Discover more from a secret plot
On 'The Death of the Artist'
Interview with William Deresiewicz.
A number of myths still seem to be floating around the art world; that of the artist as solitary genius, the artist as part of an avant-garde, the artist as culture producer. Artists produce and culture follows. William Deresiewicz begs to differ. In his book The Death of the Artist, Deresiewicz lays out a precise argument why these myths endure, how they shape our understanding of the history of art and of artists, and why we should be paying attention to what is happening to artists right now, because the way we collectively treat the artists usually portends the way that the rest of our culture will be treated. The Death of the Artist begins with an analysis of our current predicament. Due to digitalization and what the culture industry and social media apostles call 'disruption' and 'democratization' of the marketplace, artists' incomes have been decimated, piracy is rampant, and the old system no longer works. It is no longer possible to be the bohemian artist and it is becoming more and more difficult and unlikely for most artists to make a living, let alone become successful or overnight celebrities and sustain their careers. Deresiewicz points to data and case studies, taken from dozens of interviews with artists, from writers to painters, that suggest that the culture industry isn't the fabulous progenitor of trends, it does not produce leadership or edgy thoughtful artists, instead the culture industry is entirely ensconced within the market which dictates what is made, how it is made, and who gets to make it. The market decides who are the ‘winners’, a tiny minority who have seen their incomes increase by orders of magnitude, and who are the ‘losers’, the vast majority of artists who have experienced a decimation of wages and available positions within the industry, from academic jobs to freelance work. Yet ironically, says the author, the relentlessness of the culture industry and social media had the effect of driving more and more artists into an already saturated digital space, where competition is fierce and return on investment less and less lucrative year over year. Universities pump out more and more MFAs each year and when these artists graduate, they realize they have no place to go but online. Artists who are able to sustain careers are more often than not already well off, leaving the art world to be the playground for the rich and affluent. Increased professionalization did not result in more job availability or career viability, so artists looked elsewhere. The digital platforms have supplanted traditional art career models by pooling thousands of creators into smaller and smaller spaces with limited number of potential customers, creating niche economies which have become increasingly difficult to penetrate.
Tom Pazderka: The Death of the Artist seems like it was written specifically for the year 2020. I assume the book was written pre-pandemic, though published in July. How do you see the thesis of the book relating to what happened to artists last year and continues to happen to this this day, the cancelled shows, closed venues, museums, galleries, many for good, and so on?
William Deresiewicz: Yes, the book was finished before the pandemic and now seems eerily prescient. In fact, you can't fully understand what has happened to artist during the pandemic without understanding what was already happening before the pandemic, which is what the book is about. Because of the digital de-monetization that's been going on for over 20 years, artists have learned to seek their income from sources that cannot be digitized, meaning physical objects and live experiences. Especially live experiences. Musicians tour, tour, tour. Writers give readings and talks, teach classes, do residencies. For visual artists like illustrators, animators, and cartoonists, classes and workshops have also been key. None of that, of course, can happen now. The crisis has not just hit theaters, museums, galleries, art spaces, and the artists whose work they show. The major basis of much of the contemporary arts economy—live, in-person, face-to-face events—has been destroyed.
There is much more to say about this. I wrote a short piece that covers some of it last May: https://www.thenation.com/article/society/coronavirus-artists-culture-impact/. A longer piece will be coming out in Harper's in June.
TP: You describe in your book three historical paradigms through which we understand the notion of the artist but also a fourth one that is currently rising up, which is in a way responsible for, or indirectly related to, the death of the artist. Could you briefly describe how these paradigms have shaped how we view the arts and artists and what the new paradigm is and how it is changing the way we see and relate to art?
WD: Up to and through the Renaissance, artists were considered artisans. They served apprenticeships, worked to contract, and did what they were paid or supported to do. Their job was to articulate existing truths, those promulgated by established secular and religious authorities. I call this the first paradigm.It was only starting around the middle of the 18th century that the notion of capital-A Art emerged—art as an autonomous realm of expression—and with it the Romantic notion of the artist as solitary genius and truth-telling hero, imagining humanity forward into a new future. Counter-intuitively, this new conception was made possible by the capitalist market, which enabled artists to profit directly from their work and thus freed them from patronage, freeing them also to defy religious and secular authorities. At the same time, with their new role as secular prophets and priests, artists sought to hold themselves aloof from the market. The result was the new figure of the bohemian, someone who lives a creative and unconventional life on the social and economic margins. I call this the second paradigm, and it carries us through to the early 20th century.
