

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Copyright is automatic and there's no way to opt out. But you can add a license granting some of the permissions copyright automatically takes away. Creative Commons, the most widespread brand of license, allows its users to lift various restrictions of copyright one at a time.

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The problem with licenses is that they're based on copyright law. The same threat of violence behind copyright is behind alternative licenses too. Licenses actually reinforce the mechanism of copyright. Everyone still needs to seek permission – it’s just that they get it a little more often.

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Like copyright itself, licenses are often too complex for most people to understand. So licenses have the unfortunate effect of encouraging people to pay even MORE attention to copyright, which gives even more authority to that inner censor. And who let that censor into our heads in the first place?

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Although I use Free licenses and would appreciate meaningful copyright reform, licenses and laws aren't the solution. The solution is more and more people just ignoring copyright altogether. I want to be one of those people.

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A few years ago I declared sovereignty over my own head. Freedom of Speech begins at home. Censorship and “trouble” still exist outside my head, and that’s where they’ll stay – OUTSIDE my head. I’m not going to assist bad laws and media corporations by setting up an outpost for them in my own mind.

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I no longer favor or reject works based on their copyright status. Ideas aren't good or bad because of what licenses people slap on them. I just relate to the ideas themselves now, not the laws surrounding them. And I try to express myself the same way.

Transmission_10fps2

Like millions of others who don't give a rat's ass about copyright, I hope you join me. Make Art, Not Law.

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