The Death of the Artist (or: On the Arts Economy)

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If a time machine gave me the opportunity to go back 20 years so I would be able to hand my younger self a copy of William Deresiewicz‘s The Death of the Artist, I am certain that my younger self would not continue the path that he chose and that I find myself on now. He would know that he was temperamentally unsuited for much of what’s described in the book — just like I am today.

You “can’t necessarily believe all your moods,” Maggie Nelson tells me, “You just have to keep on working. […] That’s a quote from Emerson, I might add. ‘Our moods do not believe in each other.'” Of course, that aspect of the creative process sits on top of everything spread out in full detail by Deresziewicz. I will ignore it here.

It’s widely known that the larger world of art is not supportive of its own constituents — with very few exceptions: the tiny number of artists who have found success and whose stories inevitably are being held up. “Every story we hear about artists,” Deresiewicz writes, “is a success story, and in every one, success appears to be inevitable, because it has already happened.” (p. 12, my emphasis) Of course, this is how the neoliberal casino capitalism operates that we live under.

After the Introduction, the book starts out with a chapter entitled Art and Money. It’s likely that you will know some aspects of that chapter, even as you might be uncomfortable admitting that you do. This, after all, is one of the conundrums of being an artist: you don’t talk about money. Deresiewicz lays out all the reasons why that might be the case, and he also talks about the various explanations for why that might be the case.

In the following chapter, subtitled The Techno-Utopian Narrative, the focus is the internet and its supposed promise. We’ve all heard about that as well. “I am struck, above all,” Deresiewicz notes, “by two things. First (but this is true of the techno-commentariat in general), their fatuous, hectoring smugness. Anyone who disagrees just ‘doesn’t get it,’ must be a dope or a Luddite, maybe a hand-wringing pessimist.” (p. 28) Recently, when NFT’s were all the rage in photoland, you were able to witness a lot of that smugness: anyone questioning NFT’s was subjected to a lot of it.

But just like in the case of the second chapter, there’s a lot more to dive in. Deresiewicz’s strength as a writer is to distill everything that is essential (and that you might at least in part have heard of — if not experienced) and to then question it: is this really the case? And if it’s not the case, what is a better way to think about it? The latter parts are crucial, because they allow the book to move away from what otherwise would be a mere collection of grievances towards a description of the arts in general.

Over the course of the book, Deresiewicz thus dives into a huge number of aspects behind contemporary artists’ struggle to do their work and make a living with it. It’s an impressive survey that covers parts of the history of the arts as well as specific aspects in specific industries. You’ll find input from a very large number of artists, whether they’re writers, designers, musicians, and there even is a photographer. As it turns out, what we witness in photoland isn’t in any way special.

Throughout the chapters, artists are quoted about specific aspects of what is being discussed. This is a neat device, because the large variety of voices also conveys the complexity of the topic at hand. There is no easy solution; in fact, what one person considers a problem might not be one for another. That said, though, a clear picture of the arts emerges: it’s not working well for the vast majority of artists, in particular the many, many artists stuck in the tail of the distribution (you could think of them as the 99%).

For me, The Death of the Artist ended up being an infuriating, depressing, uplifting, and inspiring read. I suppose that outcome makes the most sense when anything is discussed that deals with art and the way it’s being made, shown, distributed, or sold.

This book should be required reading for anyone who hopes to take part (or is already doing it) in what has become an unsustainable economy, whether they’re thinking about getting an MFA (there’s a chapter), or they just got an MFA (the same chapter contains aspects of what they might encounter), whether they’re happily freelancing or working for free, whether they’re thinking about getting an intern or being one, whether they’re thinking about starting a Kickstarter, whether they’re thinking about publishing a book…

But the book also has much to offer for those who are not artists but are interested in art. As Deresiewicz outlines in a lot of detail, the reality of what is described stands in stark contrast to popular ideas of what it means to be an artist.

Deresiewicz spends a considerable amount of effort on outlining the dedication that fuels the arts and that has artists do what they do despite the fact that it is so incredibly difficult. Were that aspect absent, the book would be too difficult and frustrating a read. But that is exactly what sustains (if I may) us, isn’t it? The idea that it’s all very much worthwhile, even if often enough, we question whether it really is. It’s not talent that sustains the arts, it’s artists’ passion.

At the end of the book, possible solutions are being discussed. The final chapter, Don’t Mourn, Organize, dives into what could be done. There are collectives and cooperatives created by artists who are supporting each other. “Artists also often fail to recognize their common interests,”  Deresiewicz writes, “the field is inherently competitive, plus it is highly dispersed.” (p. 310) I have been thinking about that for years. (I think years ago, I wrote something about it.)

While Deresiewicz lauds efforts initiated by artists as admirable, he notes that it can’t stop there. “The problem,” he notes, “begins with Giant Tech — with the demonitization of content and the ongoing transfer of wealth from creators to distributors.” (p. 317) Without the monopolies being broken up, he argues, a real solution will be elusive. I agree. “Yet even that would not be enough.” Here’s the kicker: “To fix the arts economy […] we need to fix the whole economy.” (p. 319)

That’s where the book ends. It’s worthwhile to quote a larger section of its final paragraph: “The devastation of the arts economy […] is rooted in the great besetting sin of contemporary American society: extreme and growing inequality. […] when people get a little extra money, one of the things that they spend it on is art. Money circulates within communities, but only if it’s present in the first place. We do not need the government to pay for art, or the rich with their philanthropy. We only need each other.” (p. 321, my emphasis; note that you could easily apply this to other countries as well)

Don’t mourn, organize!

William Deresiewicz — The Death of the Artist: How Creators Are Struggling to Survive in the Age of Billionaires and Big Tech; Henry Holt and Company; 2020

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