After World War II, a third paradigm emerges. This was the age of the "culture boom." We built museums, theaters, and concert halls, founded orchestras, opera companies, ballet troupes. Writers and artists entered the academy as professors. We went from 11 MFA-granting institutions in 1940 to 147 in 1980. A comparable efflorescence took place on the for-profit side with the expansion of the culture industry: music, publishing, film and television, the gallery system.
Art became institutionalized, and so the artist became a denizen of institutions: a professional. This was why, if you did manage to establish yourself as an artist—not a success on a huge scale, but simply a "mid-tier" practitioner, working full time in the field, gaining the respect of peers and critics, producing on a regular basis—you were able to lead a middle-class existence. At the same time, art's revolutionary potential became domesticated. Art became a civic good, and the artist became a solid citizen, like other professionals.
But now, a new paradigm is emerging. For the artist of the digital age, there is nothing left to shield you from the market. You can't live on the margins in decent poverty, like a bohemian. You can't take shelter under the umbrella of an institution, like a professional. You are, in effect, a one-person small business.
The term you hear for this most often now is "creative entrepreneur." I hate this term. I hate "creative," because it's become a business buzzword. I hate "entrepreneur," because the self-employed artist is not an entrepreneur. They are merely self-employed. And I hate "creative entrepreneur" because it's become a term that's used to conceal the true condition of independent artists and other creators. My term is producer, the artist as producer: a free particle in the marketplace, finding what work they can for what money they can, and exposed without protection to the market's whims.
But if artists are entirely beholden to the market, if their job becomes, in effect, to keep their customers happy, can art continue to function as an autonomous realm of expression? Can it continue to speak new and unwelcome truths?
TP: Let's stay with the idea of the producer which seems to describe what is happening to artists much better than the ambiguous notion of the creative (a term I also hate). As you say, the term creative was attached to business as a way to revitalize an idea of the drudgery of capitalist production. In a way the two terms underwent a kind of reversal, creative people became producers and producers became creatives wouldn't you say? Is there a need for capitalism to reinvent itself in the creative mold and for artists to don the hats of capitalist producers out of necessity or is it simply a cultural issue? Often we simply rename things while keeping the undergirding structures the same precisely so that everything remains the same.
WD: It's not that the two terms (or things) underwent a reversal as that they grew together. Businessman discovered creativity and artists discovered the need to think like businessmen. "Creative entrepreneur" can refer to either (another one of the things that I hate about it), and the idea of creativity, now understood as a business concept, has expanded to engulf the arts: artists are creative, but so, in the current conception, are craftspeople and "makers" of every kind, so are scientists and engineers and coders, so are people who make food or wine, so are just about everybody who feels like laying claim to the title. The idea that what artists do is distinctive, different in important ways from anything else that people do, is being lost.
TP: Is the key to this shift more education, different education, business education, or is education itself a problem? How do we create awareness of things like the reality of being a musician in a streaming economy where a million plays on YouTube only nets you $700 or that 20% of songs on Spotify never get a single play? Should it be that perhaps we ought to rethink the idea that 'everyone is an artist?' Are we running up against some kind of a philosophical wall, idealism for instance, in addition to a changing paradigm? Or is it something much simpler than that, like a redefinition of the term art?
WD: Obviously we need to raise awareness of the reality of being a musician or other artist in the digital age, but I'm not sure how much awareness is going to change people's behavior. By the same token, the idea that everyone is an artist, however misguided, is not something you can get rid of just by talking about it. The practical problems can be addressed with practical steps, like reining in the tech platforms, but it will require a great deal of political will and work. The cultural shifts are probably here to stay.
TP: In the book you describe the decline of the culture industry, from painting and music, to film and publishing. Each sector of the arts had been adversely affected by digitization, demonetization and piracy, except for one, television, which is in fact booming. Could you talk about these effects that digitization, social media and Silicon Valley have had on the culture industry and artists, and what television is doing right, that the other industries are not?
WD: Social media is not a major issue, except insofar as artists need to devote a lot of energy to promoting themselves on it. The major issue is the de-monetization of digital content: the fact that, starting with Napster, the Internet has driven the price of digital content to zero or near-zero. That means the music, text, still images, and video that the audience is now able to access for free or very cheaply on or through platforms like YouTube, Spotify, Instagram, and so forth. Add to that the fact that Amazon has established a monopoly in the book market and Google and Facebook a monopoly in the digital advertising market, and you have a severe erosion of profits across most of the culture industry: music labels (both majors and indies), publishing companies (both large and small), newspapers and magazines, bookstores, and so forth. One consequence has been consolidation across all of these sectors, which means that the players that remain are fewer and bigger than ever and therefore have more power than ever over the artists they deal with.
High-end visual art (the creation of unique objects like paintings and sculptures) is something of an exception, because its products can't be digitized, but there has still been a huge consolidation there, too, a huge loss of the middle tier of galleries and therefore of artists. But the main exception, as you say, is television. There's no mystery as to why: we still pay for it. In fact, we pay more than ever, with all of our streaming subscriptions, on top of our cable bill. If someone figures out to do to television what Napster did to music, the golden age will disappear overnight.
TP: But it would be very hard to change people's online behavior, would it not, especially since they have been conditioned by decades of getting content delivered to them for 'free?'
One of the main and strongest hooks the online platforms have is that they present this new reality in which being an artist has never been easier. Just put your stuff out there and sell it directly to your audience, in other words, give it away for free now, for eventual profits later. How has this been working out for artists?
WD: Yes, it would be very hard to get people to change their behavior (although I think it's worth trying). That's why the point of attack needs to be the platforms. The truth is that "free" content generates enormous sums, on the order of tens of billions of dollars a year, for the tech companies. Government needs to step in to force them to share those revenues more equitably with the creators who help to generate them.
And yes, one of the reasons we are awash in this flood of content on the platforms is that the tech industry has been telling us for more than 20 years now that "there's never been a better time to be an artist" because you can circumvent "the gatekeepers" and "just put your stuff out there." What exactly is supposed to happen after you just put your stuff out there is never spelled out. The idea is that attention now, as you suggest, will lead to income later.
I should say that this is not a complete illusion. With a great deal of hard work, some people are able to sustain themselves with this model. Those are exactly the kinds of people I talked to for the book: over a hundred artists, mostly young ones – musicians, writers, visual artists, creators of film and television — who are managing to stay afloat. In fact, the real reason I wrote the book was not to show that things are tough for artists now, but to find out how, given that they're tough, people are still managing to make art and even make a living, or a partial living, making art. There's no one answer; everybody figures out their own mix. But the point, in reference to your question, is that it's not easy, still less, easier than ever. It's extremely hard, and even then, you're likely to just be able to scrape by.
TP: What do you think of the newly resurrected idea of breaking up the monopolies in the digital space? Is there enough will in the political arena to do this? It seems like we're in this situation where a very small group of people virtually own everything and are able to manipulate the market to their advantage, Tesla in the EV space, Amazon in publishing, Disney and Netflix in streaming, and so on. Even the art world has its behemoths in Gagosian, Zwirner, the big auction houses, which grew exponentially during the pandemic. Nothing moves if they don't
WD: Yes, breaking up the monopolies is exactly what I'm talking about, and there seems to be increasing political will behind it. But you would also need to regulate the core platforms, which can't be broken out, like public utilities.
TP: What about alternatives to big tech, like blockchain, I'm talking Rokfin (instead of YouTube) and the upcoming PanQuake app? Is this what artists need or some combination of online and community-based engagement? The question always is, where is the money coming from, who is paying for what and how is it going to work? Subscription models seem ok, but isn't that taking us down the road of no ownership? And what do you think about the latest WEF proclamation 'you will own nothing and you will be happy' relative to the arts industry?
WD: I'm not familiar with the things you're talking about. Maybe some of them will get some traction and do some good, though so many of these tech-based solutions (or schemes) have come and gone that I'm skeptical. The big platforms have the eyeballs, and I don't see how you pry the eyeballs away from them. That's why I think the most likely solutions involve taming the platforms rather than circumventing them.
I will say that I don't think there's going to be one single answer, one magic bullet. Artists will continue to piece together their incomes from a variety of sources (as they should, because you don't want to become dependent on any single source). The policy goal should be to make those sources as robust and stable as possible. And since few artists make their living exclusively in the arts economy, that logic needs to apply more broadly. That means raising the minimum wage, improving conditions for gig workers, lowering healthcare, housing, and education costs, and so forth
TP: In the beginning of the book you describe the strained relationship that artists have with money. Artists who make money are more often than not thought of as sell outs, this is especially true in the music industry. But it exists to a degree across the entire art industry. Clement Greenberg wrote in the 1930s that the avant garde could not really divorce itself completely from the society and the elites it was critiquing, precisely because it needed it's money. Still today, the topic of money management and business is not really taught at art school. I sat through dozens of presentations by artists, writers, academics, and almost none of them talked about money. The only one I remember that did or came close, was an artist rep from Gagosian. One of my favorite utterances I heard in graduate school related to the topic of money and success is that 'there is a difference between a successful artist and a good artist.' Art and money are in this context 'incompatible,' but you seem to offer a different perspective. Can you tell me more about what you found out when talking with these different artists and their personal relationships with money and experiences within the market?
WD: I started working on the book with the exact attitude you describe: that art and money are incompatible, that to think about money as an artist is to be a sellout, that the market is evil and inevitably pollutes the art that enters it. I was quickly disabused as I began to do my interviews. Yes, it is possible for art to be too commercial and for artists to be too interested in getting rich. But of course artists need to think about money: they have to eat! Of course art needs to enter the market: how else are you going to make any money from it?
No, artists shouldn't do it for the money (and I didn't come across a single one who does), but they do need money to do it, which means, ideally, they need to make money from it. The only alternatives to making money in the market from your art are being independently wealthy (or marrying someone who can support you); earning money in the nonprofit sphere, from grants, university teaching, and so forth (which simply means that institutions are laundering market-generated wealth before it gets to you); or working a day job (which is apt to leave you exhausted and with little time to make your work). And crowdfunding, it should be said, is just a different way of organizing the market, especially since sites like Kickstarter and Patreon are value-exchange platforms (you give money, you get a "reward"), not clearinghouses for donations.
We can pretend the market doesn't exist in the arts, which is what many artists and others do, but it does. Far better to be honest about it, so you can operate in it effectively and keep it in balance with your higher goals.
TP: This relationship with money seems to get artists primed and ready for exploitation and it looks like you make this absolutely clear. At the turn of the millennium Big Tech stepped in as a kind of savior of the 'creatives,' to them this meant anyone who was willing to work for almost nothing in exchange for the holy grail of celebrity, attention. This in no way affects Big Tech's business model, in fact, it IS their business model - aggregating freely delivered data and turning them into advertising revenue or worse. Very few artists manage to monetize their newly found attention into capital that they use to advertise the platforms on which they operate, which creates yet more revenue streams for the platforms. Because artists don't talk about money that much this gives Big Tech an advantage and there is a passage toward the end of the book that deserves to be quoted at length here - "pricing is often mysterious. We don't know what the platforms are paying, in many cases, because they aren't requires to tell us. That is why those music-streaming rates (0.44 cents on Spotify, 0.07 cents on YouTube) are just a guess, as is the per-page rate that Amazon pays through Kindle Unlimited (its Spotify for e-books). Artists even lack the information upon which to negotiate, namely, how much money the services are taking in. What is YouTube's annual revenue? We don't know, because it's part of Google. How much does Kindle Unlimited generate? Amazon's not talking. And if we had that information, it's unlikely that the platforms even would negotiate. What really bothers her, Ellen Seidler told me, "is that no one's willing to come to the table" from the other side. Instead, she said, "artists have been vilified in a fairly orchestrated way. Our voices have been quashed. It's David versus Goliath.""Do you see this dynamic changing anytime soon? Is the answer simply in educating artists about money and business? You mention moving toward anti-trust laws and breaking up Amazon, etc, but where is the political and social will right now? Should we argue for transparency, different business models for platforms, and so on?
WD: I don't see this changing anytime soon, because changing it is going to take a lot of effort. That doesn't mean that it can't change eventually.
Part of what would help is definitely educating artists about money and business. That's not the whole answer, but it would be a start. Artists can be smarter about how they plan and manage their finances and better about advocating for themselves in their individual business relationships, like with the institutions that bring their work to the public or employ them on a part-time or project-by project basis. And collectively, they can be more effective in advocating for themselves with the platforms and other players in the culture industry.
As for antitrust and breaking up the tech giants, there is definitely more and more political and social will right now. It's evident in Congress, in the courts, in the media. My main concern, in fact, is not whether these discussions are going to happen, because they are already happening, but whether artists are going to have a seat at the table. When people talk about the baleful effects of Big Tech, they talk about privacy, malign political speech, and the choking off of competition. Unless they are artists, they don't talk about artists and the arts economy. So we need to do what we can to make sure that that is part of the conversation.
TP: From your conversations with artists, did you get a sense of what it would take to get artists organized behind a cause like this? Afterall, what is the perceived benefit of breaking up large media monopolies if that is where artists make their living? Wouldn't the immediate result be further immiseration of a greater number of artists? I'm playing the devil's advocate here. The perception seems to be that the capture of the art market by Big Tech is so total that any attempt to change the system would result in artists absorbing most of the financial shock to it. It's one of the undergirding myths behind system stabilization. But is it true? And is there a benefit to disabusing many artists of their idealism about technology?
WD: Artists, especially musicians, are already organizing against the platforms: the Union of Musicians and Allied Workers, the Artist Rights Alliance (a musicians' group), CreativeFuture (a group that started in film and television but has expanded across creative industries), the Authors Guild. Breaking up the monopolies does not mean closing the platforms; it means reducing the monopolies' leverage vis-à-vis independent artists and labels/publisher/etc.
I have not come across the perception you refer to, that any attempt to change the system would primarily hurt artists. What I hear constantly is a desire to change the system. I don't think there are too many genuine artists (as opposed to dreamers/newbies/suckers) who have any idealism left about technology. The real problem is that a lot of artists feel powerless to do anything or don't even have time to think about it.
TP: Last year's Hiscox report on the online art market, which focuses primarily on Britain, reported that there was large uptrend in online commerce, more artists have entered digital platforms like Patreon, Saatchi Art, etc, collectors bought a lot more art online with an upswing in new young collectors entering the market, higher prices were recorded in the major auction houses and so on. If one only listened to this report, one would get the perception that things are not just ok, they're actually way better than before the pandemic. This fawning over the digital markets and soaring prices of established and new popular artists seems to be a kind of leading edge in the split between the top of the art world establishment and the rest who are increasingly getting pushed to the margins. This is why The Death of the Artist is such an important book right now, because it focuses on the artists who make up the vast majority of the industry and not just its pinnacle, the George Condos and Joe Rogans of the world. Because you've interviewed so many artists from different industries and from different 'success' levels, do you get a sense of where we are headed in the future, say the next 5 to 10 years, in terms of the individual industries, but also in terms of how individual artists might fare as a result?
WD: As I say in the book, I don't like to talk about the future, because I can't see it. Predictions in general tend to be pretty worthless, especially in situations like this where there are so many factors and so many unknowns. So I really have no idea where we are going to be in 5 to 10 years, except to say that I have no reason at the moment to think that the trajectories we have been on for the last 20 are going to change significantly.
William Deresiewicz is an award-winning essayist and critic, a frequent speaker at colleges and other venues, and a former professor of English at Yale. His writing has appeared in the Atlantic, the New York Times, Harper’s Magazine, the Nation, the New Republic, and many other publications. He is the recipient of a National Book Critics Circle award for excellence in reviewing and the New York Times bestselling author of Excellent Sheep and A Jane Austen Education.